Last week, I had a double dose of English playwright and screenwriter Robert Shearman. First, I sipped on a Twelfth Doctor cocktail while Shearman gave live commentary at The Way Station on his one and only Who episode, series one’s “Dalek.” Then I sat inches from the heavily-trafficked bar cart in the first New York production of his 1992 play, Easy Laughter. With those two pieces of work running around in my brain, I have made one assumption about the man. For being such a congenial gent IRL, Robert Shearman’s sure got a dark side.
Of course, every monologue and piece of dialogue drops a shade darker when delivered by Chris Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor. In fact, Shearman told us that Chris, who was “extraordinary to work with,” did things with the Doctor’s private encounter with the Dalek that the writer never expected. Eccles performed the scene in a “very non-Doctorish way,” which initially horrified Shearman – and then he saw the final product. (Fun fact for all you censorship heads: “Dalek” carries a higher advisory rating than the other episodes in the season because the Doctor purposely tortures the captive Dalek.) Shearman described Eccles as an actor without vanity, remembering that he insisted a take where his forceful delivery generated a pretty gross spit bubble that stayed on his lip not be reshot.
Shearman has the unique honor of being the writer who introduced the Daleks to a modern audience. Obviously, he felt the pressure of the job. “This is the only Doctor Who episode I don’t consider to be canon,” he told us. “Because I know I made it up.” Even watching the full episode that day was an unusual experience for him. He finds it difficult to go back to his own work, and guessed he hadn’t seen “Dalek” in its entirety in almost ten years. (I asked him about Series 8’s “Into the Dalek” and he said he was surprised and flattered that his episode was well-regarded enough to merit a bit of a sequel.) But from the moment the episode kicked off, it was clear that the writer remembered every moment of the process just fine. Even which actors shared their sandwiches (those were his favorites) and which extra broke his confidentiality agreement by selling photos of the updated creatures to a salivating British tabloid press.
Fans have Shearman’s wife to thank for his characterization of the Daleks, especially that “oh shit” moment when one levitates up a flight of stairs. He did his best in his episode to address all the reasons she found the monsters a bit lame; to thank her, the no-nonsense Goddard took her name. Even more adorably, Bywater’s namesake is a schoolmate of Shearman’s, who introduced the writer to the show when they were just 11 years old. Aw.
In the Q&A session, Shearman went on to discuss the mascot-like nature of the modern-day Dalek. Its image has been used to sell practically everything: stuffed toys, salt & pepper shakers, the “I Dalek London” shirt I wore to the bar that day. And that’s disturbing, considering the villains were developed in 1963 to represent the fascist force that held the world in its grasp not two decades before. The Daleks are Nazis. They wield plungers and talk in funny voices, but that doesn’t change their hateful insides.
In Easy Laughter, produced by Dirt [Contained] Theatre Company, Shearman imagines a grotesque future where these ideas have fully taken hold. We meet a wholesome nuclear family unit, who’ve stepped right out of ’50s sitcom: wife Patsy (Maria Swisher), husband Dennis (Michael Broadhurst), son Toby (Jay William Thomas) and daughter Judy (Tana Sirois). Their interactions are both irritatingly effusive and worryingly robotic as they prepare for a holiday that resembles Christmas, but only just. The audience surrounds the action on three sides, the open fourth of the stage housing what we learn is the Christtide tree. As I mentioned earlier, my friends and I were sitting directly behind the bar cart, which was a popular spot as everyone from dad down on to the kids imbibes whiskey heavily throughout the play. I could’ve used a drink myself.
Easy Laughter is an unflinching, pitch-black satire. The horrifying history that made this family what they are unfolds throughout the play, but it takes no exposition to know from the very beginning that something is deeply, deeply wrong here. Patsy is almost vibrating with fear as she waits on her husband, children, and eventually, her visiting father-in-law (Nick Dematteo). Dennis takes confusing pride in being a glorified pencil-pusher; he’s the head of the family unit anyway, as his constant jabs and chastisements remind his wife. But he’s slowly being supplanted by his own son, a Rolf-looking motherfucker whose rosy cheeks and ridiculous short-pants can’t disguise his pulsating ambition and razor-sharp meanness. Little Judy still takes joy in the magic of Christtide and the celebrated miracle whose eventual reveal sent half of my audience into tears of revulsion and shock. Underneath their hearty apologies and compliments (“Thank you very much, indeed.”), the family looks like they’ll begin tearing each other apart at any moment. When the shared values are so in-human, even your loved ones are your enemies.
Shearman wrote the play as a student, and that makes so much sense to me. Easy Laughter goes hard; the idea is executed to extremes. It feels immediate. Subtlety is for the grown-ups, but we idealists don’t have time to fuck around. It’s an audience assault. The Dirt [Contained] production (the play’s first New York staging) fully commits, as do the actors. I was exhausted for them by the end of the piece; that kind of sustained mania has to be depleting, not to mention their very inhabiting of such a monstrous universe. Tana Sirois especially stood out. Casting adults as children doesn’t always work out (though Clifford holds a special place in my heart), but I nearly forgot that Sirois wasn’t actually 8-years-old. Stephen Massaro’s direction uses the space nicely, making the audience looking in on the Simpson family holiday about as uncomfortable as we could be. (Thanks, man.) After the well-earned but subdued bows, we filed out of the theater, barely looking at each other the whole way.
Easy Laughter ended its run, but you can still support by voting for the production in the New York Innovative Theatre Awards.