When Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director Charles Morey adapted Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula for the stage in the 1990 season, the resulting production he directed was riveting fall-season theater.
When the same play was performed years later by New Hampshire's Peterborough Players, Morey's theatrical alma mater of the 1970s, the result veered between a muddle and a shambles.
He knew beforehand that the story of Dracula is so dramatically overheated that only a professional cast could pull it off. But as a true man of the theater, Morey refused to walk out.
"We've all been in productions that just didn't work," he said. "You always watch to the very end, out of respect for the actors and for the love of theater. There's always something there to appreciate and take away, even if all you do is sit there, thinking about why it's all going wrong."
Morey ended up distilling all that can, will and does go wrong in theater for "Laughing Stock," his 2001 stage farce. More than 10 years later, the play will receive a revival performance as his "love-letter" to the theater and a giggling swan song to his final months after 28 years directing PTC.
The play charts the adventures of Gordon Page, wide-eyed and ever-hectic artistic director of The Playhouse, as he and a group of earnest, but not always sure-footed, actors tackle "Dracula, Prince of the Undead," "Hamlet" and "Charley's Aunt." By the time rehearsal's over and the curtain rises, all three cross-pollinate onstage. Sound effects are miscued, lighting is mangled, lines are dropped.
Meanwhile, The Playhouse's "producing executive administrative director," Craig Conlin, tries to pull off financial triage, rationing pencils in attempts to control costs and fund the next season.
For anyone experienced in running a theater, or who's helped raise an amateur or even professional production off the ground, "Laughing Stock" may result in the laughter of the damned. Morey's humor is delivered with affection, not derision. He insists in his author's note to the script that laughs arise not "from the disasters that befall [the characters], but the manner in which they attempt to cope with those disasters, cover their miscues and right the sinking ship."
Unlike Christopher Guest's film "Waiting for Guffman" or Michael Frayn's "Noises Off," works that also take audiences behind the scenes of theater in the making, "Laughing Stock" imparts little in the way of mean-spiritedness.