Clarence Brown Theatre's 'Fuddy Meers': A Minor Riot of Absurdist Modern Comedy

Fuddy Meers is a comedy about cognitive dysfunction, but don't go with a grim sense of duty and a checkbook. It is not an appeal for greater awareness for dementia or posttraumatic stress disorder, with a website that shows how you can help. It's a comedy—almost old-fashioned, in a way, the sort of comedy that used to suggest quaint adjectives like "madcap" and "screwball." Its absurdism cavorts somewhere on the continuum between Ionesco and the Marx Brothers. The most provocative point in the play Fuddy Meers may be that the happiest character is the one who does not remember yesterday.

The Clarence Brown company is a well-endowed, semiprofessional troupe associated with a theater program whose reputation is more than regional. Everything they do is a polished production, interestingly staged, and generally well-acted. It would be weird, maybe unforgiveable, if they turned out something that was a real dud. The biggest criticism we've ever been able to throw at them lately, and make it stick, is that their choice of plays is so well known. But give them credit when they try something fresher.

Fuddy Meers, which came out in 1999, isn't fresh off the presses, but its playwright is still younger than most of the audience who turned out at the Carousel the night we saw it last week. It's one of the earliest plays of David Lindsay-Abaire, better known recently for the Pulitzer-winning (and motion picture-adapted) Rabbit Hole.

Fuddy Meers gets its name from a stroke victim's pronunciation of "funny mirrors," and to some extent the play is a series of funhouse-mirror takes on family and society. At the center is Claire, a woman who, as a result of some trauma unnamed in the first act, lives with severe amnesia. She can learn some new things, but only for a day. She has to be reintroduced to her family each morning. Rather than tragic, the way we invariably portray victims of dementia, Claire seems eternally refreshed, childlike, curious about this crazy new world with which she's presented each morning.

You don't need a particularly philosophical turn of mind to sit there wondering if maybe her fate wouldn't be such a bad thing for any of us, maybe the answer to all life's unsolvable problems. Cancer, debt, traffic, global warming, nuclear terrorism, hate radio, it might just all seem kind of interesting if only we didn't have a memory of things seeming better, or of long-laid plans, or of ideals disappointed. Are memories our greatest burden?

Soon enough, though, we realize that all the characters have loose screws—all of them very different screws—and that they're also all connected in ways they don't acknowledge at first. It dawns on us toward the end of the first act that Fuddy Meers is not just a comedy, but also a mystery.

All the actors, directed by John Sipes, deliver colorful and engaging performances. CBT veterans like David Brian Alley (as the frantic Richard), Neil Friedman (as the ventriloquist-convict Millet), and Carol Mayo Jenkins (as the stroke-victim mother Gertie), turn in characteristically sculptural performances. (Jenkins' script must have been especially difficult to learn, because only a few of her lines contain any recognizable English words.)

Well-traveled newcomer Jefferson Slinkard carries the key role of the Limping Man. Students Conrad Ricamora and Suzanne Ankrum bring energetic performances to some roles that, as the story unfolds, turn out to be much more complex than we'd assumed.

Magan Wiles, portraying amnesiac as ingénue, may not have the toughest role, in terms of range, but she is the most affecting. The play is frankly chaotic, and a few people left at intermission, muttering that the play didn't make any sense. The play's vulnerable to criticisms concerning coherence. And if asked to give it a rewrite, I might well suggest reconsidering the sock puppet.

But I have the impression that many more stayed because they wanted to find out what happened to Claire, who, despite her major disability, is the light in the middle of the chaos. And the interesting denouement, unguessable at intermission, is worth the wait.

The venerable Carousel offers seating three-quarters of the way around this time, and doing so allows some interesting techie tricks. The stagecraft, meant to evoke shared circa 1960s memories, is clever, and includes a genius touch, a way of getting by the obligatory opening announcement, that you just have to see. They should enter it in a festival, in the Loony Short Film category.