“You don’t say!”
“I do. I just did.”
This is the retort that ricochets through John Morogiello’s In the Gutter like bullets from a Colt 45 —
No, never mind. I’m not even going to try to imitate the overwrought metaphors so beloved of Raymond Chandler and his ilk. Morogiello is the master at that. He comes up with gems like when the hero describes to the back-stabbing femme fatale what a sap he is: “The whole state of Vermont hasn’t the capacity to boil this sap down to syrup, that’s how big a sap we’re talking.” The playwright plays on all the tropes of film noir like a concert violinist on a Stradivarius (sorry), but most of all, he plays with the language. Characters chase similes, take them literally, question them, and run them into the ground. Innuendos pile up until the characters can’t remember what they’re really talking about.
And the result is comic gold.
Morogiello is president, artistic director, chief playwright, and driving force behind Best Medicine Rep, a nonprofit professional theater that specializes, refreshingly, in new comedy. During the pandemic, while the rest of us were binge-watching reality TV or doomscrolling, he spent his time watching 1940s film noir. He was struck by both the rhythm of the language and how much the weary, jaded tone reflected how we are feeling today. So he decided to write a modern noir — but to use it to make us laugh.
Stan Levin, a frequent director for BMR, takes all this and runs with it, keeping the dialogue moving at the necessary breakneck clip, and the artificial style vertiginously high. The company is not known for extensive sets or technical effects but manages to make a virtue of it. Morogiello also designed the set, which consists simply of a gray backdrop, a window, one rotating door, and a few chairs and tables moved in and out by the actors. A bedroom scene is indicated by the actors holding up in front of them a quilt, which when one says, “Let’s get dressed,” they drop to reveal themselves fully clothed. The lights do provide the de rigueur moody venetian blind shadows and make use of a roving spotlight to provide some atmosphere. But the solution to a technical challenge provides one of the evening’s best comic sequences: when one character climbs up onto a roof and another threatens to push him off, they are played in highly dramatic style by GI Joe dolls, dressed up as and manipulated by the actors holding them. It’s a hoot.
The four fine actors have the patter, rhythm, and accents of vintage detective flicks down pat, and spice it up with excellent comic timing. J. McAndrew Breen (Bill/Cop), a first-timer with Best Medicine Rep but deservedly well-known for other performances in the DC area, plays the contrasts of his dual role to the hilt. Rebecca Herron (Mrs. Cooper / Detective), a BMR stalwart, is hilarious, as always. She manages to get laughs even by the way she sinks from view in the window frame. And her hard-boiled detective delivery reaches delightful heights of lunacy.
Zoë Bowen Smith handles the femme fatale Fiona with suitably cool sass, even while playing the whole first act in a negligée. She and the leading man, Chad (Matthew Marcus, who’s a dead ringer for a young Ben Stiller and whose eyebrows are so expressive they should have their own agent), trade barbs as fast as machinegun fire and perform whiplash-risking dramatic snaps of the head. The actors deftly deliver lines that move so fast they sometimes outrun the characters, who take a few moments to realize that what they’ve just said makes no sense, and while they’re catching up, the conversation plows further into absurdity. And as the playwright intended, the more seriously they take it, the sillier it plays.
All in all, In the Gutter is, like most Best Medicine Rep plays, a sparkling hidden gem, well worth venturing into the spooky depths of Lakeforest Mall to find. And since the Mall is (finally) closing, this will be BMR’s last show there. I highly recommend searching Best Medicine Rep out and supporting them so they can locate another venue and continue proving that laughter is the best medicine.
“You don’t say?”
“I do. I just did!”
Running Time: Approximately one and a half hours with one 15-minute intermission.
In the Gutter plays through March 19, 2023, Friday and Saturday at 7:00 PM, and Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 PM, presented by Best Medicine Rep Theatre Company performing on the lower level of Lakeforest Mall, 701 Russell Avenue, Gaithersburg, MD. Purchase tickets ($30 general admission, $25 senior/student) at the door or go online.
COVID Safety: All patrons must wear masks. (See Your Visit.)