It was the best of times, it was the funniest of times

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 8, 2013

“All the Great Books (Abridged)” is a great way to open the new Lee Street Theater on North Lee Street.
The show is fast-paced, funny, clever. It stars three actors who have comedy — and ad libs — in their blood. And if they missed anything on opening night, it was so speedy, no one would have noticed. Of course, these three, who starred last year in “The Complete History of America (Abridged),” bounce off each other like Silly Putty.
Artistic director Justin Dionne was beaming all night, and he was kind enough to give actors Jacob Asher, Jason Roland and Brian Romans co-directing credit.
He said something opening night about how great it was to have them in the first show, because he knew they could take care of themselves while he dashed about fundraising and whatnot.
Take care of themselves they did, and they’ll take care of you, leaving your laugh muscles tired from their antics and the ridiculously linked 84 great books. The playwrights, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor with additional material by Matthew Croke and Michael Faulkner (and Romans, Roland and Asher) deserve an A+ for this compilation, as if “The Complete History of America” wasn’t funny enough.
Beware the flying puns, which will leave you groaning, and the weird melange of all the great books. “War and Peace” consumes the second act, along with so many others it’s hard to count. The simply silly props and the frequent and even sillier costume changes add a lot.
Here’s the concept — an auditorium full of remedial readers who need to catch up before graduations — in an hour. Of course you, the audience, are the students. Coach, played by Roland, comes out whistling the group to attention. He is assisted by the drama teacher, Romans, naturally, and student teacher Asher. The literature professor is indisposed.
That’s all you need to know. They’ll provide all the Cliffs Notes, the asides, the orphan quotes, the obvious references and the weird juxtapositions. The lines are so fast and funny that as soon as you think, “Oh that was the best one,” here comes 10 or 12 more.
Their treatment of Dickens’ novels and soap opera titles was perfect.
Helpful to those who are a little behind in their reading is the syllabus, included in the program so you know what books to expect. If you have read any of them, or even seen movies based on them, you’ll laugh with recognition and then astonishment at their treatment of the, uh, dull (“Walden”) and the classic journeys, “The Iliad,” “The Odyssey” and “The Aeneid.” But it’s not all Greek to you — it’s Irish and British and American, and Roman and poetry and children’s books and romances and tragedies and long books you were supposed to have read, but never finished (“Moby Dick” was my nemesis).
And more.
The first act is an hour, but it seems to zing by in about 10 minutes. Then you get a blessed 15-minute intermission to catch your breath and write your midterm — seriously. The second act is about an hour, too, which is good, because “War and Peace” has grown to more than 500,000 pages.
The last bit where they’re forced to wrap it all up, is a marvel — Asher had to remember, or approximate, a series of literary one-liners while Romans and Roland toss books at him. If that’s not athletic, I don’t know what is.
The theater lobby-box-office-bar area is brightly lit and lively. The performing space very flexible. This show has audiences on three sides, but because the chairs are on movable platforms, you could arrange many configurations. Theater volunteers wisely saved some front-row seats for those who cannot climb the stairs. The sightlines are clear and the audience can feel part of the performance, as they sometimes are in this show, or they can sit quietly and watch. It’s hard to imagine not laughing during this whirlwind of erudition.
The play has a sponsor, Trinity Oaks, and the set, designed by Chris Speer (he did the lighting, too) has a sponsor, too, Central Carolina Insurance Agency. Familiar Lee Street faces worked the house and the box office and the bar.
Opening night was sold out, and if you, like many, need a break from politics and bad economic news, “All the Great Books (Abridged)” is just for you. One thing worth mentioning is that this is not a show for children, with some salty language and some suggestive bits.
In 25 years or so, the great books list may change, but this one is classic and fairly contemporary. Exercise your jaw and your belly before you go — that laughter is quite a workout.