I've always cherished two old New Yorker cartoons about Hollywood and antiquity.
In one, hundreds of extras are sprawled on couches during a Roman banquet; the caption reads, "I hope they have to retake this orgy - the cherry cobbler is delicious."
In the other, a harassed slave is dashing, hand clasped to forehead, out of an Egyptian throne room. The caption? "What a day! Now she wants an asp!"
The spirit of these cartoons lives in the sketch-like farce "Epic Proportions" at the Helen Hayes.
It is the conceit of "Epic Proportions" that D. W. DeWitt (read Cecil B. DeMille) is taking forever to make an ancient epic out in the sands of Arizona in the early 1930s. The extras are getting restless, while DeWitt himself (Richard B. Shull) is hunkered down inside a pyramid watching porn on a moviola.
Spirits have to be kept up and ordered maintained by cheery, chipper Louise, the extra coordinator, half camp counselor and half cruise director ("You're an angry mob but not an unforgiving mob"), played with brassy comic aplomb by Kristin Chenoweth (of last season's "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown").
The marcelled Chenoweth does the naive bit well - as when, for instance, she tells the extras that they can bring any problems to her because "my flap is always open." Chin titled upwards, Chenoweth gazes with straight-faced and wide-eyed innocence as the laugh builds.
Yukmeister Jerry Zaks directs "Epic Proportions" with an unashamed, vaudevillian contempt for subtlety; the lewd revue humor is socked across with mugging leers that make Zaks' earlier "Guys and Dolls" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" look like Racine.
The wee thread of plot that (barely) holds together the zany sketches is centered on two brothers working as extras and getting involved with Louise.
Dark-haired Phil (Jeremy Davidson) is an ambitious schemer eager to cozy up to Louise in order to get into a higher group of extras that gets pudding with dinner. When he becomes an assistant director, he dumps her.
His blond brother Benny (Alan Tudyk) is a sad-sack, put-upon sweet guy who winds up with the girl. Tudyk, like Chenoweth, uses a faux-naive range of reactions well; he was the star last year of Paul Rudnick's "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told," another Biblico-classical be-togaed parody.
Rudnick's farce had something on its mind (gay needling) and forgot to be funny; here, writers Larry Coen and David Crane (co-creator of "Friends") have nothing on their minds but laughs. In a comedy contest between propaganda and empty-headedness, the latter wins.
Ruth Williamson makes a hilariously horny Cleopatra, and with her drolly elongated face is a hoot in many roles here: as Cleo, as the bedraggled actress playing Cleo, and as the Sapphic costumer Cochette. She's a character comedienne with perfect pitch.
As a season-starter, "Epic Proportions" is like a martini; it's not dinner, but it's fun.
The sprawling biblical narrative of the sort that Cecil B. De Mille used to whip up is the cinematic genre being spoofed in ''Epic Proportions,'' the flailing attempt at a comedy that opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater. But it's understandable if you find yourself thinking of another type of popular melodrama from a bygone era, the kind in which the winsome heroine is cruelly held captive and tortured while she strains to stay plucky and hopeful as she prays for deliverance. For there before you, smiling as though her life depended upon it, is Kristin Chenoweth, the undersize actress with the outsize presence who walked away with last season's revival of ''You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.''
Ms. Chenoweth, bless her heart, is imprisoned in a relentlessly unfunny cartoon, and all the charm and luminosity in the world aren't going to raise the dampening clouds that hang over her.
This actress, whose performance as an angst-ridden preschooler in ''Charlie Brown'' netted a clutch of theater awards last spring, became the personification of a cherished Broadway fairy tale, in which the determined kid from corn country is transformed overnight into a big-time star.
Broadway, however, is no longer the enchanted kingdom of success fables like ''42d Street'' and ''Morning Glory.'' Gone are the days when a relative unknown like Mary Martin could dazzle Manhattan in a novelty number in Cole Porter's ''Leave It to Me'' and proceed into a glittering succession of tailor-made vehicles.
Consider the recent careers of Faith Prince, Melissa Errico and Rebecca Luker, who have yet to find a show to match their breakthrough performances in, respectively, ''Guys and Dolls,'' ''One Touch of Venus'' and ''The Boys From Syracuse.'' (Audra McDonald and Donna Murphy are the rare contemporary exceptions, and their appeal is of a moodier, more cerebral variety.) Little wonder that for such gifted performers, the prospect of a television series starts to look like the Promised Land.
If I seem to be putting off any detailed description of ''Epic Proportions,'' which was written by Larry Coen and David Crane and has been directed (after a fashion) by Jerry Zaks, it's because there isn't much to say about it except, ''Why?''
This shaggy dog story about shooting a ''Ten Commandments''-style movie on an Arizona desert in the early 1930's was warmly received in an earlier Off Broadway incarnation in 1986, before Mr. Crane went on to glory as a co-creator of the hit sitcom ''Friends.'' It is possible that in a more relaxed, intimate environment the show's galumphing blend of slapstick gags and hoary jokes might have worked better.
Still, it is hard to imagine this material successfully stretching to much more than a five-minute television sketch or a fleeting segment in a Mel Brooks movie. (With the well-advised deletion of its intermission during previews last week, the show now runs a long 85 minutes.) The eight-member ensemble, which Mr. Zaks appears to have left mostly to its own devices, must deliver lines as old as vaudeville, supplemented with grimaces and stiff, stagy postures that seem less to have been thought out through rehearsal than improvised in desperation.
Ms. Chenoweth is Louise, an assistant director in charge of extras and the focus of a romantic triangle in which two brothers, local farmboys who have signed on as spear carriers, vie for her affections.
Benny Bennet (Alan Tudyk) is the one who wants to be an actor, but it is the hunkier Phil (Jeremy Davidson) who first captures Louise's attention with his knack for manipulating crowds, a talent acquired during his time in a high school marching band. Before Phil arrived, says Louise in a joke that represents the high point of the evening's humor, they had planned to part the Red Sea on the side.
Richard B. Shull portrays D. W. DeWitt, the nutty old director who soon disappears into the sanctuary of a newly erected pyramid, and Tom Beckett, Ross Lehman, Ruth Williamson and Richard Ziman play everybody else, from a swishy leading man (Mr. Beckett) to an aging, predatory movie queen (Ms. Williamson).
Many of the scenes seem to keep coming back at you, as though they had been staged on a treadmill, including antic moments involving the pulling of chest hair and the repeated bludgeoning of performers during takes of the same scene. And here is a typical sample of the dialogue: ''It's the greatest story ever told.'' ''It's O.K.''
All the performances need reining in; on the other hand, without the mugging, there would be nothing to command the attention, except for William Ivey Long's costumes and David Gallo's sets, which bring to mind a minimalist version of Tony Walton's comic-strip designs for ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.''
With marcelled hair, Ms. Chenoweth looks the very model of a 1930's ingenue, a dewier version of the young Joan Blondell, and she again demonstrates a solid instinct for comic timing. But there is so little character for her to work with that she overcompensates in self-sabotaging ways. She wrings the cuteness in her Betty Boop voice, and she bizarrely underscores her punchlines by licking her lower lip in the manner of Ernestine, the telephone operator of Lily Tomlin routines.
To say that she deserves better is an understatement. Shaw's Joan of Arc complained that the world was unable to accept its saints; the Broadway of today seems similarly incapable of nurturing its natural stars.
Slave labor in ancient Egypt and old Hollywood provides the gag material for Broadway's "Epic Proportions," but the cast of this show is probably working harder than any unhappy Nubian ever did. Title notwithstanding, Larry Coen and David Crane's play is in fact a broad comedy of slight proportions that needs all the goosing it can get -- and it gets plenty -- from a crackerjack cast of stage comedians, led by one of Broadway's brightest new lights, Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth.
Set behind the scenes of a grandiose 1930s Egyptian-Biblical picture, "Epic Proportions" focuses on the huddled masses who carried spears or cried out against the wrath of some Caesar or other in the kind of lavish spectacle in which Cecil B. DeMille once specialized. Supervising this oppressed populace, camped on the set in the desert outside Tucson, Ariz., is Louise Goldman, "assistant director in charge of atmosphere personnel," i.e. extras, played by Chenoweth with adorable, preternatural perkiness.
Despite her period-perfect, pixilated squeak of a voice, Chenoweth's Louise is a no-nonsense kind of girl who likes to keep her dollar-a-day laborers in lines as strict as the waves in her marcelled hair -- though she's mighty sorry there are only two bathrooms for the 3,400-strong sandal-wearing throng. Some of the play's funniest bits involve Louise's field marshal tactics in eliciting the right groans of mass fear from the extras when they witness the assassination of the emperor Octavium (the gang in charge of groaning with "sardonic amusement" just aren't up to snuff). While she drills the extras on the nuances of fear and anger, poor Octavium gets violently bumped off, over and over again, to the increasing dismay of the hapless actor in the purple robes tumbling down the forum steps.
"Epic Proportions" works best in these unabashedly silly moments that recall the movie-spoofing heyday of "The Carol Burnett Show." For a while, it's content to proceed as a series of blackout gags lampooning the incongruities that arise when Hollywood attempts to part the Red Sea. But while the play's aimless, amiable style may have been perfectly acceptable for its Off Broadway premiere in 1986, it looks as flimsy as a cardboard pyramid when audiences are expected to pay $65 for a top ticket.
Soon you begin to wonder if a real play is ever going to emerge from the scattershot jokes -- and yet you almost regret its arrival when it does: The workaday plot is a romantic triangle trifle that develops between Louise and brothers Benny and Phil Bennet (Alan Tudyk and Jeremy Davidson, respectively), two hard-working extras whose fates diverge in true Hollywood-picture fashion.
Tudyk is entirely endearing as the put-upon Benny, who must look on in longing as his matinee idol brother rises to become the paramour of the lovely Louise, and eventually (albeit ludicrously) the director of the foundering movie. "Yesterday was the last day of Pompeii," Benny writes home to mom, "and boy was I glad to see it go." While others are marching on Troy, the extras in Benny's crew are experiencing all 10 plagues.
The script's deficiencies are often masked by the talent of its cast, directed in appropriately antic style by Jerry Zaks. Ruth Williamson has some very choice moments as a hard-bitten actress and a mannish, predatory costume designer. This veteran comedienne can land a laugh with the flicker of a single eyebrow, even from under the scene-stealing silliness of a gilt headpiece.
Able supporting players Tom Beckett, Ross Lehman and Richard Ziman play various exhausted extras or overworked overlords, while Richard B. Shull has little to do as the film's reclusive director, D.W. DeWitt.
As the ambitious Phil, Davidson is bland and handsome, and appropriately so. And Chenoweth is charm incarnate. She's the rare actress who can be sexy, sweet and funny in the same moment. A trained opera singer before she jumped over to theater (she once won the Metropolitan Opera auditions), Chenoweth works miraculous vocal magic as Louise, fracturing the dialogue in surprising ways and turning a single line into a jazzy comic riff.
Almost as witty as Chenoweth's vocal inflections are the sets of designer David Gallo, which emphasize the humorously elephantine dimensions of ancient architecture. Like the cast, those sets work overtime to brighten the proceedings, but "Epic Proportions" runs out of inspired comic material and plausible plot well before the end of its brief running time. By the time its limp farcical finale arrives, the actors are adrift in a Saraha of increasingly strained slapstick, looking as desperate as their characters are for a ride home on the nearest dromedary.
After watching "Epic Proportions," a comedy that has arrived on Broadway 13 years after it was written, you soon realize why one of its authors, David Crane, went on to co-create "Friends", "Veronica's Closet" and "Dream On."
The play is slick, smart and funny - for half an hour. Good TV comedy is essentially about funny characters and funny lines. Good stage comedy needs something else: a funny story. Unless the plot generates laughs, no amount of one-liners will keep them coming. The strange and sad thing about "Epic Proportions" is that it actually has what ought to be a hilarious story. In the early 1930s, two hapless farm boys, Benny and Phil, end up in the Arizona desert as extras in a biblical epic directed by D. W. De Witt, a cross between D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Hitting on an idea like this ought to be like striking a comic oil well. The contrast between the awkward innocence of Benny and Phil and the ambitions of Hollywood at its most grandiose should fuel two hours of fun. And as long as the authors stick to this basic idea, "Epic Proportions" works. It would be hard, indeed, not to get a laugh out of kids who've scarcely been beyond their farm trying to become Egyptian slaves and Roman centurions. All the more so when you have Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Tudyk in the cast. Chenoweth plays Miss Goldman, the "assistant director in charge of atmosphere personnel" - in plain language, the boss of the extras. She comes across as the love child of Marilyn Monroe and a toy robot, half blond bombshell, half deadpan machine. Lusting after her is Tudyk's Benny. With his lanky limbs and dough-white face, Tudyk is as odd and funny as the Scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz."
With two such enjoyable comic creations and an almost inevitably funny story line, what can go wrong? What goes wrong is that the writers simply abandon their basic idea. Instead of having Benny and Phil as innocents on the edge of a biblical epic, they push the plot into unnecessary and unfruitful exaggerations. Director De Witt decides, for no apparent reason, that he doesn't want to make the picture after all. Phil takes over and, drunk with power, casts Benny and Miss Goldman in the lead roles. The original idea is funny because it is at once credible and absurd. By moving into improbable farce, the reality - and the comedy - are lost. Instead of the jokes arising naturally from the story, they have to be created by increasingly labored and elaborate plotting. "Epic Proportions" becomes like the desert in which its set - long stretches of dry and arid terrain broken by increasingly rare oases of humor. With actors like Chenoweth and Tudyk ably supported in Jerry Zaks' well-paced production by Jeremy Davidson and Ruth Williamson, the play is never in danger of complete collapse. But neither do the wanderings in the desert ever look like they're leading to the land of mirth. Size, in the theater, matters more than it does on TV, and in the end, "Epic Proportions" just isn't big enough for the stage.