A Grim Giggle at Giving in “The After-Dinner Joke”

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Photo care of Christopher McKenzie

Presented by Whistler in the Dark Theatre
By Carol Churchill
Directed by Meg Taintor

November 7-24, 2013
The Charlestown Working Theatre
442 Bunker Hill Street
Charlestown, MA 02129
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Review by Gillian Daniels

(Charlestown) A system has been built around giving to the poor and helping the needy.  Whistler in the Dark’s The After-Dinner Joke is a bleak comedy lampooning a culture that’s been created around charity: those who give to it, those who decide where the money goes, and those still in need when the giving is done.  It’s a show full of pratfalls and particularly British moments of social observation.  The titular joke, however, is overshadowed by grim realizations about human nature.

Meredith Stypinski plays Selby, a young English woman bent on proving her selflessness to the world.  Her employer (in one of Lorna Nogueira’s many stand-out performances) is pleased to hear the reasons why she wants to quit her job and offers her a chance at being a part of his charity.  He asks only that she remains thoroughly un-political.

The rest of the ensemble, Melissa Barker, Bob Mussett, and Joseph D. Freeman, are set in showing her just how political charity can be.  They’re “kindly” old women, bemused rich people, and enthusiastic participants in fund raisers.  All deliver tight performances, but Nogueira exhibits the greatest deal of flexibility whether she’s an eccentric pop star or a petulant toddler.

Stypinski is the only actor in the play stuck in a single role, but it’s a particularly complex one.  Selby is merciless about getting others to show mercy, idealistic but also idle.  She’s mature in her aims to better the conditions of society, whatever conditions those may be, but childish in what she does to succeed her goals. There’s a certain frailty beneath her skin even when Selby stands firm in her beliefs.  Stypinski carries off the contradictions of her character with ease.

She reflects a show that in and of itself is a contradiction.  Director Meg Taintor delivers a humorous story with searing wit. It has great visual gags and hilarious video interludes, but the aftertaste is a dark one.

Selby arrives at some disturbing conclusions about what charity is and isn’t.  These doubts are specifically highlighted through conversations she has through out the show with a jaded political activist (Barker) who has a passion for snakes.  Their discussion implies a very thin line between cold-blooded reptiles and warm-hearted humans.  The punchlines in The After-Dinner Joke may become as icy as the oncoming winter, but humor has always been a clever route to honesty, and for audiences willing to brave the weather, it’s a route worth taking.

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