Broadway gets funny

Broadway is having some fresh success with comedy — but it’s running out of new comedy writers.

People talk about how there aren’t many good new Broadway musicals, but there have been quite a few recent successes. Things are tougher for another one of the genres most associated with Broadway: the light comedy. This type of play, a sort of evening-length sitcom (and which influenced both the radio and television sitcom form) once produced many of the top-grossing and longest-running plays, and made millionaires out of writers like Neil Simon. But the immense costs of producing a Broadway show made it harder for these comedies to be done—even a one-set play with five or six characters is very expensive to do on Broadway—and there was a general turning-away from the glib wisecracks and easy resolutions associated with this kind of play. Broadway revivals of the classics of the genre often revealed them as a bit threadbare, partly because all their devices had been stolen by TV: A 2000s revival of Simon’s first huge hit, Barefoot in the Park, seemed like the same kind of joke-filled romantic comedy you could see every night on television for free. The well-made single-set American comedy still lives on, but, in regional theatre, where plays like Barefoot in the Park remain revival staples. Broadway is mostly for musicals and the occasional drama.

Recently, it seems there’s a little bit of renewed interest in Broadway-style comedy. One of the biggest recent grossers on Broadway, even though it’s still technically in previews, is Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play, a rewritten and updated version of a play he produced off-Broadway in the 1980s. (He actually wrote it for Broadway in the late 1970s, but it closed during its out-of-town tryout, not an inappropriate fate for a story about people waiting for the bad reviews that may doom their new play.) Though it didn’t reach the big street at the time, this is the kind of thing we think of when we think of Broadway comedy: A bunch of people, usually affluent (in this case, theatre professionals) gather in a room to complain about their problems and make jokes about them, and for actors to bounce comedically off one another. The Broadway version has been changed to fit the modern era, so that, instead of gathering to wait for the opening-night reviews to be delivered, the characters gather and wait for the news to pop up on their phones. But the sensibility of the play is the kind of thing that reminds you of a time when theatre and sitcoms fed off each other more in terms of their casting and approach. In fact, McNally also created a CBS sitcom not long after he produced the first version of It’s Only a Play. As if to put the seal on its old-school style, the Broadway version attracted the biggest of the old-fashioned theatre comedy stars, Nathan Lane, along with his frequent foil Matthew Broderick, and other familiar theatre faces like Stockard Channing and F. Murray Abraham. Because if there’s one thing this type of comedy provides, it’s opportunities for actors: There’s little stage trickery; it’s just up to the actors to hold the audience and get the big laughs.

Another current show on Broadway attracting good reviews and attendance so far is a revival of one of the definitive works of the Broadway comedy genre, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1936 play You Can’t Take It With You. This play, still a favourite of regional theatres and schools, sums up all the strengths and weaknesses of this kind of comedy. It’s beautifully structured, with a first act that introduces a lot of characters and sets up a lot of comedy bombs that explode in the second act, leading to a scene of complete madness and organized chaos at the second-act curtain, followed by a third act that brings everybody back to earth. It has good parts, including a show-off star part for an old actor (in this case, James Earl Jones). It has a lot of laughs and just enough heart to avoid seeming like a laugh machine. On the other hand, it is a bit of a laugh machine, with a bit of a mechanical structure, and though it seems to have a message about non-conformism, it’s really just an escapist fantasy about a family that can afford to be non-conformist because nobody needs to get a real job.

Still, while Broadway comedies may not achieve the highest level of the world’s great playwrights, the best of them hold up very well, as the continued viability of You Can’t Take It With You proves. The question now is whether it’s still possible for a new comedy to make it on the so-called Great White Way. There’s already a great bald hope: Larry David has written a play, Fish in the Dark, for himself to star in on Broadway next year. The apparent subject, sitting shiva after a death in a family, sounds like the bittersweet stuff of which mainstream living-room comedies are made, as does David’s own persona, the wisecracking neurotic guy. Of course, David is of a generation when writers and comedians still dreamed of being the next Neil Simon or George S. Kaufman. Whether the form will survive into another generation may depend on how a show like Fish in the Dark does—and whether it leaves younger writers thinking that writing a play is part of being the next Larry David.

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