JOHNSTOWN — What happened during the last tableau of Colonial Little Theatre’s current production, “Making God Laugh”, on Friday night was unfortunate.
Missed sound and light cues left the cast of five in a frozen pose for nearly 45 seconds until actress Caralivia Levanti had the presence of mind to announce officially what the good-sized audience already knew: the play was over.
No one got hurt, of course, and everyone laughed (maybe God, too?), but the moment was emblematic for me of the entire night: just when things seemed to be going along swimmingly, something distracted us. Part of the fault is in the script itself, and part of the problem lies in the production, which, for all its good instincts, sometimes gets in its own way.
The script alternates between boilerplate humor (for example, two running gags about Mom’s cooking and failed American businesses; stereotypical characters; predictable plot twists) on the one hand, and absorbing soliloquies and lively dialogue on the other.
The cast, too, often gets up a head of steam, delivering the funny lines and pathos with aplomb, but then they drop lines or pick up cues too slowly.
The play’s title comes from Woody Allen: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” (The polytheistic Greeks knew this, too, and built their tragedies and comedies around the notion.) In this case, Ruthie (Miriam Miller), the family’s mother, is the one with all the plans for her husband, Bill (Phil Carlson), sons Richard (Mark Peek) and Thomas (John Nare), and daughter, Maddie (Levanti). And Mom does not laugh when her plans are ignored. Of course, that’s because she’s a human being herself, and the laugh must also be on her.
Playwright Sean Grennan presents this family saga over a 40-year period, with slide projections indicating what’s going on in the larger culture during that period — an interesting technique that simply goes on too long and whose visuals are not especially relevant to the events of the play. Of course, the costumes and hairdos and wigs are amusing in and of themselves: Did we really look like that?
The issues confronting the family are typical: sibling rivalry; alcoholism; sexual identity; career problems; marital tension. But Grennan laces the proceedings with optimism: no matter what, the family still gets together for holidays. Read director Leta Aldous’s program note to understand her reason for choosing this show and why it enjoys numerous productions all over the country.
Aldous (who designed the spacious set) aptly uses the couch, center stage, as the family’s ultimate destination after altercations, and Grennan’s use of the family photo-taking session to conclude each scene is the right touch.
Each of the characters has a monologue of explanation or self-justification, with which the actors do a first-rate job. Kudos to Levanti in particular, whose performance is energetic and three-dimensional: she takes the full measure of Maddie’s protective sarcasm and later reveals the frustration and pain underlying it.
The evening goes in fits and starts, but when the writing and the production are tight, “Making God Laugh” is satisfying theater.
'Making God Laugh'
WHERE: Colonial Little Theatre, 1 Colonial Court, Johnstown
WHEN: through June 18
HOW MUCH: $15
MORE INFO: 762.4325, or coloniallittletheatre.org