A Classics Professor is Visited by “The Gods of Comedy”; Ken Ludwig’s Delightful Farce Premieres at McCarter Theatre
“THE GODS OF COMEDY”: Performances are underway for “The Gods of Comedy.” Directed by Amanda Dehnert, the play runs through March 31 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Classics professor Daphne Rain (Shay Vawn, right) is visited by Dionysus (Brad Oscar, left) and Thalia (Jessie Cannizzaro). (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
McCarter Theatre is presenting the world premiere of The Gods of Comedy. In this delightful farce by Ken Ludwig, a classics professor makes a mistake that threatens her career, as well as her romantic interest in a colleague. She is visited by Dionysus, the God of Wine and Revelry; and Thalia, the Muse of Comedy and Idyllic Poetry. They are magical, have a passing familiarity with American pop culture, and come when they are needed. They also are impulsive and disaster-prone.
The young, independent, and ambitious professor Daphne Rain, who is planning to direct a production of Medea as part of her tenure folio, is visiting the island of Naxos. She is closely observed by Aristide, an eager merchant, who serves as a narrator at the beginning of the play.
“You are here leading students for the summer, but … you do not join them on their happy excursions,” Aristide gently chides Daphne. “You worry too much, you lack confidence, and your mother is very concerned about you.” Daphne contradicts him, and immediately receives a phone call from her mother. After Daphne saves the life of a member of Aristide’s family, he presents her with an amulet that he says will enable her to call on the gods for help.
Ralph Sargent, a Hellenistic studies professor who has been hired as the head of Daphne’s department, also is in Greece. He has discovered fragments of Andromeda, a tragedy by Euripides, most of which has been lost. However, as Ralph notes, it opens with the princess Andromeda chained to a rock as a sacrifice to the sea monster Cetus. She is rescued by Perseus, “Slayer of the Gorgon.”
Back at the university, Dean Trickett is excited about the discovery of the Andromeda fragment, which she plans to tout during alumni weekend, which she has decided will have an ancient Greek theme. A donor she particularly hopes to impress is Brooklyn de Wolfe, an alumna who has become a movie star. Brooklyn is suitably dazzled by the discovery of the Andromeda fragments, and envisions Euripides’ play as the subject of her next film.
Ralph wants to avoid carrying the rare manuscript around the campus, and entrusts it to Daphne for safekeeping. Before stepping out of her office, she leaves it on her desk. It accidentally falls to the floor when Aleksi, a Russian émigré who is one of the university’s custodians, enters to clean the room. Despite Aleksi’s own passion for ancient culture, he mistakes the manuscript for trash — and starts to shred its pages. He leaves to use a shredder that is more powerful than the one in Daphne’s office.
When Daphne returns and discovers that the manuscript is missing, she desperately tries the amulet.
Dionysus and Thalia enter through Daphne’s bookcase, as we hear the opening notes of the majestic Star Wars theme. Their mandate from Zeus is to give Daphne adventure, and a happy ending.
Brad Oscar and Jessie Cannizzaro form an outstanding comic duo. The exuberant, feisty lust for life that Oscar brings to Dionysus, paired with the impish charm with which Cannizzaro infuses Thalia, keeps the audience eager to follow their antics.
Shay Vawn as Daphne, and Jevon McFerrin as Ralph, are tasked with making the serious, driven professors an engaging contrast to these jesters. They succeed by accentuating their characters’ shared reverence for the classics — and the mutual ambition that tests their relationship. McFerrin and Vawn are particularly moving in a sequence during which the professors are awed by a quote from Ovid.
The brash Dionysus is delighted to learn about the debauchery that often takes place on a college campus. Thalia is fond of mortals — particularly mortal men — and has to correct Dionysus’ memory as to which century they are visiting. To Daphne’s amazement, neither seems particularly well versed in the ancient Greek classics. Their fallibility becomes inescapable when they accidentally summon Ares, in a sequence that is given eye-popping visual effects by lighting designer Brian Gale, and illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer.
As Daphne attempts to focus on retrieving the manuscript, her playful visitors distract her with a rousing rendition of the university’s fight song. At first reluctantly, then enthusiastically, she joins in the singing.
The Gods of Comedy is not a musical. However, Ludwig is a librettist whose musical theater credits include Crazy for You. Like his previous McCarter production, Murder on the Orient Express, this show demonstrates its playwright’s knowledge of the genre. The function of musical theater songs is to highlight a character’s development, and the university fight song fulfills that purpose.
Eventually Thalia and Dionysus concoct an unorthodox, risky plan to solve the problem of the manuscript; as might be expected, the scheme involves mistaken identities. They also enable Daphne to discover some things about Ralph.
George Psomas succeeds in all three of his roles: Aristide, the equally earnest Aleksi, and Ares, an archetypically macho soldier imitative of Miles Gloriosus in the Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Psomas is particularly entertaining when Aristide, as narrator, describes the professors’ return flight to America.
Keira Naughton is charming as the blithe but determined Dean Trickett. As the glamorous, beguiling Brooklyn, Steffanie Leigh is especially amusing in a scene in which Dionysus disguises himself by taking the movie star’s form; Leigh does a good imitation of Oscar’s performance when Dionysus, as Brooklyn, treats the audience to a full-throated rendition of “Tomorrow” from Annie.
Linda Roethke’s costumes are ravishing, particularly the opulent gowns in which Dionysus and Thalia first appear. These are an apt contrast to the tasteful, constricting outfits for Daphne. Like Jason Sherwood’s sets, the costumes use a bold palette consisting largely of white and red, interspersed with blue and gold. In keeping with the bright mood, Daphne’s office has large windows that allow plenty of light into the room.
The stage pictures are particularly lovely during the second act, as elegant lampposts flank trees, whose leaves have turned red for autumn, that have been accented by Gale’s festive lighting. The characters, several of whom are wearing white, mingle in front of an august statue. In a show where the action often is chaotic, this creates a surprisingly peaceful series of tableaux.
Director Amanda Dehnert, who previously has collaborated with Ludwig on another McCarter production, Baskerville, keeps the action, and the jokes, moving at a brisk pace. This probably has the benefit of giving audiences scant time to question certain plot points. Why is Aleksi, who cares about literature, so ready to assume that papers in a professor’s office are trash, even if they have fallen from a desk? Daphne, a young intellectual in 2019, is surprisingly quick to accept the possibility that the amulet could work.
However, these are minor quibbles. Ludwig’s witty, refreshing script celebrates the magic of the theater, while deftly blending archetypes from ancient Greek (and Roman) plays with those from Broadway comedies. From this, the cast delivers tour-de-force performances marked by impeccable comic timing.
Presented in association with The Old Globe, “The Gods of Comedy” will play at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton, through March 31. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org.