“We like to remember people who go first,” as a character says in the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s new production “Lost Laughs,” a show about comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He was the first movie actor to rise to stardom, but he’s remembered now, if at all, for the part he played in a young actress named Virginia Rappe’s tragic death.
The play tells the story of Fatty’s rise and fall, moving adeptly between broad, vaudevillian comedy and heartbreaking moments of tragedy. The tropes of silent film are given a nod throughout, to great effect. Particularly striking is the story of Fatty’s first marriage, which is told in a silent routine involving a clothes line.
Much of the action takes place on what looks like a raw film set before the props and backdrops are added. It is eventually pulled back to show first the red curtain of a stage and ultimately, the hotel room where Virginia spent her last night. Once the disheveled room is revealed, it seems to stalk Fatty like a character in its own right, looming behind his attempts to clear his name and move on with his life.
Aaron Muñoz plays Fatty with considerable charm and his lone costar Kristen Mengelkoch is a whirlwind, effortlessly switching between an array of minor characters from Buster Keaton to a fan on the street.
Throughout the play, characters reference the artifice that defines Fatty’s life. The public loves him and gives him the validation he never received as a child–but they don’t love Roscoe. One of the play’s most devastating moments comes when Roscoe is literally stripped, and must stand before us to be judged, without his jovial alter ego to keep him safe.
Mengelkoch gets her own turn to break our hearts in a monologue as Virginia Rappe. And both come together for an ending that is as quiet and beautiful as the opening scene is frantic and funny. I left feeling truly moved by the experience.
–Amy Roeder, Cohort
Lost Laughs… runs February 14 – March 11