By: Paulanne Simmons
November 7, 2022: An African American, a Jew and a white guy walk into an office of comedy writers. No this is not the beginning of a joke. It’s the premise of G. D. Kimble’s What Passes for Comedy, a sparkling comedy/drama that confronts racism, privilege, responsibility, our past and our future.
Set some time in the early 60s, all the action takes place behind the scenes of a popular TV comedy show, where the above-mentioned writers struggle to make the show’s host, Jack Harrod (Michael Filisky) and his sidekick and orchestra conductor Bunny Brown (Ryan Brooke Taylor, the emotional core of the show) sound funny. Jack is white and at the top of his game. Bunny is black and also at the top of his game, which still puts him several rungs below Jack. Fortunately, Bunny knows his place.
Tory Browne (Alain Pierre, in a role he handles with ease and honesty), a black Harvard graduate, scorns Bunny and the servility that has brought him success. He tries to get Bunny to act more like Dick Gregory, a popular black comedian and political activist of the time.
Tory is also the match that ignites much of the conflict between the other writers. He resents his white fellow-writer, Will Holly (Andrew O’Shanick) for his casual acceptance of the silver spoon that sits safely in his mouth. He debates the Jewish Adam “Zep” Beber (the very funny Jordan Elman), over the pointless question of who has suffered more, African American or Jews. His self-righteousness is only equaled by his sincerity.
Producer Jerry Schaal (played by Rory Lance, with visceral understanding) has his hands full, especially when Jack accidentally picks up the wrong joke and ends up calling Jews a racial slur. Now Jerry has to deal not only with his touchy writers but the angry public, the FBI, and, worst of all the owner of the TV station, Bob Borden (Stan Buturia), who finally appears and challenges the writers to write a really funny show in a few hours or lose their jobs.
What Passes for Comedy is extremely talky. In fact, it could easily lose half an hour. Yet Kimble is so often on point and the characters are ultimately so real and so likeable that, with Rick Hamilton’s skilled direction, the play does not drag.
This play is refreshingly not solely about white guilt and black victimhood. It is a thoughtful exploration of all sides of the racial issues that continue to plague us today. This is extremely rare in our confrontational, media-driven world. And it is very welcome.
What Passes for Comedy runs through Nov. 19 , 2022 at Chain Theatre, 312 W 36th St. 4th floor. Photography: Reiko Woo