Like the origin myth that has Aphrodite emerging fully grown from Zeus's head, madcap fun has arisen full flower from the brain of playwright Ken Ludwig, using the few extant fragments of Euripides’s tragedy Andromeda. The Gods of Comedy, now getting its world premiere at McCarter Theatre Center, is a very funny, Mel-Brooksian romp through academia, Greek mythology, and personal empowerment.
The current show in Princeton, produced in association with San Diego’s Old Globe, is the fourth world premiere of a Ludwig play that artistic director Emily Mann has produced; the others were Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, A Comedy of Tenors, and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Amanda Dehnert, the conceptual phenom behind the very well-received 2016 Somewhere Project: West Side Story, directs.
Ludwig, a Tony Award winner for works including Lend Me a Tenor and Crazy for You, is a prolific playwright (28 plays and musicals!) who has had six plays on Broadway and seven in London’s West End.
The Gods of Comedy is a bit of screwball funny business that mixes the seriously staid with bawdy farce, and for the most part it pays off. The plot revolves around a nascent and nervous love story between Daphne, a type-A classics professor (Shay Vawn) and Ralph (Jevon McFerrin), a colleague in the department who has found a complete copy of the lost Euripides play. After Ralph entrusts it to Daphne, she loses the ancient manuscript. Her distress at this unfortunate turn of events inspires her to call on the gods to help her.
With thunder, confetti, and the Star Wars theme, Dionysius (Brad Oscar) and Thalia (Jessie Cannizzaro) make an unforgettable entrance that picks up the play immediately. Both actors are fully invested in their zany characters and instinctively know how to pace for the biggest laughs—and they get them.
Another standout is Keira Naughton as Dean Trickett, always looking for sexy fun and wealthy donors, who organizes a costume fundraiser (of course the theme is ancient Greece). Later, she meets Ares, god of war (a terrific George Psomas in multiple roles) and mistakes him for a partygoer. “What do you do for a living?” she asks. “Rape and pillage!” he blusters. “Ah, then you’re in banking,” she replies.
The jokes flow fast and furious as the action continues, which includes Thalia and Dionysius comically metamorphosing into other characters in the play, and an aging starlet alumna (Steffanie Leigh), heavy with ego and ready to play Andromeda on the big screen. The ensemble is up to the task and their timing is perfect—every exit and entrance, accompanied by vaudevillian early New Orleans music, accentuates the frenetic tempo.
Joy to the mortals
The sets by Jason Sherwood wonderfully reflect the evolution of this wild story, starting with a white, minimalist depiction of Naxos, Greece; a bookish classics-department office; and a dreamy campus quad replete with huge trees and a cascade of reddish golden leaves sparking above the action. One problem—the couch pillows in the office should go. The actors spent too much time picking them up when they were knocked off by the action.
Dionysius and Thalia threw their hearts and souls into bringing happy endings to the mere mortals on stage, and were very successful with the opening-night mortals in the audience. The laughter rarely stopped.
The original version of this story misidentified this show's scenic designer as Linda Roethke. She designed the costumes. The scenic designer is Jason Sherwood.
What, When, Where
The Gods of Comedy. By Ken Ludwig, directed by Amanda Dehnert. Through March 31 at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthew Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ. (609) 258-2787 or mccarter.org.
McCarter is a barrier-free venue offering support for all patrons. There will be an Open Captioning performance of The Gods of Comedy on Saturday, March 23 at 2pm, and an audio-described and ASL-interpreted performance on Saturday, March 30 at 2pm. For more information on accessibility, visit here.