Dumb Can Work

Praise be to everything holy, David Wiltse's Hatchetman has almost nothing to do with golf. I was really concerned about this before I saw the play, now enjoying its world premiere at Florida Stage: The advertisements all feature images of a tiny man teeing off atop a giantess' bare navel, a picture which naturally leads to creepy imaginings of golf-talk and sex between people of wildly incompatible size. And though that idea may appeal to some folks, the rest of us can breathe a sigh of relief. Those ads are completely misleading.

Everyone is calling Hatchetman a farce, and though that's accurate, it's also a little too general. Specifically, Hatchetman is a sitcom. And it's an excellent sitcom, which is both the show's greatest strength and its sole weakness, though the problem will not likely sully the experience of anybody looking for a fun night at the theater. What we've got here is the story of Putts Magazine, an independently-owned golf rag and its howlingly incompetent staff. Early in the first act, the staff makes two ominous discoveries: Putts may soon be bought out by some faceless giant conglomerate, and said conglomerate may soon deploy a "hatchetman" to trim the flab from the publication's payroll. The latter possibility causes severe intra-office queasiness, because Putts is staffed with almost nothing but flab. There's a writer who cannot write, another who hasn't come up with a story idea in years; there's an office assistant who can't talk, and an editor who wears spurs. Inject into the fray a dorky little new-hire who writes up a storm but displays all the social finesse of Steve Urkel on acid, and you've got your "sit." The "com" comes from the characters' frantic attempts to deal with the situation, while simultaneously engaging in reciprocal sexual harassment brazen enough to make the folks on Capitol Hill blush.

Does this sound lame? Well, it is. That's the nature of the sitcom. Luckily, Wiltse's a good enough writer and Florida Stage can attract enough talent to mask that lameness until well after the fact — and even then, you probably won't resent it. Because Hatchetman is funny: truly, helplessly, belly-clutchingly funny. On opening night, 90% of the audience was audibly titillated by virtually every pratfall, sight-gag, and double entendre (the other 10% — no doubt the people who wanted a play about golf and giant-love — left after intermission).

The textual humor is created by exploring the obvious conundrums: Who is the hatchetman? Who will sleep with whom? What the hell can anybody write about golf? The substance of that humor, as always, comes from execution. The neat thing about acting in a live sitcom is that almost everybody in America is over-educated in the form. Every listless night spent in front of the TV, gobbling Doritos and trying to forget we're alive, deepens our knowledge of sitcom convention. Thus, the artists assembled for Hatchetman have a more gratifying task before them than simply trying to create characters — they're reaching for archetypes, for Platonic Ideals of Buffoonery. And they're successful. I don't know what the Florida Stage is paying these people, but whatever it is, they deserve a raise: The actors of Hatchetman expend more energy per minute than anybody who isn't James Brown. Director Louis Tyrell is both a genius and a sadist for making these people work so hard, and the actors are geniuses and masochists for keeping up without sacrificing the focus of their precise, needle-sharp comedic timing.

Hatchetman's speed and its actors' great instincts turn a meaningless cotton-candy powderpuff of a script into something approaching transcendence. It's inane, but who cares? Watching Todd Allen Durkin's editorially constipated Carter biting Binaca out of the air is too much fun to argue with.

Durkin, the one who keeps the plot rolling, is the best physical comedian in a production full of good ones. Colin McPhillamy's Otis manages effective physical comedy just by standing still: The tongue-tied son of Putts' founder, he appears throughout the show dressed in an ever-more bizarre combinations of golfing gear, ultimately looking like the bastard progeny of Rob Roy and Barney The Purple Dinosaur. I know that doesn't sound especially hilarious, but it is. These things are inexplicable. If humor could be explained, everyone would be funny.

Lisa Morgan's sexpot editor Sam seems to have based her character on Kathy Bates' turn in Primary Colors, but she's a lot less likely to make you cry. Beth McIntosh's Temple makes neuroses look sexy, Shane Jacobsen's new-hire Johnson is such a molten mess of insecurity and love hunger that you don't know whether to hug him or punch him, and Susan Bennett's ultra-shy Jane can communicate more malice with a look than most people can with a gun.

So what we've got here is a smart, funny script brought to life by a bunch of smart, funny actors directed by a guy with an excellent bedrock understanding of concepts like "smart" and "funny." But there will inevitably be people who think going to the theater for a sitcom is a waste of time. You can, after all, laze about your living room, eating Bon Bons and watching reruns of Murphy Brown. You can do so naked, if you wish, and you'll likely save money.

To those folks, I say this: Trust David Wiltse. He's no mean peddler of dumb escapism. He's had two plays produced by Florida Stage (Marriage Minuet and A Good German), both of which were considerably more ambitious than Hatchetman and one of which dealt with Germany's seduction by the Third Reich. Next year, he's got a new play coming called Sedition, which will deal with issues of patriotism and dissent. Though that doesn't mean much by itself, it does mean Wiltse's not interested in wasting anyone's time. He penned this script because he thought we needed a few more laughs, and he was probably right. Anyway, after seeing Hatchetman, you may wonder if sitcoms are properly served by the small screen in the first place. I doubt many people ever laugh this hard at their TVs.

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Brandon K. Thorp