PEI’s fringe theatre imports often consist primarily of whatever lands in the Island Fringe Festival each summer; but new local company Desert Island Theatre marks a fresh and funny departure from that pattern with off-season oddball script Punch Up, written by Kat Sandler and first staged by Theatre Brouhaha at 2014’s Toronto Fringe Festival.
This oddly dark comedy sounds like the setup of a joke: The most pathetic man ever kidnaps the funniest man alive to make the saddest girl in the world laugh. Our pathetic guy is socially maladjusted factory worker Duncan (played by co-producer and company founder Benton Hartley), the funniest man alive is embittered former TV comic Pat Wallace (Rob MacDonald), and the sad girl is despairingly tragedy-prone Brenda (Morgan Wagner).
Brenda is about to commit suicide when she’s randomly interrupted by Duncan, who falls in love with her at first sight and tries to talk her out of it, suggesting the healing power of laughter. When Brenda pleads immunity to mirth, Duncan strikes a bargain with her: If he can make her laugh, she’ll go on living – but if he can’t, he’ll kill her.
A dinner date is scheduled to settle the matter, and a desperate Duncan seeks guidance from Pat. Once part of a successful comedy duo with his wife, Pat has been a wreck since she dumped him and headed off to solo TV stardom in Hollywood. He’s still doing standup comedy (albeit badly), but these days Pat mostly ekes out a living by “punching up” other people’s material, making their writing funnier.
Duncan abducts Pat and chains him to a typewriter in his basement so Pat can help plan Duncan’s comedic dinner date; however, even setting aside Pat’s natural reluctance to help his kidnapper, the teacher soon realizes his student is strictly funny as in odd rather than funny as in ha-ha. Clueless weirdo Duncan can be accidentally amusing on occasion, but he has zero capacity for deliberate comedy.
Sandler’s script is unsettling and hysterically funny, sometimes simultaneously. The character of Pat in particular embodies this dichotomy; he’s a bitter, broken man (and some of his gratuitously profane, graphic dialogue is perhaps the least appealing part of the show), but part of him still wants to make people laugh, so he gradually joins Duncan’s rescue mission in spite of himself.
Arguably all three characters are mentally ill – and Sandler’s script seems conscious of that and the complications that come with it – but it’s also a play where all the characters are likable and ultimately sympathetic despite their flaws, a deftly executed balancing act.
A great cast makes that smart script come alive, notably comic veterans Hartley and MacDonald playing roles infused with both comedy and drama. MacDonald’s Pat is a riot but he’s also poignantly pathetic, while Hartley’s Duncan flips back and forth between genially love-struck dork and darkly unstable captor with disarming ease (even if a prop mishap does leave Hartley fleetingly corpsing at a critical moment).
A mutedly morose Wagner is desolation personified for much of the play – an ideal evocation of Brenda’s bleak backstory – but ably shows a wider range as other aspects of Brenda manifest. Like Brenda, Punch Up has hidden depths, and producer Hartley plus co-producer Grace Kimpinski and company have staged a show that plumbs those depths entertainingly and adroitly.