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My comedian friend, Will, and I were having lunch the other day when the subject of double acts came up. I'd been reading Two for the Show: Great 20th Century Comedy Teams, in which the author, Lonnie Burr, charts the rise and fall of the comedic duo from its roots in vaudeville through the black-and-white films of Laurel & Hardy to more recent partnerships like Cheech & Chong and the Smothers Brothers. I asked Will if he concurred with Burr's assertion that double acts have been in decline since the early 1980s. "Yeah, that may be so," he said between bites of bacon and cheese pancake slathered in syrup. He thought the whole straight man/funny man thing had gone out of style a while ago. "TV and movies kind of destroyed the traditional double act," he said. "Now all we have is buddy movies."
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Until I experienced a performance of Daniel MacIvor's In on It, I was inclined to agree. I'd resigned myself to watching Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson flicks and thinking that the closest I'd ever get to witnessing a successful live comedy duo would be going to see Penn & Teller perform magic tricks at the Rio in Las Vegas. A depressing thought indeed. But MacIvor's play imbues the classic double act with renewed energy, exploiting the dynamic between two people so fully that we're left wondering if it's comedy we've been watching or quite the opposite.
The first thing that comes to mind when you see actors Ian Scott McGregor and Glenn Peters together onstage at the top of In on Itis, "These two were made for each other." Peters is skinny and angular. He looks like he was weaned on lemon juice. The character he plays, identified to the audience as "This One," is pessimistic, pedantic, and uptight. McGregor, though no Oliver Hardy, is meatier, with a rounder, friendlier face. His character -- "That One" -- takes life less seriously; he's more optimistic and less intense. This One is constantly correcting That One's English; what That One describes as "happy," This One says is "not sad"; and when That One performs a silly dance to "Sunshine, Lollipops & Rainbows," a saccharine 1960s pop song by Lesley Gore, This One would rather be listening to Maria Callas belting out the mad scene from Donizetti's Anna Bolena. If a comedy duo is defined as the combination of two physical and emotional opposites, then McGregor and Peters fit the mandate so perfectly that they almost seem like a caricature of a double act.
It's at this point of parody that MacIvor's play, which explores the hairline fissure between living and dying, laughing and crying, and stopping and ending, becomes fascinating -- and dense. Moving fluidly between three different states -- "the show," in which the partners discuss and rehearse a play written by This One and talk about their relationship; "the play," in which the events of the aforementioned drama unfold; and "the past," in which the couple rehash how they first met and got together -- McGregor and Peters deftly roam a metatheatrical landscape that's as deliberately self-conscious as it is off-the-cuff funny. The effect is rather like watching a Pirandello play as reimagined by Monty Python.
In on It pushes metatheatrics to extremes, creating an atmosphere that's both comic and sinister. The play-within-a-play scenes, marked by the abrupt use of spotlights and the type of wooden acting most commonly associated with daytime television soaps, are as over-the-top as the actors' cartoonlike take on the comedy double act. Donning a jacket, each performer has a turn playing Raymond King, a man who loses first his health and then his wife, before causing a fatal road accident. The artifice of these scenes is further underscored by the blocking: Instead of facing each other while delivering the story of Ray's sad existence, the two face outward and speak their lines directly to the audience. Meanwhile, the moments that take place in "the past" are kept firmly within the theatrical four walls. The two characters bicker about the banalities of everyday life, yet ironically, the forced realism of these moments makes them feel more remote to us than the stagy "play" and "show" sections.
MacIvor's whirling dialogue and punctilious directing combined with punch-drunk performances from McGregor and Peters suggest a world in which reality might be defined as one of those hackneyed vaudeville routines, the weakness of the punch line offset by the manager yanking the comedians offstage with a curly-topped walking cane. Things don't end properly here; they just stop. We're not sure whether to laugh at or feel pity for these clowns. When it comes down to it, the double act really isn't that funny at all: The comics, with their opposing viewpoints, merely provide different ways of coping with pain.
Mel Brooks once famously said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die." This intimate duality between comedy and tragedy is what the traditional straight man/funny man unit so beautifully dramatizes. The development and growth in popularity of the buddy movie, with its general disregard for the catastrophic in favor of two likable guys or gals being equally funny as they work toward the same basic goal, has left us anesthetized -- without an ability to differentiate clearly between the hilarious and the horrific. With its poster image of McGregor and Peters looking like the smiling and scowling faces of the classical tragic-comic mask, In on It re-establishes a vital connection between the two sides and reminds us just how removed we've become from understanding the conflicting impulses within ourselves. Reality is buried somewhere deep in the basement of MacIvor's metatheatrical fun house. To find it is to follow precise coordinates, where Maria Callas and Lesley Gore meet.
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