One of the hardest things for a playwright to do is to summarize an entire play in one or two sentences. It’s especially difficult for playwrights writing the kind of stuff I like (and tend to write myself, not incidentally): plays that mix surrealistic, absurdist, hilarious humor with genuine emotion; plays that fool around with time and structure; plays that can’t just be labeled “comedy” or “tragedy” or “social justice play” but are in fact a mix of a whole bunch of things.
I think of Aaron Loeb’s Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party, which was way more serious and affecting and emotional than the title and description hinted at. Or David Greenspan’s Dead Mother, which combined Greek theater, staged readings, monologues, dialogue, gender-bending, impossible stage directions and someone dressed as a sperm whale into something both funny and moving. Or Exit Wounds, by this up-and-comer, which has sex, violence, the ghost of JFK, high school wrestling, hacked voting machines, and is, I hope, equal parts hilarious and genuine. Well, maybe, 80% – 20%, but still.
Which brings us to Ryan Michael Teller’s The Short and Happy Life, now running at Phoenix Theatre, produced by a company I’ve been going on about for a while: Sleepwalkers Theatre. If you read the description, you get phrases like “an exploration of loss” and “incomprehensible death” and “9/11 response play.” All of which, while technically true, make it sound way more serious than it actually is. Because, in truth, this play fit right into the “surrealistic, absurdist, hilarious with genuine emotion” sweet spot for me.
The play is a perfect combination of comedy and emotion, starting with a character named Harvery Johnston (Andrew McCloud Crocker) who’s born with a condition that makes him look way bigger and way older than he is; so that by age four, he looks like he’s sixteen; by age six, he’s losing his virginity; and by age sixteen, he’s about 6’4″ with a very full beard. He’s on such a growth spurt, in fact, that one day he just spontaneously combusts.
And that’s where the genuine emotion comes in. His mother (Maureen Coyne) struggles to make the world safe for other children who might suffer the same (bizarrely hilarious) fate. And his best friend (Ian Riley) struggles to understand how someone could just disappear one day.
But even here, the play is still really, really funny. Everywhere the friend turns for advice, he gets nuttier and nuttier advice, especially from the oblivious school guidance counselor (Kevin Copps), who’s just odd and off and hilarious.
Tore Ingersoll-Thorp, the director and artistic director of Sleepwalkers Theatre, directs in this space all the time and really knows how to use it. This one has more multimedia and technical demands than their past plays, and everything (including the talking goat) just works.
If you saw Sleepwalkers’ productions of Deep Fried Cheese or Lost & Found, you’ll be happy to know this one is just as crazy and cool. If you didn’t, you really should have.
And you should get to know Sleepwalkers. Back in 2007, the SF Bay Times said, “I think there are more good works to come from them in the future.” This is one of them! These guys have exquisite taste in hilarious plays with genuine emotion, and the talent to pull it off.
Oh, and they’ve brewed a special homebrew just for the show, available for $2 and yes, you can take it into the theater. Come for the beer and stay for the amazing theatre!
The Short and Happy Life by Ryan Michael Teller, by Sleepwalkers Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St, San Francisco, through Mar 28. Tickets at sleepwalkerstheatre.com.