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Arts | Coolture

Review: ‘Gods of Comedy’ is old-fashioned but spirited fun in world premiere at the Old Globe

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Brad Oscar as Dionysus, Jessie Cannizzaro as Thalia and Shay Vawn as Daphne (from left) in “Ken Ludwig’s The Gods of Comedy” at the Old Globe Theatre.
(Jim Cox)

In its restless quest for laughs, “Ken Ludwig’s The Gods of Comedy” taps the wisdom of the ancients.

And by that we refer, of course, to the likes of Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Burns & Allen and other comic mainstays of the mid-20th century.

It’s true that “Gods” — which just opened at the Old Globe in a world-premiere co-production with New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre — pivots on inspirations from a bit more distant in time: A pair of deities straight out of Greek myth.

But the show’s crowd-pleasing vibe feels all about the broad humor, madcap antics and gentle innuendo of Golden Age TV and film comedy (with, it should be said, a little Shakespearean magic thrown into the mix).

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The gods of the title, Dionysus (played by Brad Oscar) and Thalia (Jessie Cannizzaro), even bust out their best Lucy and Ricky impressions at one point; clearly the televisions up on Mount Olympus have some killer rabbit ears.

What results is a show that’s not quite a laugh riot. Maybe more of a laugh pep rally — a fitting image, actually, for this college-set comedy that at one point has Dionysus donning a vintage letterman’s sweater.

Its clever premise does allow the accomplished playwright Ludwig, with his third new play at the Globe in four years (after “Baskerville” and “Robin Hood”), to flex some of what he does best. The show boasts plenty of winning physical comedy and some of the same inventive stage business and mistaken-identity fun that drove Ludwig’s Broadway hit “Lend Me a Tenor” and other works.

Director Amanda Dehnert and her capable cast also keep the energy sustained even through some patches of groaner jokes, with the ever-kinetic Cannizzaro and Oscar leading the way; Jason Sherwood’s leafy sets, Linda Roethke’s costumes, Brian Gale’s lighting and Darron L West’s often wry sound cues help boost the mood.

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The show’s prologue introduces us to Daphne (amusingly high-strung Shay Vawn), an American scholar of the classics who’s studying in a taverna on the Greek island of Naxos.

After she does a good deed for a pushy peddler (George Psomas, a comic ace in multiple roles), he bestows on her a talisman that he claims Daphne can use to summon the gods in a crisis.

Does she wind up needing it? You bet your sweet bouzouki. Back in the States, Daphne manages to misplace the precious manuscript of Euripides’ long-lost tragedy “Andromeda” that her colleague and budding beau Ralph (Jevon McFerrin, in an appealingly nerdy and jumpy turn) had unearthed.

And do the gods prove helpful? Hardly. At least at first. They’re a little occupied by, among other things, the joys of junk food — particularly Dionysus, that god of great appetites.

Thalia proves his match in distractability, although she’s technically a Muse, not a god. (Speaking of which: This is a weirdly big year for supernatural Greek females, what with the Furies in the Globe’s recent musical “Life After” and the Fates in “Hadestown” on Broadway.)

Meanwhile, Daphne and Ralph’s boss Dean Trickett (played with a wonderfully patrician touch by Keira Naughton, who also does a seamless impression of Cannizzaro as Thalia in one switched-identity scene) is lusting for the manuscript, while the Hollywood actress Brooklyn (comically vampy Steffanie Leigh) is lusting for a part in its supposedly inevitable movie adaptation.

And by the end, everyone’s also lusting for the two visiting deities. “It’s what we do,” Thalia says with a shrug. “We’re like ‘Spring Awakening.’”

What fools (for love) these mortals be, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Puck — whose epilogue from A Midsummer’ Night’s Dream” seems echoed in Thalia and Dionysus’ show-closing benediction here.

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Call them gods. But think twice about calling them.

“Ken Ludwig’s The Gods of Comedy”

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.) Through June 16.

Where: Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, Balboa Park.

Tickets: $30 and up

Phone: (619) 234-5623

Online: theoldglobe.org


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