A Thurber Carnival | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Thurber Carnival 

click to enlarge (left to right) Dave Ranallo, TJ Firneno and Bobby Zinsmeister in The Summer Company's A Thurber Carnival. - COURTESY OF THE SUMMER COMPANY
  • Courtesy of The Summer Company
  • (left to right) Dave Ranallo, TJ Firneno and Bobby Zinsmeister in The Summer Company's A Thurber Carnival.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Or, to put it another way: tempus fugit.

Oh, all right -- "Here today, gone tomorrow." And there's probably no greater example than writer and cartoonist James Thurber.

It's difficult to describe now how enormously popular Thurber was in his day. But there was a time when people bought magazines to read short stories, cartoons and essays. And in that time (the '30s through the '50s) Thurber, mostly via his contributions to The New Yorker, ruled as king. Thurber's focus was almost without exception "regular" people caught up in the small insanities of everyday life, and his work served as a foundation for several movies, television shows and plays. And it teaches us all a lesson to realize that almost nobody remembers him anymore.

But wait! We might be witnessing a comeback. Keith Olbermann has taken to reading a Thurber short story at the end of every Friday's broadcast of Countdown. And locally, The Summer Company is producing A Thurber Carnival, a play from 1961 based on his writings and drawings.

The famous pieces are there: "The Night the Bed Fell," "The Last Flower" and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," along with some not so famous, and two scenes that are literally nothing but the captions from the cartoons.

Thurber, ultimately, is only about Thurber and his sardonic, exasperated look at the world. All of these pieces are written with the utmost precision, and the icy dry comedy running underneath is bracing; this is, to use an oxymoron, a savagely understated piece of work.

At some point, the folks at The Summer Company seemed to have lost their nerve ... because instead of just staging the work as written, they've piled on bit and gimmick after shtick: extraneous characterizations, cheesy sight gags, superfluous dialects and pop-culture references.

Updating the play is pointless, because the "feel" of the show is so not-contemporary, and winking jokes about Barbara Walters, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Charo do nothing but corrupt the integrity of the work. (A Star Wars joke in the middle of James Thurber? For shame, sir, I said for shame!)

If you look past such ephemera, you might notice that the young cast, under the direction of John E. Lane Jr., occasionally display legitimate comedy chops. And if they work hard and study day and night, they could possibly reach the level of Jay Keenan whose ruthlessly straightforward performance of "The Last Flower" shows just how powerful unadorned Thurber can be.


A Thurber Carnival continues through Sat., July 24. Peter Mills Theater, Rockwell Hall, Duquesne University campus, Uptown. 412-243-5201.



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