My season’s Playbills include productions that can’t really be characterized as plays, including a multi-disciplinary performance by Meredith Monk at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I went to a couple magic shows—one that was in the form of a traditional magic show, but another one, In and Of Itself, that tried to be different. Derek DelGaudio did the requisite illusions, but something more was attempted—a show about identity. DelGaudio told stories and did tricks related to identity. He was not a new Spalding Gray but somehow it all worked resulting in an engaged and excited audience congregating outside the door when the performance ended proclaiming that they knew how he had done the quite amazing finale.
Jos Houben’s performance also was not a play in the classical sense of the term. The promos called him a mime and a clown. In the first part of the show, he was mime-like as he and Marcello Magni put on an absurdist farce with almost no words. But after the intermission, Houben became a lecturer as he presented The Art of Laughter. The title itself was too sweeping. Not all laughter was explored, but laughter from physical comedy was.
Houben, a Belgian native who studied at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris (I did not know of that school before, but from its prominent mention in the Playbill bios, I gathered it was very important), explored nuances of physical humor. He told us that watching a person trip was not inherently funny. He walked and tripped and no laughter. He then said a trip followed by embarrassed glances to see who had seen it was funny. Trip, surreptitious looks, laughter. He then did variations of trips, saying in advance—and correctly–how the laughter would vary. On one level, this was amazing because it seemed to violate the fundamental law of comedy—don’t explain a joke. Houben, however, would tell us what he was going to do and tell us whether we would laugh or not. Even when we were told we were going to laugh, we still did. As the hour went on, I found it amazing for another reason. His exposition had come from a close study of the physical movements of people and their reactions to some quite common situations. From this he had distilled the funny from the nonfunny. All of us had seen what Houben had, but few of us had really seen them as he had. The Art of Laughter not only taught me something about laughter, it also taught me something about seeing.
What I have seen this season is only a fraction of the productions in New York this year. There are literally hundreds of plays most weeks, many more than the number of movies showing in the multiplexes around the country. I don’t pretend to understand the finances of either movies or plays, but many plays will be deemed successful in New York if they run for a month drawing audiences that fill their theaters. For Broadway, that may require thousands nightly, but for many productions that could mean three hundred or only seventy-five. The result is that plays can be quirky, daring, bizarre, or classical and still find enough audience members to be successful. This makes the New York theater(re) scene a blessing to the likes of me.