The difference between comedy and tragedy, dear reader, is sympathy. Ask yourself: how much do you care for this character? If you find yourself laughing at them more than you are with them, then congratulations, it’s a comedy. But as any dramatist will tell you, a play cannot be defined by laughter alone. This past weekend, two comedic pieces went up in Studio Theatre: Ivan Keta’s “The Girl in the Diner” and Jonathan Rand’s “Check, Please!”. I call them comedic, rather than comedies, because they employ completely different brands of humor, not always removed from the element of tragedy.
The latter, “Check, Please!”, is more akin to your typical romantic romp. A Guy (junior Jake Maryott) and a Girl (junior Alexia Vasilopoulos) separately slog through a slew of disastrous blind dates before stumbling into each other. And yet, unlike so many screwball comedies out there, these characters are not merely defined by their normalcy. Rather, they are three-dimensional: less “out there” than their dates, but nevertheless quirky and engaging. We can’t relate to the naked guy because that’s all we know about him — that is his one dimension — but we can relate to the Guy and the Girl because, after all, who hasn’t been on a disastrous date before?
The comedy comes from laughing at the cavalcade of wild cards, of course, but the true humor comes from laughing with the Guy and the Girl as they suffer through them. At one point the Girl leaves, and we can feel the pressure put on the Guy, alone with his date, as he smiles and suppresses the urge to run away screaming. This is a testament to director senior Hannah Black’s staging and the acting choices of Maryott and Vasilopoulos: by distinguishing the protagonists’ personalities with these little gestures (staying versus leaving), we as audience become more invested in each character’s individual romantic journey. We feel more sympathy for them, we feel less sympathy for their dates — and so, on Saturday night, we laughed uproariously as the antics of the uniformly strong ensemble brought “Check, Please!” to a wholly satisfying, if somewhat predictable, conclusion.
By contrast, “The Girl in the Diner” offered no easy solutions. Far from the wackiness of “Check, Please”, the comedy of “Girl” comes from its witty one-liners: drolly delivered by senior Alyssa Gill’s Franz and freshman Emma Lister’s Mark. Set within a small town diner, the two spend the duration of a meal making fun of one another and reminiscing about a girl they once met there. Halfway through, the scene switches and the girl occupies a seat at the table, then carries on a conversation with Lister (who now seems to be embodying both Mark and Franz) in a way that contradicts the boys’ stories in the first half. This contradiction, unfortunately, presents a major problem in Keta’s script.
“The Girl” is not a strict comedy, but it does rely heavily on humorous dialogue to tell its stories. And though comedy is often born from detachment, an understanding of how characters relate to one another is useful in knowing at whom to laugh, even within an experimental piece such as this. Though we learn a little about their relationship through their conversation, we never learn enough about Mark and Franz to be either for or against them. Their funny lines become mean without proper context, and the idea that the characters might be lying about all or some of their experiences makes us trust them even less. It is one thing to make an audience question the nature of a mysterious girl in a diner. It is quite another to pull the rug out from underneath their feet.