By Steve Drum
Third-year dramatic writing major Tyler Stuart turns dark subject matter into a sharp comedy in his play, “The Practice Child,” which was shown at the Mondanaro Theater in Crites Hall last weekend.
The story of a young man diagnosed with a brain tumor becomes a raucous comedy of an eccentric, misguided family with opportunities for laughter found in the most dreadful circumstances.
Though the show is lighthearted, Stuart shows a clear respect for the subject of terminal illness in Bill, the story’s afflicted moral center. Played with a wry wink by fourth-year performing arts major Dylan Travers, Bill’s sense of humor gives the audience permission to laugh at the uncomfortable. Travers’ Bill is charming under duress, kind to the unkind and accepting of his fate. He is the best projection of ourselves, grounding the audience in a frightening sentiment that his story could be similar to anyone’s.
Tom Ciarleglio, a fourth-year performing arts major, plays Bill’s older brother, Blil (yes, that’s his name), with an adorable naivete, encroaching boundaries that come close to impersonating the mentally retarded before – thankfully – restraining himself. The titular “practice child,” Blil is the dry-run son of Stuart’s monstrous matriarch, Shirley.
Before Bill came along as Shirley’s golden boy, Blil was the neglected babe, with comic references to constant emotional and physical abuse, all of which supposedly prepared her to do right by her second child.
The problem is that Shirley is still a terrible mother to both of her children when we meet her in Bill’s hospital room. She is a caricature of bitterness and selfishness; ignoring the needs of the story’s structure that she favors one boy over the other. Shirley allows Bill’s brain surgery, the story’s climax, to be performed by a another caricature of medical malpractice who can’t remember his patient’s condition or name from one moment to the next.
It isn’t entirely clear what Stuart is trying to say with these infantile adults or the consummate trust and forgiveness our protagonist shows them. The play seems to want to live in the world of Nicky Silver or Edward Albee, where the dark and twisted are given an apocalyptic commitment, leaving its audience unsure of whether to laugh or cringe.
The stakes of Stuart’s comedy are colored with a similar drama. Too often, however, the comedy strays into the rhythm of a sitcom, getting the laughs it desires, while the meaning behind the farce is left to flounder.
Stuart’s writing is crisp and the jokes do work. But when his punchlines weren’t a matter of life or death, some of the humor started to feel like a laugh track.
Overall, “The Practice Child” hits all the major points one would expect of a comedy that leans toward the dark side. But one can only hope that for Stuart, practice will make perfect.
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