It is hard to write a dramatic story involving stand-up comedians, mainly because it requires good jokes. Everyone remembers Punchline, the Tom Hanks movie about the gritty backstage world of standup, right? No, of course not. If you’re going to write a story about comedians, it has to be funny. As with that old story about Chekhov’s gun, if you set something up, you have to provide a payoff.
Stephen Sinclair’s Success manages to tackle that issue by having three veteran actors with stand-up backgrounds. According to his mission statement in the show notes, the three players were allowed to develop their own routines and comic personae, using their characters as inspiration. The results are a significant part of what makes Success such a, uh, well you know what I mean.
The story goes something like this: Carl Evans (Jeremy Elwood), a world-famous stand-up has returned to New Zealand for a series of tour dates. His return re-opens old wounds with his old friends Jules (Stephen Papps) and Derek (John Glass), fellow comics who have had to adjust their comic aspirations alongside everyday hurdles like a regular job (Jules), or relationships (a concept applied very loosely to Derek). When the famous comedian is accused of rape by a former audience member at one of his US gigs, Carl hides out at Jules and Derek’s home. As the press lay siege outside, the three men are forced into a series of confrontations – with each other, and with themselves.
The performances from Elwood, Glass and Papps are all excellent — there are no weak links here, and they all show an equal affinity for riffing on the audience’s occasionally sub-par attention (kudos to the late arrival who triggered one of the best laughs of the night).
The play takes place within the confines of Jules and Derek’s living room. Periodically, the action is interrupted by the character’s stand-up performances – a scene change accomplished by the simple act of dimming the lights to simulate a night club or larger venue.
The stand-up itself is great. All three performers deliver routines that feel real and funny, but more importantly, they feel like extensions of the characters they are playing. It is a brave conceit, delivered perfectly.
Overall, Success is an exceptional serio-comic piece, with a wit and heart that turns would could have been a simple gimmick into something both profound and hilarious.Success plays at The Basement until 7 August. Details see The Basement.