JoAnna Rhinehart, John Patrick Hayden, and Kate Loprest in Dick Brukenfeld’s “The Big Broadcast on East 53rd,” directed by Charles Maryan. | CAROL ROSEGG
The Big Broadcast on East 53rd” belongs to a genre of theater that can only be described as Zombie Comedy. By that I mean, it only appears to be alive and trying to make sense of it will eat your brain.
For comedy to work, it has to have an essential grounding in believable human situations taken to a heightened plane. This has been true since Aristophanes virtually invented the form. Thus, we have mismatched roommates coping with divorces (“The Odd Couple”), a non-traditional family decidedly out of the mainstream (“You Can’t Take It With You” or “The Addams Family”), a provincial theater company falling apart at the seams (“Noises Off”), and thousands of other delightfully hilarious examples. No matter what the world of a comedy, its must also have rules and an established integrity, which even when comedy is absurdist (“Rhinoceros”) allows the audience to locate itself in relationship to the characters and the plot. However outlandish, the tenet of successful comedy — that something is out of whack in an ordered world — has to have a fundamental logic within the context of the play. Or, more bluntly, it has to make some kind of sense.
None of “The Big Broadcast” comes close to making sense. The play opens with Penny Talley obsessively reading obituaries. Her husband arrives home from work, and we discover he can only go through a door by broad jumping. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. Ray wants to move to Florida and resume his career as a radio personality. Penny wants to stay in New York and then finds her husband’s obituary in the morning paper. She is convinced he’s dead, though he’s not.
Comedy comes hard in an amateurish, incoherent comedy.
Penny’s best friend, Ruth, comes over. Penny leaves. Ray and Ruth come close to having sex. Penny comes back with Ray’s brother, and they plan Ray’s funeral. Ray says he’s not dead, but the only one who can really decide that is the obituary writer, to whose office the entire cast repairs in Act Two, where nothing is really resolved. Ray does move to Florida and ends up announcing senior softball games for a radio station. Curtain.
Playwright Dick Brukenfeld gives us no rationale for any of the characters’ behaviors, so we can’t go along for the ride. Nor do we know what prompted Ray to start broad jumping three years earlier or why Penny is obsessed with obituaries and insists on asserting that Ray is dead when he clearly is not. The banter isn’t funny, it’s annoying, and trying to follow from one moment to another is fatiguing. Director Charles Maryan seems to have no idea of timing or physical comedy. The result is messy and manic and is more likely to induce clenched jaws than belly laughs. Indeed, at the performance I saw, there was nary a laugh to be heard.
All of this is rendered even more frustrating because what slim charm this piece has comes from the talented company, all of whom have comic talents that remain largely untapped. John Patrick Hayden as Ray is charming and could easily be the kind of comic leading man Kaufman and Hart wrote for. Kate Loprest at Penny shows hints of the classic, long-suffering wife and mistress of the slow burn. Joanna Rhinehart as the obituary editor combines buoyant silliness with a cutting glare, though not in any context that works here. Alexis Bronkovic as Ruth, though playing the most pointless part in the play, certainly has the makings of a terrific comic ingénue. Aside from the inept writing and structure, the waste of this comic potential comes close to heartbreaking.
When a zombie is coming for your brain, there are generally two options: turn and fight or run away. In this case, the latter is the better course.
THE BIG BROADCAST ON EAST 53RD | TBG Theatre, 312 W. 36th St. | Through Feb. 25: Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $18 at smarttix.com or 212-868-4444 | One hr., 45 mins, with intermission