Third Rail Repertory's Dead Funny is the company's first show in their new home at downtown's World Trade Center Theater, after several enviably successful seasons at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. The bigger downtown digs suit the company, which, under the artistic direction of Slayden Scott Yarbrough, consistently pairs intelligent scripts with a top-notch ensemble.
In Dead Funny, British playwright Terry Johnson takes a look at the age-old subject of problems in the marital bed, with a twist: While Eleanor (Maureen Porter) is determined to fix their rocky relationship, her husband Richard (Tim True) is more moved by the death of comedian Benny Hill than the demise of his marriage. Richard is a member of a club devoted to the appreciation of British music hall comedy, much to Eleanor's dismay. Eleanor doesn't share her husband's appreciation for the hokey routines and gimmicks of old-time comedy, prompting Richard to declare that she doesn't have a sense of humor. She does, though—it's just utterly black, as befitting a woman whose husband has distanced himself both emotionally and physically.
The show veers from pathos to slapstick, as Eleanor attempts to confront the couple's problems head on while Richard disingenuously retreats into the comforting routines of a breed of comedian that is quite literally a dying one. Those routines seep into the couple's life, as Eleanor finds herself cast as the ball-busting battleaxe in the slapstick farce that her marriage has become.
The character-driven script seems tailored to the strengths of this company: the eminently likeable Maureen Porter tempers her character's bitterness with genuine longing; Tim True concisely evokes a man who has become numb to the circumstances of his life, doing nothing instead of doing the right thing; and John Steincamp is fantastic as a goodhearted gay neighbor whose flamboyance masks a painful vulnerability.
Dead Funny is genuinely funny and at times rather shocking, in a Harry Potter-in-Equus sort of way. The show inhabits an unhappy intersection of slapstick and melodrama, setting costumes and artifice against emotional pain and physical nudity—and in handling the material with sophistication and intelligence, Third Rail once again delivers the high level of entertainment audiences have come to expect.