‘The Actors’: Ronnie Larsen’s new comedy is a family affair

Jeni Hacker, Ronnie Larsen, Allen Lewis Rickan, Jason Guy, and Gabriell Salgado in "The Actors."
Jeni Hacker, Ronnie Larsen, Allen Lewis Rickan, Jason Guy, and Gabriell Salgado in “The Actors.”
Russ Rowland

If you were gay and went to Off-Broadway in the mid-1990s, it’s likely you saw one of Ronnie Larsen’s plays. The most famous was “Making Porn,” a comedy about… Well, the title tells you everything. Despite weak reviews, the show found an audience and ran for more than 500 performances. Other shows followed along the same theme and arguably opened the bathhouse door to other shows, notably “Naked Boys Singing.”

Now, Larsen has turned his talent for comedy and observation to another fraught — and potentially volatile — subject: the family. 

His new play “The Actors” on Theatre Row is endearing, accessible, and you could take your mother to see it. The ingenious plot turns on the trials of Ronnie, who, having been emotionally immobilized by grief from the loss of his parents, decides that he will cast actors to portray his family so he can recapture the love he experienced, and, presumably, heal his inner child. (Therapy apparently hasn’t worked, so Ronnie has come up with this novel idea.)

Of course, things go off the rails as the family that he’s cast — like all good actors — bring their own issues, not to say “baggage” — to the roles, and chaos ensues. Larsen appears to have taken his cue from Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” exploring the ways in which, to paraphrase, families are uniquely unhappy in their own way.

Much of the play is quite funny; the situation demands it. However, like all good comedy, there is a mordant, human truth at the center of it. Who among us hasn’t wished to revisit a time when everything was secure, when your parents took care of you, and when you even got the birthday present you had wished for? Of course, as Ronnie learns, that’s not really possible, and as Heraclitus observed centuries ago, “No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” In essence, this is a coming of age story, but it’s coming of middle age where one has to shoulder the griefs and losses and somehow find a way forward. It’s a topic that’s not generally explored, and Larsen does it deftly. Ronnie ultimately finds a happy ending of sorts, but it’s not a fairytale; it’s reality. Only a true cynic could not be touched by the uneasy peace Ronnie eventually makes with his past.

Ronnie Larsen, Allen Lewis Rickamn, and Jeni Hacker in "The Actors."
Ronnie Larsen, Allen Lewis Rickamn, and Jeni Hacker in “The Actors.”

While that sounds serious, the play is a lot of fun. It’s really a farce with a heart. Larsen himself plays Ronnie, and he proves to be an adept comedian with an underlying sweetness that makes the slow-burn frustration he feels as he loses control of the situation especially fun. Ronnie, the character, also understands how inherently ridiculous his concocted psychodrama is, which allows the piece to comment on itself in ways that enhance the comedy. As his fake parents, Allen Lewis Rickman as dad Clarence and Jeni Hacker as mom Jean find that once they get into the parts, they too have some personal demons to exorcise. Hacker, in particular, is excellent at navigating the humor, the heart, and the underlying conflicts of her own offstage life as Jeanette.

At one point Ronnie’s brother Jay turns up. Well, it’s Actor Jay who is Jeanette’s real-life son and who has been brought in to amp up the improv — and get a paycheck. (How expensive this is becoming for Ronnie becomes a running gag, especially as the actors go from emotional scenes to filling out a timesheet.) Gabrielle Salgado is excellent as Actor Jay, especially in the scenes where he and Ronnie are combative pre-teens; it’s wonderfully bonkers. Finally, Ronnie’s real brother Jay, played by a sincere but understandably befuddled Jason Guy, shows up, and the whole story hurtles to a charming conclusion. 

Perhaps this is best seen as a gentle, cautionary tale. Much as we want to, we can’t turn back time. As Kierkegard said, “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Or, as Ronnie learns, we’ll never really make peace with the past; we just have to do our best with living now.

“The Actors” | Theatre Row Theatre 4 | 410 West 42nd St. | Weds, Thurs 7 p.m.; Fri, Sat 8 p.m.; Weds, Sat 2 p.m.; Sun 3 p.m. through June 1 | $52.50 & $67.50 here.| 2 hours, 10 mins, 1 intermission