Funny as a Crutch
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 3, 2008
Funny as a Crutch packs in about a dozen laughs per square foot, and raises your consciousness at the same time. What more can you ask for?
The raison d'etre of this delightful program of nine new short comedies by Rich Orloff, is to showcase five terrific actors with disabilities and to poke gentle fun at how the world sometimes sees its disabled citizens. An announcement just before the show lets us know that the actors sometimes play disabled characters and sometimes do not, and the subtle adjustment in our viewing that this necessitates makes Funny as a Crutch a unique theatrical experience right off the bat —because let's face it, if we see an actor in a wheelchair, we assume it's the character, not the performer, who requires it.
The opening play sets the tone: The New Land, in which the Pilgrims we're familiar with, led by Miles Standish, are surprised by another group of settlers seeking tolerance and liberty in the New World, namely a boatload of folks in wheelchairs who long for endless waves of ramps and outhouse doors wide enough to get their chairs through.
Position Available shows us a disabled man applying for a job as a role model, not-so-subtly ribbing films like My Left Foot, Born on the Fourth of July, and even Dumbo for their kid-gloves treatment of their central "heroic" characters. Toes posits a disabled family who won't allow their daughter to marry a man with just nine toes because they have to draw the line somewhere. (I will leave it to you to learn the daughter's hilarious retort.) Totally Accessible shows us a married couple, both in wheelchairs, who are coping with pressures caused by their disabilities in their professional and love lives.
One of my favorite pieces of the evening was Nellie, a hilarious sort-of parody of the old movie Lili, featuring some delightful puppets (brilliantly designed by Barry Weil) such as Oedipus, Quasimodo, and Captain Hook (what do these characters have in common?).
Dutch Treat is about two friends on vacation in Amsterdam, one of whom is in a wheelchair. When a Frenchman sends a bottle of champagne over to their table, which lady is he trying to woo? I love the way this play raises questions about romance and relationships that the non-disabled among us probably think are our exclusive property. Similarly, the very smart All That He Can Be is about a young man who lost his leg in an auto accident. He wants to serve his country. Why shouldn't he be allowed to? And for sheer thought-provoking incisiveness, nothing on the bill beats Just One of Those Things, which offers a brilliant literalization of how pretty much all of us react when we see people, such as disabled people, who look or seem different from us.
Orloff caps the evening with a mini-musical version of a famous fairy tale, Cripperella. It does not end the way you think it will, and it does feature a joyous musical number called "Your Own Kind of Dance" in which all five of the show's actors energetically participate.
Let me mention these remarkable actors now. Their names are Mary Theresa Archbold, Shannon DeVido, Stephen Jutras, Gregg Mozgala, and Frank Senger, and they do excellent work throughout Funny as a Crutch. The nine plays give each of them lots of chances to demonstrate impressive range. Their disabilities—in a few cases, not in any way apparent from the audience—quickly cease to be the focus as we enjoy their comic timing, their versatility, and their humanity in the various roles they take on.
Jeffrey C. Wolf directs with the light touch Orloff's writing requires, to great effect. Kudos to Craig Napoliello (set), Anne E. Grosz (costumes), and David A. Sexton (lighting), who have addressed the challenges of designing specifically for an ensemble of disabled actors seamlessly. Accommodations we generally don't think about, like how wide openings on the sets need to be or how to manage quick costume changes, are acknowledged without calling attention to themselves; that's how all of our world needs to be.
The major take-away from Funny as a Crutch is the laughter it promotes; the extra consideration it might cause its non-disabled viewers to have for their disabled brothers and sisters is an awesome bonus.