Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore’s Silent Laughter offers up more word fun than you’d expect, though verbal wit plays only a bit part in this staging of a 1920s-style silent movie. Here, slapstick’s the star—and a diva at that.
The story never wavers from its predictable roots in melodrama: Brave-hearted tramp rescues rich maiden from leering villain and wins all. Yet surprises abound in the production’s inspired physical comedy, which repeatedly toys with and upsets our expectations. In one tour-de-force routine, for example, our hero essays many hilarious maneuvers to lift the unconscious heroine into bed, including licking her to make her stick and rolling her like a log.
Twenty-five-cent bags of popcorn in the lobby and flickering projected images of old New York reinforce the early-20th-century moviegoing experience. So do the clever design team’s deliberately klutzy props and witty costumes, appropriately all in black-and-white. Ralph Ringstad’s energetic organ accompaniment, almost a character in itself, bellows, growls, and simpers with the action.
While Silent Laughter sends up the genre’s traditions, it does so with genuine affection. Although a few modern allusions fall flat, many racy double entendres work—including a running routine about a mincing dandy and real fruitcake on a plate. As for that dash of verbal play: While our heroine lounges dejectedly, waiting for her date, a title card reads, “Stood up, Ruth sits.”
Van Zandt directs the uproarious proceedings with precision and flair. He and Milmore play the romantic leads in this ensemble of 10, which executes gifted mime, balletic pratfalls, and operatic emotions, all with brio. Although some obligatory gags—pies in the face, chases on skates—make for the occasional draggy moment, this is one crowd-pleaser where you needn’t feel embarrassed to be part of the crowd.