By Christopher Durang (Echo Theatre Company)

Christopher Durang, whose sort-of play Laughing Wild opened last weekend at Cummel's Cafe and Coffeehouse, was using the concepts that have made South Park such a hit many years ago, except that he always added grief to the crudely drawn satire that is his specialty. His scatology, however, is the excreta of the mind: toxic Catholicism, strained nerves and the way the determined, destructive, seemingly self-indulgent madness of other people damages more sensitive people — particularly sensitive young men, making them timid, insecure and less able to deal with their homosexuality.

Laughing Wild has two characters — Woman (played by Amy Brixey) and Man (Eric Little). Act 1 begins with a long, rambling monologue by the Woman describing a day in the very recent past that began with her slugging a guy in the grocery store because he blocked her access to the tuna fish. After this, she tries to take a taxi to the Metropolitan Museum, but the cab driver won't cooperate. In lurching out of the cab, she falls in the gutter and is insulting to a street musician who offers to help her. We learn of her hatreds (Dr. Ruth and Elizabeth Dole get it particularly hard) and her perceived needs (among them, an interesting job for which she candidly admits she lacks any qualifications). She involves the audience in her rant, asking for shows of hands, answers to questions and the like, but it seems risky to get involved with her, for her neuroticism threatens to move to psychosis at any minute.

When she is finished, the stage darkens, then lights up again as the Man starts his monologue, and it turns out he's the guy who got slugged in the grocery store. He is pathetically shy, insecure, worried about his sexual identity (he says he's bisexual, but he's obviously more gay than straight), and it's obvious that people like the Woman have buffeted him all his life.

Act 2 puts them onstage together. They re-enact the grocery-store assault three or four times, then begin separate monologues that merge as the act goes on. They find themselves in one another's dreams — in one, the Woman is host of a TV talk show, and the Man, as the Infant of Prague, is her guest. Eventually they arrive at mutual, fatigued sympathy for but no understanding of one another.

Laughing Wild is second-rate Durang. At his best, the young-man protagonist of a Durang farce eventually finds a certain wise, wry acceptance of how he became so screwed up. He has liberated himself emotionally from his family (whose members are all like the Woman in Laughing Wild). He may be among the walking wounded but is growing healthier. The trouble is, a two-person psychological farce doesn't come off — not enough psychological doors to slam, too few other characters to bounce off. And when only one other character harasses the much-put-upon young-man protagonist, the black-and-white of satire is obvious and tiresome.

Overcoming the play's intrinsic problems would challenge the Old Vic, and though Echo Theatre does its damnedest, its production of Laughing Wild is hard to sit through. The group's principal difficulty is pacing, particularly with the Act 1 monologues, which seem to go on forever. Brixey is so successful at making the Woman entirely obnoxious that it is hard not to bolt for the door to get away from her. Making the audience want to run away, however, is not what an actor is supposed to do. Little does much better with the Man, a much more sympathetic part. The performance space at Cummel's, with two former loading-dock doors as the stage's back wall, is just fine for Laughing Wild, but the marginal coffeehouse noise during the performance is distracting. Still, St. Louis doesn't get to see much Durang, and Laughing Wild may tighten up over the next two weekends and so be worth a trip to the Club Zone.

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