The live music that accompanies the Douglas Morrison Theatre production of A Thurber Carnival is delightful. Veiled but visible in an onstage box with walls of sheer fabric, the musicians make Don Elliot's jazz score bubble and tumble like a cheerful stream between the fifteen sketches and monologues that comprise the show. Drummer Eric Garcia has a particularly nice hand on the brushes in the transition between a cheerful number and a more noirish one early in the first act, and Derek Brooker's guitar leads with generous assurance.
It's fortunate that the music is so good, because it eases the excessively long transitions between sketches, and smoothes the jagged edges of an amateur cast doing its best with material that is often too subtle for its skills. James Thurber may be one of this country's great humorists, but his martini-dry wit comes through unevenly in this two-hour "revue for people who can't sing," which contains such time-honored bits as "The Night the Bed Fell" and an abridged version of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."
The humorist himself didn't think he was very good at writing plays. In a piece that appears in the compilation Collecting Himself, Thurber lamented his difficulty creating interesting characters: "My plays are always over at the end of the first act. There is never any reason in the world any of the characters should ever see each other again." So after writing "The Male Animal," instead of writing another play, Thurber built A Thurber Carnival from things he had lying around the house.
It should have been a slam dunk for director SRCarnefix and his cast. The show's bits don't require much in the way of character development, Shakespearean memory tricks, or complex blocking. SRCarnefix is first and foremost a set and lighting designer and jazz musician, and the visual and sonic elements of this show are solid. Projections of Thurber's own drawings merge with real furniture cleverly painted to look like line drawings. John Lewis' costumes, all beiges and grays with touches of accent color, subtly suggest Thurber's era without being dated. But after a few charming ultra-short modern fables involving wolves and unicorns, the show doesn't jell, and there are long stretches made longer by being painfully unfunny.
One offender is "Gentleman Shoppers," where two men drunkenly stumble into a ladies' clothing boutique to do their Christmas shopping and refuse to leave. The sketch has barely begun before the audience (and very possibly the actors) realize that it's just not going to work, and there's nothing to do but ride it out. Between the dated take-a-letter-Maria nature of the material, an unclear transition by the store manager, and the inability of the actors to convincingly play drunkenness (a real challenge for actors that plagues more than one sketch here), this piece takes all the energy and goodwill generated by the lightly played ones that precede it and plows it into the ground.
Thurber once complained: "I have most resented the application to what I write of such adjectives as 'mild,' 'gentle,' 'pixie,' and 'zany.' Having tried for four decades to make some social comment, it is something less than reassuring to discover what a jittery America wants is the boppo laugh or nothing." Some of the actors here get this, and deliver their lines with understated grace (the elegant Maureen Broome in everything, Mike Nebeker as the Doctor in "The Pet Department," Larry Appleton as Thurber himself). Others play their parts as though this were meant to be broad slapstick, which it isn't.
The show is rich with funny lines -- The "Word Dance" sections that bookend the sketches give us bons mots such as "He's having all his books translated into French. They lose something in the original." They also abound in funny images (a fish with ears, a mermaid whose greatest desire is to sit in a chair). In that sense, it's a good introduction to Thurber's work. But the impatient might find a trip to the library for his nontheatrical work more productive, if less visually and musically gratifying.
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