Review: "What Passes for Comedy" Depends on Who's in Control

What Passes for Comedy

Written by G.D. Kimble

Directed by Rick Hamilton

Presented by the Chain Theatre

312 W. 36th Street, 3rd Floor, Manhattan, NYC

October 28-November 19, 2022

Andrew O'Shanick, Alain Pierre, Jordan Elman, and Rory Lance. Photo by Reiko Yoo
Before ensconcing us in the pressure-filled writers' room of a popular late-night television show, the Chain Theatre's excellent world-premiere production of G.D. Kimble's What Passes for Comedy positions theatergoers as part of the live studio audience for that program, The Jackie Harrod Show. The year is 1963, and the faces of The Jackie Harrod Show, a successful enterprise that pulls big-name guests, are White host Jack Harrod (Michael Filisky) and Black bandleader Bunny Brown (Ryan Brooke Taylor). But it is an insult to another group during the show's live broadcast that precipitates a catalyzing crisis for the play's nuanced and powerful exploration of race, representation, and, of course, comedy.
Michael Filisky and Ryan Brooke Taylor. Photo by Reiko Yoo
The men–and What Passes for Comedy takes place in an unquestionably male space–both blamed for and tasked with cleaning up this potentially catastrophic error are a trio of young writers who face constant comparisons to their long-tenured and much-beloved predecessor. Will Holly (Andrew O'Shanick) is the WASP of the group, whose background includes a job at a high-profile print publication and a wealthy family from whom, he reminds his colleagues more than once, he is estranged. Adam "Zep" Beber (Jordan Elman), who is Jewish, and Tory Browne (Alain Pierre), a Black Harvard graduate, hail from less elevated personal and professional circumstances–which in Zep and Tory's case also means a clash between their edgier comic sensibilities and the corporate media environment in which they now find themselves. Tory's desire to write more "dignified" material for Bunny, as one of the most visible Black men in the nation, also clashes with Bunny's commitment to continuing to give the masses what they want, which has certainly served him well so far. The intergenerational tension between Tory and Bunny finds echoes in the shifts in broadcasting methods from radio to television and in audience (and writer) tastes, topics broached by the network's CEO, Bob Borden (Stan Buturla), whose anxiety-producing visit to the writers' room involves a long monologue that itself contrasts the short, rapid, punchy exchanges that characterize the rest of the dialogue. As the night wears on, further tensions are laid bare among the writers–and their immediate supervisor, Jerry Schaal (Rory Lance)–while the chances that Tory, Will, and Zep will still have jobs in the morning seem steadily to diminish.
Andrew O'Shanick, Alain Pierre, and Jordan Elman. Photo by Reiko Yoo
These conflicts highlight that what passes not only as comedy but also as suffering, integrity, merit, or progressivism depends upon one's perspective as impacted by lived experience, identity, relationship to heritage, and so on. Bob Borden, for instance, views himself as quite forward-looking, having hired Black and Jewish employees (including Jerry, who, while management, would not be allowed to frequent the same clubs as Bob). And, in the mainstream of the time, perhaps he is not wrong. Zep, to take another example, strongly avows that he would never joke about the Holocaust but pitches a joke involving Bunny as a cannibal with a bone through his nose. Sensational performances by the cast, from Elman's mischievous energy as Zep and Pierre's simmering frustration as Tory to Taylor's layered portrayal of the proud Bunny and Buturla's imposing turn as Borden, render all of this riveting–and often laugh-out-loud funny. E.A. Frank's impressive set design deserves mention as well, its feeling of peering into an actual workplace complementing the naturalism of the play. What Passes for Comedy may be set in the 1960s, but many of the issues that it tackles survive, if sometimes in altered forms. Quick-witted and penetrating, What Passes for Comedy is one show you shouldn't let pass you by.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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