If you were to ask me which I'd rather see - a new stage comedy by David Mamet, Elaine May, or Woody Allen - I'd have to think long and hard before giving you my answer: "Yes, please."
Happily, some canny theatre producers apparently felt the same, showcasing the trio's talents in 1995's Death Defying Acts. And even more happily, at least for area audiences, the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre is currently presenting this threesome of one-acts in a frequently fall-down-funny production directed by Dale Hawes and Patrick Stinson. You may not laugh continuously at the Showboat's latest - two of its offerings run a little longer than necessary - but when you do laugh, which is plenty often, the laughs are generally explosive, cleansing cackles, sounds that could easily be embarrassing if those sitting nearby weren't cackling right along with you.
As the show's catch-all title suggests, the individual works share the common theme of death, and Mamet, never one to be timid, plunges in headfirst with his farcically existential opener, An Interview. Set in a sparsely furnished waiting room in hell, the piece finds an edgy, mealy-mouthed attorney (Rob Engelson) shackled to chair, and forced to endure a pre-admittance consultation with a nattily dressed attendant (Joshua Sohn). Yet their "interview" basically consists of the interrogator asking one absurdist question - "Why did you bury the lawnmower?" - while the lawyer yammers on and on, preemptively excusing himself for crimes he isn't accused of, and twisting the conversation into such a tangle of legalistic jargon that both men lose track of what it was they were discussing.
In short, the 25-minute An Interview is about a shyster getting just what he deserves, and Mamet's famously staccato rhythms are delivered by Sohn and Engelson with superbly cadenced give-and-take, Sohn's eerily menacing nonchalance an ideal buffer to Engelson's hysterical fidgeting and gloriously fatuous self-aggrandizement. And while I won't ruin the one-act's best gag - indeed, the production's best gag - by quoting the attendant's reasoning for the attorney's damnation, this archly funny morality tale, beyond being well-acted, features no end of priceless dialogue, as when Engelson discovers that his character will receive "eternity in hell, bathed in burning white phosphorous, while listening to a symphonic tone poem." Lawyer or not, I don't know anyone deserving of that.
An Interview is directed (beautifully) by Hawes, who also helms and appears in Death Defying Acts' second offering, Elaine May's Hotline. In it, we're introduced to a newbie suicide-prevention operator (Sohn again, and again, confident and engaging) and a flighty, possibly suicidal prostitute (Kate Hennies), and this 50-minute playlet has so much charm, and so many of those wonderfully gonzo-yet-logical lines that are May specialties, that it barely matters that the piece feels padded by about 15 minutes, and that you don't really buy any of it. (Even at her most unhinged, the hooker never seems to be much of a threat to herself, and a few contrivances - such as the woman's half-hearted attempts to pay for her last meal - are overly sitcom-cute.)
Still, Hotline is a buoyant little (near-) romantic comedy, with witty, precise character turns by Hawes, Engelson, and Claire Barnhart - an effervescent stage presence who's like Cate Blanchett crossed with Kristen Chenoweth - and a terrifically magnetic one by Hennies, who pulls off lengthy, one-sided phone conversations with masterful ease and impeccable comic aplomb. (She also possesses a great natural prop: A gorgeous, spectacularly disheveled head of blond hair that suggests a fizzy yet borderline-unmanageable state of mind.) You enter intermission in a fantastic mood.
Not long into Death Defying Acts' closer, the Woody Allen one-act Central Park West, you find yourself in an even better one. The less you know about the plot, which concerns the adulterous entanglements of a pair of well-do-to Manhattan couples, the happier you'll probably be; surprise will be key to your enjoyment of Allen's verbally vicious, emotionally volatile outing. (The play feels a bit like stage practice for Allen's hilariously acerbic 1997 film Deconstructing Harry.) Just know that the escalating tension and intentional ludicrousness are choreographed by Stinson with devastating comic force - numerous bits on Thursday received gasps to match the chortles - and that Allen's outing reinforces a great theatrical truism: Few stage sights are more entertaining than wealthy, purportedly well-adjusted characters behaving really, really badly.
Like Hotline, Central Park West is somewhat overstuffed; I'd say 20 of its 70 minutes could've been shaved off with no noticeable loss. But a shorter running length would've also meant less for co-stars Hawes (ferally funny as a manic-depressive), Engelson, Barnhart, and Nicole Horton to do, which would've definitely been our loss, and given her smashingly unstable turn, you wouldn't wish for one second less of Anne Schneck. Death Defying Acts is full of unexpected delights, but its biggest might be the actress' almost demonically incensed portrayal; whether annihilating a rival with a sardonic quip or hurling a briefcase across the stage with such force that it's a wonder the set remains standing, she's so fiercely unpredictable that you hardly want to breathe, in case she chooses to unleash her wrath on you. (Which doesn't however, prevent you from laughing.) As her character states, "There is a time to be rational, and there is a time to run amok." God bless Schneck for giving us far more of the latter.
For tickets and information, call (563)242-6760 or visit ClintonShowboat.org.