Whimsy and weirdness—what delicate qualities! Each one's as fragile as an Amazonian tree frog; if the environment goes sour, such humor just…suffocates. Such is the case with Olivia Dufault's The Tomb of King Tot, though the black comedy does begin extremely well. After a marvelous first sequence, the piece tries to turn from silliness towards the macabre. Real bleakness poisons the project, overwhelms its system. Be warned, little satire: Tonal shifts can kill.
Cartoonist Jane (Annie McNamara), whose comic King Tot is sub–Hagar the Horrible stuff, churns out cheerfully terrible strips by the dozen. The production does a clever job of staging Jane's imagined cartoons: Carolyn Mraz's set includes three-panel drops that frame the antics of two simple puppets. These hang from the heads of Jane's family—Jane pictures her husband Porter (Nick Choksi) as Tot's trusty slave-cum-vizier, while her belligerent daughter Atlanta (Bianca Crudo) sulks as the boy king. Egypt's nine-year-old pharaoh wants a pet sphinx? “It's a cat-astrophe!” shouts the slave, while Jane chuckles at her desk. Such modest gems have brought her to the notice of the mighty Lionel Feather (Brad Bellamy), authority on all comics in “eastern New England,” and Jane may now snatch the coveted Laughing Willow award from rival Kissy (Carmen M. Herlihy). Triumph is close, but a little thing—just a tiny thing—derails her. Her daughter kills herself.
Portia Krieger's production has to be judged in two sections: the superb first half-hour and the punchdrunk awkwardness of the last 40 minutes. In that first section, McNamara and Herlihy do darling, broad caricatures; Choksi's timing could be studied in clown college; Crudo adds a perfect note of astringency as a teenage creep. But no one knows what to do with the material once Atlanta's dead.
There's an intention here to talk about how grief sharpens comedy and how tiny pleasures lessen titanic pain. Yet these are intentions only. Dufault states them but doesn't develop or integrate them. Instead, the writer jerks so rapidly between gratuitous awfulness (the coroner breaks Atlanta's legs) and daffiness (Kissy is competitive!) that we feel the vehicle's out of control, and can't trust the driver. Dufault eventually stamps on the brakes with an abrupt ending about acceptance, which seems insane given the events of the play. Where did all Dufault's early confidence go? Why does the second half feel so rushed? It may be that we're still seeing a work in process: first panels beautifully drawn, but the late ones still seem like sketches.
Wild Project (Off-Off Broadway). By Oliva Dufault. Directed by Portia Krieger. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 10mins. No intermission.