30 June 2007: Neary, Kong’s Night Out

New Century Theatre, Theatre 14, Smith College. Directed by Neary. Opened June 21; closed this night.

NCT’s season-opening show. They are off to a good start. Sam Rush, producing director, has reported that an audience survey taken during the 2006 season indicated that people wanted more laughs and not so many tears. There were possibly enough laughs in this one play to afford real tragedy in succeeding productions, but we are nonetheless in for more. The play, already successfully performed in Boston, is the brain-child of Jack Neary, co-founder with Sam Rush of NCT some seventeen years ago. Neary has written a lot of plays, and this piece is a skillful, polished piece. It owes a lot to the screwball movies of yesteryear, and could justifiably be called a screwball farce. At least one character, Little Willie (that gives you an idea of the level of double entendre in the play), has some­thing of a Noo Yawk accent but also devotedly learns a new word each day. We have seen these characters before, in Kaufman and Hart comedies and other plays by Sam and Bella Spewack. They feature street-wise, know-it-all entrepren­eurs, hicks who don’t know to come in out of the rain, star-struck girls from Buffalo who want to be Stahs, mothers-in-law who used to be strippers, and so on. The gimmick in this case is that the play offers a kind of back story to the famous film of King Kong and borrows three characters from it: Ann Darrow (the Fay Wray role), Carl Denham, the fearless moviemaker and producer, and Jack Driscoll, the first mate of the ship that brings back King Kong, the forty-foot gorilla, who (which?) falls in love with the Fay Wray character. The action takes place in a hotel suite in Manhattan in October 1933 — the night that an enraged King Kong escapes from the on-stage cage in which he has been imprisoned as the “attraction” that is drawing thousands of people to Denham’s Alhambra Theatre and in the process ruining Myron Siegel’s chance for the hit of a lifetime at the theatre across the street. Kong, it turns out — if you’ve seen the movie you know this — loves the Fay Wray character and is enraged when she is taken away from him; and so he slips his chains, climbs the wall of said hotel, and puts his enormous hand through the window trying to find Ann.

The play stages the hand, which in the last scene suddenly curls around the open French door at stage right and misses Ann, but then moves to the next win­dow and finds her — she has been in the next room with Jack, her fiancé, and Jack breaks a chair trying to prevent her abduction.

We then get an after-the-fact report from Willie of the climb to the top of the Empire State Building, the miraculous saving of Ann, and the sad fall to earth of Kong. So the structure of the play constitutes an ingenious fictional lead-up to the “true-to-life” final sequence of the 1933 film. And it is very ingeniously done, and very clear in its developing plot line. This is an expertly contrived farce, which mostly goes, as Oscar Wilde said a farce should go, “like a pistol shot.” After a somewhat slow beginning, while the audience warmed up and got in synch with the fast-happening sequences and verbal wise cracks, one-liners, and lightning-fast exchanges (they are called “stychomythia” in the ancient Greek theatre), subsequent action went on at a very fast clip, as we watched the desperate prod­ucer Myron Siegel try to rescue his soon-to-fail enterprise by, first, discovering the sensational nature of the “attraction” being kept under wraps by Carl Den­ham at the Alhambra until the opening the next night and then finding some way to counter and ruin Denham’s plans.

It is a barrel of laughs, as the quintessential farcical action of a group of enter­prising but benighted persons makes every effort to succeed but constantly comes up second, or are thwarted or frustrated in their efforts. Seen one farce like this, and you’ve seen them all. And yet, vary the fiction to some extent, keeping the same or similar characters, provide a fast-moving action, and above all figure out some fresh gimmick or other, and audiences will love it.

So it is that Kong’s Night Out — a night out in a way we might not have envis­ioned, even if we saw the film (shown two Mondays ago at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton as publicity for the play) — adds its name to the list of less-than-legendary plays that set no new standards or offer no new, fresh insights whatever, but give their audiences their own, satisfying if not memor­able, night out.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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