nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
September 8, 2010
In Neon Lights, Jeff Seal and Chris Manley are going to take you on a little trip through the golden age of Vaudeville which, according to them, was from about 1925 to late 1925 give or take a few days. However, they have updated the jokes for a modern audience. Well, make that a postmodern audience. They explain to us that we already know all these jokes but we just won't realize that they're funny until sometime later...maybe tomorrow...maybe years from now. But the fact is, they are funny now and these guys know just exactly how to get some laughs from any audience.
Manley plays Buttons, an eccentric clown with a serious mustache, and Seal plays Jeff, a serious clown with an eccentric bow tie. They have created this show to help us understand Vaudeville, the origins of all comedy these days. They break it up into several different categories starting with the musical act and then they jump right into the joke. Next is the magic act and an acrobatic act and from there the categories degrade into acts that don't seem to anything to do with Vaudeville such as the memoir or the fascinating lecture. They inform us that they are idiots and they never get any of these categories of Vaudeville quite right and that's the root of their comedy.
In the joke category, for example, they give us the most epic knock-knock joke ever. Oh, it starts with a knock-knock alright, but from there they run to the farthest reaches of the globe and swing across great chasms with Jeff's ropey penis a la Luke and Leia in Star Wars to escape the knocker. Who's there? We never find out and don't need to. The magic act is magical, though no magic is actually performed. The act is a game of hide the finger. They pass an index finger between them—hiding it, replacing it, finding it, losing it, and so on. It's rather bizarre and extremely funny. Later a young Mark Twain teaches us a little karate and a whale made of cheap lunch meat explodes all over us. Watch out for the flying bologna! All of this is played with very tongue-in-cheek undercuts to Vaudeville, pop culture, and, of course, themselves.
Seal and Manley play off of each other very well. They spend a lot time in creative play mode. They narrate their situations as they pantomime the action. I could not tell if they were improvising or if it was written. I would think that it was a mix of both. Their writing is a funny mix of postmodern pop culture references and old jokes and bits. They spend as much time being subtle and strange as they do being silly and clumsy. I loved the bit in the memoir act where Jeff is trying to read his memoir while Buttons fights off sleep. These guys are fearless and funny. Their director, Danny Manley, keeps the action simple and drives a fast and tight pace straight to the end. Some bits could have found their ending sooner but most were perfectly timed.
I had a great time with Neon Lights. Seal and Manley deliver a performance filled with laughs, clever bits, subtle twists on old jokes and they do it with humility. I found that to be very endearing and I was rooting for them. Good clowning can manifest in so many different ways. Seal and Manley have found a way that works.