The Laughter, presented by Minmar Gaslight Productions for the Hamilton Fringe Festival 2021, takes us back to 1943, just before the rise of television, and invites us into an intimate conversation between two comedy legends—Lou Costello and Lucille Ball. During their heart-to-heart, they reveal the pain and hardship just under the surface of their larger-than-life personas.
Written and directed by Steven Elliot Jackson, this play takes place in the moments leading up to Ball’s guest appearance on Abbot and Costello’s radio program. We learn of Ball’s alienation from husband/performer Desi Arnez and Costello’s grief from a recent loss. Brandon Knox (Costello) and Kate McArthur (Ball) give endearing, compelling performances, though they are somewhat hampered by the presentation.
The scene is staged to suggest that we are seeing them from the perspective of a dressing room mirror. Each actor has been recorded separately and a split screen brings them together in frame. The problem is, the illusion isn’t convincing. Especially when either of them stands up out of frame.
I’m sure this was a production necessity resulting from COVID precautions, but it does mar the overall execution. This is truly a shame because the script and performances are very strong. Knox and McArthur also manage to create genuine chemistry despite this obstacle.
Perhaps this would have worked better as an audio drama for this year’s Fringe. As Ball remarks in the play: “that’s the great thing about radio, nobody can see the mistakes.” The strengths of this production would really shine and the weak visual element could be discarded.
The writing and performance style really convey the sensibilities of the era and the whole piece is just bursting with an obviously deep affection for these characters and the golden age of the industry. The Laughter is a truly satisfying one-act play that deserves a more polished production.