British playwright Alan Ayckbourn looks at the modern world from a hilariously skewed perspective. His cavalcade of whimsy — as manifested in Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Communicating Doors, and now Comic Potential — is a warm and witty commentary on the conundrums of contemporary life, the pitfalls of romance in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and an ever-increasing assortment of human foibles, tics, and eccentricities.
Ayckbourn is a genuine comic genius, and he finds kindred spirits in Actors Comedy Lab co-founder and director Rod Rich and Morrisa and Scott Nagel, the stars of ACL's rib-tickling rendition of Comic Potential. The wilder and woollier the comedy, the more it appeals to Rich's comic imagination. Even in a small black-box theater, such as N.C. State University's Thompson Studio Theatre, Rich finds clever ways to utilize the performance space and keep the laughs rolling.
Morrisa Nagel is gorgeous and gloriously goofy as robotic regional-television soap-opera "actoid" JCF 31333, a.k.a. Jacie Triplethree, who plays a nurse on a cheesy hospital melodrama with a rapidly declining fan base. Thanks to a programming glitch, nurse Jacie laughs out loud at inappropriate moments during the videotaping of the show. The same elusive programming error allows the mechanical actress to take on certain endearing human qualities that utterly enthrall would-be screenwriter Adam Trainsmith (Scott Nagel). When the powers that be decide that the increasingly unreliable Jacie should be melted down (i.e., have her memory banks wiped clean and be reprogrammed), Scott and Jacie "elope" to a posh hotel.
Needless to say, the husband-and-wife team of Scott and Morrisa Nagel have great chemistry; and they demonstrate a fine flair for comedy in Comic Potential. Tony Hefner is menacing as Adam's ultra-eccentric Howard-Hughes-like uncle, TV mogul Lester Trainsmith; Byron Jennings is very funny as the mad millionaire's officious assistant Marmion; and Jerry Zieman is amusing as past-his-prime television producer/director Chandler "Chance" Tate, who relieves his boredom and his ennui with massive doses of alcohol.
Amy Flynn is a harridan's harridan as ultra-bossy TV regional director Carla Pepperbloom; Rebecca Blum and Dena Byers contribute fine comic characterizations as TV programmer Prim Spring and technician Trudi Floote; and David Klionsky and Sheila Outhwaite each deftly juggle four brief but emotionally demanding roles.
Set designer Thomas Mauney creates some versatile scenery to represent the TV studio, various hotel locations, etc.; lighting designer Andrew Korhonen skillfully illuminates this fast-paced show; costume designers Sue Brace and Bunny Safron outfit the cast in an eye-catching variety of contemporary fashions; fight choreographer David McClutchey stages the physical confrontations with pizzazz; dialect coach Christine Morris helps the cast develop and sustain their British accents; and sound designers Rowell Gormon, Rod Rich, and Tony Hefner provide a variety of musical snippets and ambient noise to underscore the action.
Director Rod Rich, rapidly improving comedienne Morrisa Nagel, and fine comic actor Scott Nagel, who replaced the show's male lead just one week ago, deserve special kudos for pulling the show together. There are still some rough spots to be sure, but overall the Sunday matinee of this Actors Comedy Lab production of Comic Potential hit all the right comic notes.
Actors Comedy Lab presents Comic Potential Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 12-14, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 15, at 3 p.m.; and Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 19-21 at 8 p.m. in N.C. State University's Thompson Studio Theatre in Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 Friday-Saturday and $12 Thursday/Sunday, with a $2 discount for University Theatre 2004-05 season members. 919/515-1100. Actors Comedy Lab: http://www.actorscomedylab.com/next.html. The Alan Ayckbourn Resource Guide (the official Alan Ayckbourn site): http://www.alanayckbourn.net/.