Good comedy is long overdue for a PR rebranding. At the Academy Awards every year, only a few straightforward comedies garner major nominations, and fewer actually win. On television, the attitude toward comedy is friendlier, but often experimental or dramatic shows receive the lion’s share of critical attention. In theatre, the bias toward tragedy has a long and deep history. In the vast majority of theatrical genres and studies, comedic works get less academic study, historical appreciation and general prestige even if they are wildly popular with audiences.
Personally, I think this is a mistake. Why should art be less valuable just because it is funny, light or optimistic? Furthermore, effective humor is quite difficult to create, even though most great comedians in any genre attempt to create an illusion of spontaneity. The best jokes can be more socially relevant or humanistically insightful than a self-serious drama. Maybe to push art forward we need to make America laugh again.
Currently, the University of Utah Theatre Department is presenting convincing evidence for my claim with a wonderful production of “You Can Never Tell.” Directed by Alexandra Harbold, this show is refreshing in its simplicity: it aims only to make you laugh, and consistently succeeds.
“You Never Can Tell” outlines a single, momentous day at a seaside resort town. Failed dentist Dr. Valentine (played by Jesse Klick), meets a single feminist author (Mary-Helen Pitman) and her three children (Lindsie Kongsore, Payton Bowen and Morgan Werder, all sublime.) Over the day the children search for the identity of their father, while Mr. Valentine finds himself caught in an unexpected romance and all the characters are caught up in increasing mischief and hijinks.
Harbold’s chief success as a director is in her development of a perfectly tuned ensemble. The cast gives a wide array of performances, ranging from quiet and subtle to broad and ridiculous, but the actors harmonize rather than clash. In fact, individual performances actually improve as actors bounce off of each other. Each scene has crisp comic timing and perfect pacing, and in the cast’s capable hands the material is always both natural and entertaining. As the womanizing Dr. Valentine, Klick starts as a somewhat dry serious man, but these origins are misleading: his performance quickly becomes charming and endearing. Lindsie Kongsore and Payton Bowen are inspired as brash siblings Dolly and Philip Clandon. Both performances are pitch-perfect in both vocal inflection and physicality: they elevate every scene they perform in.
The cast is aided tremendously by the choice of material. Written in 1897 by George Bernard Shaw, the play remains sharp and witty. No character or scene is wasted. Shaw’s writing is a portrait of a rapidly changing era where gender and social roles were constantly shifting and reshifting. These concerns, however, are in the background of the play’s delightful wordplay, farce and romance.
The show’s technical design is an ideal match for the play — it’s charming and eye-catching. Costume designer Kerstin Davis, lighting designer David Anthony-Ken De Carolis and set designer Halee Rasmussen should be commended for evoking the time period without coming across as stuffy or old-fashioned. Even during its opening night, technical elements were smoothly executed and effectively complemented Harbold’s vision.
Any audience members looking for well-crafted comedy should look no further than this production. Simply put, “You Never Can Tell” is the best show of the U of U theatre season so far.
“You Can Never Tell” will be performed November 16-19 at 7:30 p.m. and November 18-19 at 2:00 p.m. at the Babcock Theater. Tickets are free for U of U students. For more information, visit theatre.utah.edu.