NEW YORK—Timing is everything comedy, be it delivering a one-liner, a bit of physical slapstick, or a long narrative with a payoff at the end. The importance of timing is explored in the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord’s “Marcel + The Art of Laughter,” very different, yet inter-related works presented by Theatre for the Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
In “Marcel,” created by and featuring the performances of European comics Jos Houben and Marcello Magni, Magni’s character arrives at a non-descript office for a series of tests. These are administered by a by-the-book official and his similarly no-nonsense assistant (both played by Houben).
What these examinations are actually for is never explained, though they involve a lot of physical activity and a long slide-like curved wooden set piece. Magni runs around, walks on top of, and frequently smacks into the object before the tests actually begin.
This entire story, told almost completely without dialogue, comes off as a humorous riff on the premise of the individual versus the system. A short and somewhat stout fellow, Magni perfectly embodies a quiet and woebegone demeanor, which immediately endears him to the audience. His actions and attitudes call to mind the antics of Lou Costello and Charlie Chaplin.
Throughout the piece, Magni’s character tries valiantly to follow the prescribed guidelines of the examiners, but is not always able to do so. Houben meanwhile, comes off nicely as the officious, no-nonsense straight man to the proceedings.
Before the play properly begins, there’s a also bit of amusing confusion, along with one or two slow burns by Houben, thanks to the similarity of the play’s title to Magni’s first name. The fourth wall is broken early on, with Magni becoming rather unnerved at having to change his clothes in front of an audience, despite Houben’s assurances on the matter.
Though not directly related to “Marcel,” the lessons conveyed in “The Art of Laughter” can certainly be applied to it. A solo piece, created by and featuring Houben, “Laughter” shows him presenting a self-described master class on comedy.
Houben deftly explains how one can make everyday situations appear funny. Timing prominently figures into the mix, as do the reasons people experience humorous reactions to certain events. He acquaints the audience with concepts such as vertical humor and animal morphism, that is, giving human characteristics to animals, and the very important factor of finding an audience—”an” audience as a markedly different animal from “the” audience.
Many of Houben’s explanations are accompanied by specific demonstrations, sometimes by him alone, others with assistance of an audience member, and always accompanied peals of laughter from those in attendance.
People find the examples engaging and amusing, even though they often know in advance what’s coming. It’s as if being in on the joke makes it even more special.
While watching “The Art of Laughter,” one can’t help but look back at “Marcel” and take the concepts explained in the second piece and apply them to the first. The second act functions as a coda, though each works perfectly as a stand-alone offering.
Not hysterically funny by any means, but definitely enjoyable, insightful, and presented by two first-rate performers, “Marcel + The Art of Laughter” provides an excellent example of what comedy can be and how, while we may all find different things funny, we all enjoy having a good laugh.
‘Marcel + The Art of Laughter’
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or TFANA.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: Nov. 19
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.