Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Written by Andy Bayiates and Aaron Muñoz.
Directed by Nathan Keepers
Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Lowell, MA) Since the advent of the movie industry, we only pay money to see fat men on the silver screen if we can laugh at them. This has invited a parade of tortured souls willing to be crying-on-the-inside clowns in exchange for riches and some measure of acceptance. Too often, however, these jesters (John Belushi, Chris Farley, etc.) break down, and we celebrate the tragedy of a “brilliant life cut short” while waiting for the next heavy man waiting in the wings.
The first in line in this tragicomic parade was Fatty Arbuckle, a silent film star who defined slapstick and launched the career of Buster Keaton before his career succumbed to his lifestyle of excess. As the excellent script of “Lost Laughs: The Slapstick Tragedy of Fatty Arbuckle” reveals, however, Arbuckle took others down with him as he circled the drain.
This production tells the life of Arbuckle with the perfect pacing of a well-oiled vaudeville act, with script co-writer Aaron Muñoz providing a confident portrayal of the celebrated star, and Kristen Mengelkoch (“Will”) superbly portraying a conglomerate of all the other important people in Arbuckle’s orbit, from Buster Keaton to his three wives. The two actors are generous with each other on stage, and are always there for each other at every beat, making the play feel like one long and successful trust fall of comedy. And under the deft direction of Nathan Keepers, the action on stage somehow maintains the perfect balance of being entertaining while still giving the underlying tragedy its full due.
This play would have settled in nicely as an earnestly staged, but possibly forgettable, bio, but instead Andy Bayiates and Aaron Muñoz chose to break from the rules of the world they created to turn the spotlight away from the male star and towards Virginia Rappe, a model and actress who died while sharing a bedroom with Arbuckle during a boozy party. Rappe, who has been reduced to a historical footnote as the woman whose death derailed Arbuckle’s career, is given a powerful #metoo moment, as she describes her life and her long, painful death; Rappe tried and failed over several days to enlist men to get her adequate medical care.
There is ample room in this production to feel sympathy to Arbuckle’s career troubles after Rappe’s death and horror at the men (including Arbuckle) who allowed Rappe to die drugged and alone at a hotel room from a ruptured bladder. And it is this feeling of horror which has stayed with me long after the laughs have faded.