It comes as a surprise to non-theater people, but though it's embarrassingly easy to get an audience to cry, making them laugh out loud is back-breaking work. With a drama, a quiet audience is usually a good sign, but with a comedy, you get an immediate evaluation after every single joke.
Judging from the audience reaction to F.J. Hartland's Shuffle, Ball Change ... and Die!, receiving its world premiere via the Red Masquers of Duquesne University, I'd say that report card is nothing but A-pluses.
True, it was an easy house on opening night, when most of the audience were friends and classmates of the cast. But truer still is that Hartland has written a damned funny play.
If I'm to be ruthlessly honest, I should probably say that Shuffle, Ball isn't really a play: It's an extended skit set in a small-town dance studio where someone is bumping off the baby ballerinas. Normally, the fact that a longish skit has been expanded into a two-act play would leave me sullen and pouty, but Hartland is far from a normal playwright. He is Pittsburgh's premier gagmeister, blessed with the ability to pull laughs of thin air. In truth, this skit had to be extended just to hold all the jokes.
In a Hartland play, we usually zip along through the gags until somewhere in the second act, when he introduces something nasty under all the humor. Quite frankly, I always have trouble with the abrupt switch of tone. But in Shuffle, Ball, the nastiness is stated almost upfront and quickly becomes part of the play's texture. And that, dramaturgically, is why this play "works."
As Hartland skips down the merry path of rewrites, I would suggest that he leaven some of the cartoonish aspects of the characters (especially the OCD sufferer and the woman who speaks only in clichés; a little of that goes a long way). But Shuffle, Ball is really just an excuse to have fun.
And also a chance to teach students how to work a comedy. This script is a master class for anyone interested in learning how to build and land a joke. I am pleasantly surprised by how well this young cast, under the polished direction of John E. Lane Jr., handle the comedy, especially the quirky physical stuff. A little more attention to cue-pick and pace, and this cast, and director, will land this funny new play with a punch.
Shuffle, Ball Change ... and Die! continues through Sun., April 24. Peter Mills Theater, Rockwell Hall, Duquesne University campus, Uptown. 412-396-4997