NO EASY LAUGHS

I never set out to write comic plays. My themes as a writer are usually serious, even though the delivery is not. I'm often asked about this, which forces me to think about why I write in this way and what comedy is and how it works on me. Each time I do this, it's with some caution: A writer's voice is like a fingerprint of the mind, conscious and unconscious -- and it's dangerous to know too clearly what makes you tick. But when I sneak a peek between my fingers at my own process and voice, this much I see.

I wrote my first play, "Still Warm," standing up at the cash register in the hotel bar where I was working as a waitress. After some pretty crushing years, it was becoming clear to me that my talents were too frail and my courage too limited to ever fulfill my dreams of being an actress. And time was running out. The first image of the first play I ever wrote was that of a woman in Hell crawling out of an overturned car where she'd just drowned in 6 inches of muddy water. She could get out of Hell if only she could renounce her ambition.

My play was about the newscaster Jessica Savitch, of course, not me. Although the piece was incredibly flawed, wild and ugly, it was alive. Painful, sure. But because it was born of a need to expose -- and because exposure is bringing darkness to light -- it had a macabre exuberance to it, and was, in its weird way, celebratory. Comedy always moves toward the light, even when a character might be moving into the dark.

In comedy, we deal with the unmanageable person within -- the posturing ego, the inner crazy person, the howling child, the monster. When you write comedy, you must surrender your grandiosity and your aspiration to be thought important and beautiful, even though every person on the face of the Earth wants to be exactly that.

In my latest play, "You, Nero," which deals with the effect Nero had on the theater scene in ancient Rome, I wrote a speech for the Ghost of Agrippina, the emperor's mother. It was modeled on the great death speeches in Shakespeare. I wanted it to have the flavor of Gertrude's description of Ophelia's death in "Hamlet." The speech is satire, of course, but how I worked on it! It took me days. The phrasing at times brought a thrill and a flush of pride. I cherished it. I studied similar speeches, listened to the assonance, the matching sounds, the changes in meter, and I learned from them. I chose my words with as much elegance and precision as I am capable of. And now, undercut by a key phrase or two, they will become a source of comedy in the play, delivered by an actor who is blessed by the Ridiculous Muse.

My point is, the nature of the investment in comedy is as whole-hearted and emotionally sincere, up to the final tweak of consciousness, as in high art or tragedy.

This is equally true for comic performance and production. When a stage comedy is playing really well, the performers and the audience go into a kind of altered state. There's a sense that nothing can go wrong. Huge choices are not too much, and tiny choices explode the house into sheer delight. Everything seems to communicate, and a willing suspension of disbelief allows us to buy anything. At the same time, no false goods are being sold to us. Good faith on both sides of the footlights abounds. It's fantastic to watch how an audience hangs on each thought of gifted farceurs and seems to read their intentions and inner life even in the way they draw breath. . . .

But getting to that point of seeming effortlessness takes days and days of precision work. Previews are full of strange mysteries: Why did they laugh there? What was funny about that? Why didn't they laugh there? That should be funny.

Sometimes the answers are simple: They didn't laugh because they could see only one of the actor's eyes, and they need to see both. (That in itself is a mystery: For some reason, it's hard to land a laugh in profile.)

At other times, the line might not be funny (my fault) or it might be funny but not in a way that earns spontaneous laughs (also my fault). There's a variety of absurdity, for example, that works well on the page and in the rehearsal room but that flops on stage.

At still other times, the missing laugh has to do with the actor's delivery, which brings up a slew of intricate, maddening, fascinating questions about pacing, pausing, pointing by gesture after the key word, or sometimes before the word, more rarely on the word. The problem might be physical. An actor might diffuse a laugh by moving on the line -- or diffuse another actor's laugh by moving on the line, or stepping on it. Some actors even do that on purpose, to deny a laugh to a colleague. Those actors, thankfully, are the exception.

Finally, the problem could be in the setup, which means it's either my fault, or the actor's, or the director's, or a combination -- and we have to figure it out. The challenge is this: To set up a joke requires stabilizing the audience's attention in a misdirected focus, so that the departure of consciousness -- the unexpected juxtapositions upon which comedy depends -- can come with the force of surprise and delight. This requires control of the audience's attention and expectation, and it's both an art and craft. It's practically science. And it's why, incidentally, I have no great love of the "wacky," which to me is a low and unskilled glancing at comedy, depending on winking attitude and screwball sets to signal wit but with none of the real clarity of attitude that wit requires.

The work is never-ending. The question is not only can we get it right, but can we get it right in time? I'm writing this between rehearsals for "You, Nero" -- rehearsals that, I hasten to add, are going well. I have the deep and humbling pleasure of seeing some of the finest actors in the country (seriously) lending themselves to the realization of my fantasia -- and an unflappable director, Sharon Ott, coping with the task of actualizing a script that calls for leopards, sea battles, gladiatorial contests and the burning of Rome. But I know that, no matter what comedy you're staging, if you were to stop the rehearsal in midprocess, half the jokes would be lost, along with the show's overall themes and impact. The trial and error and rigor of what we're doing now are what's required to bring out everything that's in this comedy. We'll be ready for you when the doors open, and working every second until then.

An old comedian supposedly once said that "dying is easy, comedy is hard." Let's amend that cliche, once and for all, and say that comedy is seriously one great reason to stay alive. As anyone who ever took a theater history class remembers, the origins of comedy are festival. It comes out of the celebration of fecundity, fertility, the defeat of winter by the spring. Laughter is a fountain of renewal. It's not physiologically possible to really laugh and be in pain at the same time (which is probably why the old comedian was making wisecracks on his deathbed).

And yet comedy is intricately mixed up with pain, from the early delight a child experiences in watching someone else take the pratfall: A pratfall, by definition, is somebody else's problem.

And so: A dog makes a meal of a cream pie. Buster Keaton spots the dog, whose muzzle is now dripping with whipped cream, and thinks the dog is rabid. Buster takes off at a dead run, and the dog, excited, chases him around and around a construction sight. The chase includes the dog crawling up a ladder after Buster and continuing the pursuit around the perimeter of an uncompleted house. At the end of the short ("The Scarecrow"), you want to stand up and cheer both performers, human and canine, for their commitment, athleticism and ability to transform hydrophobia and panic into anesthetizing comic ecstasy.

My hat's off to the comics and the comedians who help keep our nightmares at bay.

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Freed's other plays include "Freedomland," "The Beard of Avon," "Restoration Comedy" and "Safe in Hell."

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'You, Nero'

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7: 45 Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Jan. 25.

Price: $20 to $64

Contact: (714) 708-5555

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