Tom Strini

Rep’s “Laurel and Hardy” shines late

By - Sep 28th, 2010 10:39 pm
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Gerard Neugent as Stan Laurel, Bill Theisen as Oliver Hardy. Milwaukee Rep photos by Michael Brosilow.

Laurel and Hardy charmed and amused as a team in front of a movie camera. Offstage and before they paired up, not so much.

That sums up the problem with the first act of Tom McGrath’s Laurel and Hardy, which runs through Nov. 14 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Stackner Cabaret. It also explains why Gerald Neugent and Bill Theisen, as the legendary comic duo, labored so and never found a rhythm in Act 1 Tuesday evening.

McGrath’s herky-jerky storytelling required them to play a slew of characters — the eight-year-old Hardy, Hardy’s overwrought mother, an obscure Scottish impressario, two obscure movie directors, Laurel’s shrew of a first wife, and probably a few I’m forgetting — before they even get together as a team. Most of them make poor company and put heavy demands on the actors for no good reason. Theisen, especially, had to wade through dozens of lines in a thick Scottish brogue assigned to an inconsequential character who wears out his welcome at first sight.

McGrath apparently felt compelled to detail both biographies, a fool’s errand in a 90-minute show. Of course he did it hastily and awkwardly. The actors knew it, and their discomfort and insecurity were palpable. They knew how boring the material is, they couldn’t do anything with it, and it made them sweat — literally, right up to intermission. It wasn’t the actors’ fault, or director Laura Gordon’s. The script is a clumsy mess.

Finally, in Act 2, the Laurel and Hardy we know from those wonderful old films arrived. McGrath pared the dramatis personae to a relevant few. Neugent and Theisen, free at last to be Stan and Ollie, fully inhabited their screen personalities in classic bits from those films. They distinguished onscreen characters from off-stage people in subtle and fluid fashion. The actors left their first-act worries behind and had some fun, so we could, too. Even Paul Helm, the onstage pianist and occasional singer, found his touch and pace.

McGrath at least had enough sense to load the second act with bits from the films. The bits are brilliant, and Neugent and Theisen excelled at them. The physical comedy — a bit with a ladder, for example — was fine, but I loved the sweeter moments best. Theisen sang in a light, charming tenor uncannily like Hardy’s, and Neugent’s soft-shoe exactly captured Stan Laurel’s gentle touch on the floor and pliant, curving limbs and spine. Laurel and Hardy were hilarious, but they were also lovable, and that quality came through in Act 2.

Shine on, shine on harvest moon, for Neugent and Theisen and Laurel and Hardy.

Categories: Theater

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