Those oldies but goodies remind me of … vaudeville. Hokey, corny, well-worn – you can throw all these names at it, and I wouldn’t argue. But something in us has to laugh when a performer slips on a banana peel just the right way, especially if we know it’s coming. The old shtick works.
There are no banana peels in “The Big Time: New Vaudeville for the Holidays,” but there’s just about everything else – chases and misidentifications, quick changes and rolling eyes, barbershop singing and plenty of mime, sound-effect jokes and light-hearted songs, juggling and balloon-popping, even a classic richly-built sketch from 1910 about a lawyer and a divorce.
It’s a delight, a holiday gift from 1812 Production’s, the city’s professional theater company devoted to comedy. When the company did its first and only other “Big Time” vaudeville show in 2001, the late theater and film critic Desmond Ryan had the best take on things: Some of the jokes, he wrote, “are so ancient that they arguably ought to be delivered by an archaeologist instead of a comedian.” That’s the secret, he ventured, of the show’s success.
In a sense, the five performers delivering “The Big Time” are archaeologists; even the show’s original material seems to be written and performed as it would have been a century ago. I was struck by how funny and enduring these simple skits are – the old and the new ones. (Plus, Plays & Players Theatre, a hundred years old, is just the right spot for the show.) It makes me wonder whether anyone in ancient Greece ever staged a double-take gassy-stomach joke in the agora and people laughed and slapped their knees and said, “Oh, that Eurystheus, what a corker!” or something Greek to that effect.
The versatile Jennifer Childs, 1812 Productions’ artistic director, created and directed “The Big Time” and performs in it, along with four other busy theater artists: her husband Scott Greer, an all-around talent who can make you laugh just by opening his eyes wide; Dave Jadico, an expressive actor with perfect comic timing; Tony Braithwaite, the impish artistic director of Act II Playhouse and the headliner in this vaudeville show; and Greg Nix, a writer and actor (and tenor) who is the emcee. With his smile alone, Nix could save the company money on stage lighting. And the smiles from the audience would do the rest.
“The Big Time: New Vaudeville for the Holidays” runs through Dec. 31 at Plays & Players Theatre, Delancey Street between 17th and 18th Streets. 215-592-9560, www.1812productions.org.