Present Laughter: Playwrights Are Amping Up the Camp, the Surreal, the Loosey-Goosey

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TOUGH ECONOMIC TIMES. Environmental disasters. Wars, famine, plagues. American democracy going to hell in a handbag.

Lord, we need some laughs. We might even require round-the-clock, intravenous laughter therapy when the going gets toughest.

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Theoretically, this is the perfect moment for a new wave of theatrical comedy. We're already in something of a golden age of cable-news satire, with shrewd jesters like Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann and Stephen Colbert finding the funny in a continuous tsunami of bad tidings.

Sophomoric buddy flicks and ditzy romantic film comedies are resurging at the cineplex, too. And online, one can while away the hours, mesmerized by and chortling at dumb human pranks, stupid animal tricks and silly/ingenious mini-musicals staged in offices, mall atriums, subways, wherever, by outfits like NYC's Improv Everywhere.

Yet how about the theatre, where a writer can actually stretch out and spin a story, a saga, instead of rifling off a joke or two--and, you know, maybe say something about human nature and the way we live now?

From my vantage point, there is indeed such a stage comedy renaissance underway, fueled by a burgeoning crop of younger playwrights. It has taken root in some high-profile regional houses (where the "comedy slot" on the season is still often filled by classical farces and time-tested romps), and fleetingly on Broadway (where neither "legit" comedy nor musical comedy rule supreme anymore).

But in midsized, small and sub-fringe venues around the country, there's often contemporary comedy on the marquee. Nimble playwrights are taking the measure of our time with wit at the ready, and adopting Pirandello's credo: "In view of the human condition, the only sustainable posture is one of humor."

The best of these up-and-coming writers are pursuing mirth boldly, buoyantly, incisively, with an ear tuned to the present but with a firm grasp of the universal fundamentals of rib-tickling--and the universal need to wrest laughter from public and private agony.

What's so funny on stage today? What's the an courant comic sensibility? Here are a few notable aspects of it:

Camp and Snark

These two prevalent aesthetics have been fully absorbed into all aspects of pop culture. First came camp, which is--let the late cultural arbiter Susan Sontag remind us--a celebration of "artifice, frivolity, naive middle-class pretentiousness, and 'shocking' excess."

In an America of uncloseted homosexuality and open fascination with sexual difference and ambiguity--not to mention mountains of self-conscious kitsch and endless celebrity antics--camp theatrics have gone mainstream. They're more eroticized (and at times much deeper, in terms of intellect and social relevance) than when camp seemed to be all about making fun of Tallulah Bankhead and Busby Berkeley. Heaven knows, now anything goes--and a glimpse of some guy in stockings is hardly shocking anymore (or in itself funny).

In terms of drag, some current stage scribes like John Fisher (in his cross-epochal camp-fests like Medea: The Musical) arc blithely following in. the high-heeled footprints of the great Charles Ludlam and his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and of Ludlam's talented heir, Charles Busch. In another vein, Jordan Harrison's thoughtful comedy Act a Lady takes things further by imagining how the male population of an entire small town becomes beguiled by cross-dressing.

But we're seeing that playwrights don't need switcheroo dress-up to take an arch wink at gender politics. In the well-traveled Pageant Play by Matthew Wilkas and Mark Setlock, two male actors quick-change between the roles of flamboyantly gay child-beauty-contest consultants and butch husbands--demonstrating how little distance there actually is between the two stances. …