Miss Witherspoon misses the comedic mark

production of Christopher Durang’s Pulitzer-nominated Miss Witherspoon, but the most provocative and positive element concerns set design.,You may not know much about live theatre, but everyone knows a lot about bad comedy. So does Miss Witherspoon.

There’s much to be said about The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s

production of Christopher Durang’s Pulitzer-nominated Miss Witherspoon, but the most provocative and positive element concerns set design.

Infant dolls hang from the ceiling twisted in contrapposto, a scene straight out of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting.

And yet, below the quasi-satanic, levitating children lies a fantastical stage, splashed with dreamy lights and galactic patterns.

This dichotomy permeates Miss Witherspoon, a goofball play that’s high on over-the-counter philosophy and low on comedy, especially if you happen to be under the age of 64.

The plot concerns the dejected Veronica (Paula Plum), a withered hag whose dissatisfaction with SkyLab, war and Rex Harrison causes her to commit suicide. But because she actively chose not to pick a religion on Earth, Veronica is assigned a Buddhist afterlife upon death.

Now in “Bardo,” a waiting room between reincarnations,

Veronica is dubbed Miss Witherspoon by her spiritual advisor Maryamma. Maryamma determines Veronica’s

aura is too muddled to enable Veronica’s entrance into heaven and, as a result, she is continually sent back to Earth in a variety of forms.

With each new reincarnation,

Veronica descends the caste structure: at first, she’s born into a loving family. In her next life she is trailer trash, and eventually,

she comes back as a dog.

Veronica resists and manipulates

this practice so that she may enter the Jewish heaven, described in the play as “a sort of general anesthetic.”

Over the course of her adventures,

Veronica meets Chicken Little, Gandalf and Jesus, who manifests him-/herself as a boisterous

black woman dressed in her Sunday best.

As far as interpretations

of Jesus go, it’s a pretty offensive turn.

Though it attempts to be satire, Miss Witherspoon quickly and irritatingly becomes farce. Most of Miss Witherspoon is delivered like a Phyllis Diller standup routine. While the older crowd is sure to be thrilled by ruminations of the long forgotten, younger audiences cannot help but feel neglected by antiquated references (i.e. the late Rex Harrison,

star of stage and screen).

The gags that do have the power to resonate universally come across as familiar and cheap, like the bad knockoff of a Mel Brooks knockoff.

For example, as a reincarnated newborn, Veronica dons a bonnet and pokes her aged head through a hole in a makeshift crib. As this woman-baby, Veronica makes “goo-goo ga-ga” noises, milking it more than her mother’s, well, you get the point.

There are plenty of stereotypes to go around, all of them humorless,

some more offensive than others.

That’s not to say Miss Witherspoon

isn’t without its more poignant moments. It serves fundamentally as a counterpoint to No Exit, an existentialist play written by Jean-Paul Sartre (various

characters lament Sartre and his philosophical cohorts).

While No Exit famously proclaims

“hell is other people,” Miss Witherspoon attempts to convey that, though hell may be found in other people, it is our duty as individuals

to quell the fire, spread goodwill and savor the preciousness

of life.

The message is undoubtedly relevant. In an increasingly volatile

world in which full-blown war lurks around every corner, it’s easy for the resolve of individuals

to weaken, in turn fortifying general apathy.

Durang urges his audience that we as individuals can in fact help change the world for good. But how powerful can any message

be when told through the mouths of Gandalf, a mildly offensive

Jesus and Phyllis Diller?

Thornton Wilder conveyed similar ideas in his frequently produced play Our Town.

While Durang clearly admires Wilder (he is quoted and endorsed within the play), Durang’s use of comedy, which one would assume is intended to illuminate and extrapolate Our Town’s significant

ideas, is wholly ineffective.

What passes for humor in Miss Witherspoon only reflects upon the important themes tangentially.

Both humor and substance should be emphasized full force and in harmonic synergy. Miss Witherspoon begs the question: if the core of all good comedy is truth, what is the core of bad comedy?

In Miss Witherspoon, all answers lie with Gandalf.