Late Night: Kat Sandler refuses to let anyone go gently into that good night
by Drew Rowsome - Photos by John Gundy
By now one would assume that the comic possibilities to be mined from late night talk shows would be exhausted. Television is very good at ridiculing its own with Saturday Night Live, The Gary Shandling Show, Jiminy Glick, Ali G, etc, etc, having satirized what David Letterman and Conan O'Brien had already turned into a 'wink, wink' deconstruction. Fortunately Kat Sandler's play Late Night is, while uproariously funny, after something deeper and more biting than mocking or riffing on a somewhat bankrupt art form.
Late Night uses a late night talk show set and the cast of characters assembled to film it, to wield a comic cudgel against misogyny, ageism, homophobia, racism. transphobia, political correctness and insensitivity to disabilities, weight, addiction, polygamy and impotence. And I may have missed a few, I was too busy laughing to take accurate notes. Sandler spins her characters into a farcical realm of good intentions and less honourable motives, no-one is truly evil but everyone is morally dubious. And it is impossible for all of us to not be indicted as well.
The premise is deceptively simple: we are attending a very special episode of The Early Late Show in which the host of 22 years, Marty O'Malley, is retiring and "passing the torch" to his yet-to-be announced successor. This episode is so special that it is being broadcast live, for the first time in The Early Late Show's history. It all begins to go wrong right off the top when the warm-up comedian calls in sick and hapless but lovable intern Davey, played with wide-eyed perfection by Michael Musi (Liver), is assigned the job. He explains that he is filling in for someone who "wanted to be a comedian but it didn't work out. But sometimes bitter people are funny." Thanks to Sandler, these ones certainly are.
Alon Nashman (Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom, Hamlet and All's Well That Ends Well) as O'Malley rescues Davey, even though the intern has, through sheer hilarious ineptitude, warmed us up quite satisfactorily. O'Malley makes his first of several insincere from-the-heart speeches and then returns to begin the show proper with a monologue full of tone-deaf jokes. A Caitlyn Jenner joke, a Viagra joke and particularly a Hillary Clinton glass ceiling joke are excruciating, but also very funny and one can't help but laugh. We hate him for being such an old, straight, white man, but we can't help but appreciate his talent and feel for his flop sweat. Sandler and Nashman have us in their grip.
As the revelations pile up and the special episode grows dementedly disastrous, the cast are called upon to play outrageous while remaining real. It mostly works. Kat Letwin's riffs on women in comedy and sex, particularly oral, are gold, and she is adroit at shining a fake smile to keep the audience, theatrical and fictitious, on her side. Rachel Jones (Hamlet and All's Well That Ends Well) has a great time as the Xanax and scotch fuelled sex symbol who is, at the ripe age of 44, being forced into MILF roles. And Maria Vacratsis (Cake and Dirt) is a foul-mouthed whirlwind of a producer, a force of nature scene stealer.
All the 'on-camera' talent are required to play two roles, the character and the character's facade. Nigel Downer gets to juggle three: the actor/comedian Kevin Lee Hicks, Hicks' creation Mama Jones (a Madea-like old lady drag movie star), and the no-nonsense gay, black, proud and vengeful man who created both of the above. His eyes sparkle with delight as he switches personas with ease all while biting into Sandler's one-liners and clever, clever dialogue.
He is the first to lose his cool as the chaos begins, and the only one to regain it. This is the one aspect of Late Night that rankles - though, caught up in the hilarity, I didn't pinpoint it until post-performance): these people are supposed to be television/comedy professionals, it is highly improbable, but in the interests of farce a necessity, that their masks would have slipped so far as to shatter in such a public forum. There are moments, particularly by Nashman, where the struggle to maintain the television personalities in the face of an onslaught of sordid personal revelations, surfaces on the characters faces. They are fleeting and subtle but devastatingly funny and heartbreaking. More would have elevated Late Night even further.
The Zoomerhall television studio setting of Late Night is ingenious. The cameras appear to be actually filming (though no producer would ever accept the awkward angles that appear on the monitors) and the illusion is enveloping. Late Night is a production of Zoomerlive, a new venture by Moses Znaimer and his Zoomer empire. The press release states that Sandler's script "caught Znaimer's interest due to its unique examination of ageism in the media and entertainment sector." The plan is for Late Night to be actually filmed, live, for broadcast on Vision TV, in the manner of Stratford's live filmings for Cineplex. Televising or even just recording indie theatre to preserve those ethereal magical productions is a stroke of brilliance and I hope Late Night, both the play and the television production, is the smash hit it deserves to be. And then the Sandler/Znaimer team can tackle Sandler's brilliant back catalogue so future generations, and old timers reminiscing, can savour Delicacy, Bright Lights, Mustard, Liver, Cockfight, Sucker, Rock, and all the other Sandler plays that I had the misfortune to miss. Of course by the time that is done, she'll have a commission at Stratford and that one we'll see on the big screen.
And one final question that is nagging me. I accept that it is a McGuffin but I would really like to know what Hicks did at Disney World. I have a fairly salacious imagination, and Downer inspires vividness, but I'm willing to bet that Sandler's version is far more outrageous and hilariously horrifying.
Late Night continues until Sun, Oct 23 at ZoomerHall, 70 Jefferson Ave. zoomerlive.com