Review by Joe Eriole
We must be careful not to judge how people choose to mourn the loss of someone dear to them. But Paul Elliott’s Exit Laughing does suggest one avenue for facing such grief that seems very appealing indeed: the company of friends and the comfort of laughter.
Exit Laughing’s central character is never seen, in a manner of speaking. The story revolves around the death of one of four protagonists, whose ashes have been quietly, and illegally, removed from the funeral home by one of her surviving friends. The culprit, Millie, explains that despite having passed on, she thought the dearly departed might like to attend the group’s regular Bridge night.
Bridge night, as it turns out, also happens to be the night before the ugly urn containing their friend’s earthly remains is to be laid to rest. Whether, and how, their friend and her ugly urn will get back to the funeral home before tomorrow’s ceremony, sets the stage for the play. And even in her repose, their deceased friend has some wisdom to impart to them, and to us. Hi-jinks ensue…
This County Players’ production is sharply directed by Michael Frohnhoefer, whose set design and decor credits are also worth noting. While it is a one-set production, Frohnhoefer and the Set Construction crew have provided a beautifully appointed parlor as the welcoming backdrop which this story of friendship, laughter and hope deserves. The physical and spoken action is directed such that the timing necessary to an effective comedy is never lost, while being careful to keep this heartfelt story from playing as a farce.
The ensemble cast is led by Kit Colbourn, in the role of Connie, the gathering’s host. Colbourn is an actress possessed of great wit and command, which are evident here, to be sure. But her performance is also full of the lighthearted joy and intimacy shared by true friends. Connie is the group’s most pragmatic member – but Colbourn never plays her in a way that makes her a killjoy. As her daughter, Rachel Ann, discovers to her dismay, Colbourn’s Connie looks as comfortable throwing caution to the wind as she does troubleshooting the group’s predicament.
The circle of friends are rounded out by Anna Marie Paolercio as Leona, and Donna Conway as Millie.
Leona is that friend everyone’s got – game for anything – and Paolercio plays her convincingly. You want Paolercio’s Leona at your party. But when she is called upon to remind the audience that she’s lost someone who matters to her, her connection is authentic, so that Leona is more than just the life of the party; we believe her as a true friend.
Conway, who makes her County Players’ debut here, meets the challenge of playing Millie with great charm and grace. The challenge is in the fact that Elliott has written the character of Millie as impossibly daft; so much so, that some of her lines make one question whether such a person could have survived into adulthood. Even taking into account the comic setting, the lines seem overly contrived. It would be distracting but for the fact that Conway’s performance is such a pleasure, and the heart with which she invests Millie is so sincere, that the audience embraces the character and the laughter.
Connie’s college-aged daughter, Rachel Ann, is delightfully played by Leigh Erin Jass, who’s stage voice and presence were always a strong counterpoint to the fond and playful reminiscing of the long-time friends with which her character shares the stage. Jass was always equal to the task of playing the cynical twenty-something while making the audience root for her. Mortified by her mother’s behavior, Jass’ Rachel Ann is not just cynical, she’s smart and funny in a way that rises above the script at times.
Vincent Granata also makes his County Players’ debut here, playing a police officer (see the play to find out what else he plays!) Granata’s performance is charming, and in ways which would be unfair to divulge here, he has the task of playing with numerous motivations in this role, difficult duty which the young actor discharges believably.
Weaknesses, if any, are not in the production or the performances, but in the script, where Elliott’s characters are sometimes asked to deliver lines that are a bit like vaudeville-style set-ups. But the camaraderie and competence of the performances and the direction in this production make it well-worth seeing.
County Players’ Exit Laughing is presented by actors audiences will like. It is fun, and funny, and on a cold February night, it warms the heart with a reminder to live purposefully and joyfully.
The show runs weekends through February 16, 2019 and tickets can be purchased online at http://www.countyplayers.org or by calling the box office at 845.298.1491