Huntington Theatre Company's production of Hedda Gabler, at the BU Theatre, through Jan. 28

Vol. IV No. 18   ·   12 January 2001 


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Not your average Joe
Trying to teach the big laughs at Gonzo Night School

By Hope Green

For a promising New England actor with plentiful stage credits but modest name recognition, launching a one-man comedy show takes a certain leap of faith. This month at the intimate Boston Playwrights' Theatre, however, Joe Smith is hoping his audacity pays off. It's not the money he's after, though: what Smith wants are noises, lots of surprised and irrepressible noises, issuing from the shadows beyond the lip of the stage.


Joe Smith doles out advice for job-seekers while fighting a bizarre urge. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


"I definitely want to try and hit on a lot of different levels of comedy," says Smith of his original play, Gonzo Night School, which is running at the theater through January 21. "Some of it is pretty broad and physical, but some of it is kind of intellectual and language-based. I've seen a lot of shows that are very witty and clever and you get a little chuckle out of them, but if you're going to have comedy, I think you might as well go for some deep, really hysterical laughter."

The show consists of a series of comedy sketches that turn the audience into students at a third-rate adult education center. Smith plays six different characters, including an embittered alcoholic mime who is forced to teach his craft in combination with tae kwon do and rap because all three courses are underenrolled.

In another sketch Smith appears in drag (think Tootsie on overdrive), dispensing happy talk on how to look sharp for a job interview while fighting an unfortunate compulsion to turn and lick the chalkboard every few minutes.

While most of the play is pure screwball comedy, there is one sympathetic hero who appears at intervals, a mute, self-effacing janitor named Zarko. As he cleans up after each class, Zarko peers quizzically at artifacts left behind: a tube of glitter, a bloody rag, an abandoned pair of boots, and a harmonica -- a prize he furtively tucks in his pocket. By show's end his virtues, as well as a hidden musical talent, are revealed.

"I've been really interested for years in the silent, new-vaudeville style of clown work," Smith explains. "It's less the Barnum & Bailey squeaky-horn type of stuff than it is the Charlie Chaplin, silent clown bit."

No stranger to the Playwrights' Theatre, Smith last year directed his father's autobiographical show there, My Life . . . In Smithereens. Show business is indeed a family affair -- his parents founded the Worcester Foothills Theatre when he was a toddler. He graduated six years ago from Syracuse University, where he studied film production and theater arts.

  Smith stresses out his instructor, a stuffed tiger, during a relaxation exercise. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Smith's New England experience includes four different roles in more than 500 performances of Shear Madness at the Charles Playhouse Stage II. He has acted in two independent films, Starving Artists and Something Sweet. But like his fellow actors in Boston, Smith also does corporate videos and commercials to help pay the rent. Television viewers have seen him as Ed, the pitchman for Massport and Logan Airport, and have heard his voice on spots for the Boston Public Library. At one time he was the voice inside the talking newspaper box for a Boston Globe TV ad.

Now, as he remarks in the program notes, he's "psyched to the gills" to be presenting Gonzo Night School, even if it means serving simultaneously as performer, writer, director, producer, and publicist.

"As a performer, a one-man show is fun because you have total control of any scene at any given moment," he says. "On the other hand, especially from having done Shear Madness, I know how wonderful an energy you can create when you have two or more performers who really bounce off one another. One sets the other up, and it's like a volleyball spike. In a one-person show you don't have that same energy to work with."

To compensate, Smith employs devices such as prerecorded voiceovers and lightning-fast costume changes that create the illusion of an ensemble at work.

He says he's grateful for his "grade-A stage manager," Lyn Liseno, and the theater staff. "In Boston I feel I have good community support," he says. "I think audiences will have a good time with this show."

Gonzo Night School continues at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave. (Pleasant Street stop on B Green Line), Wednesday through Sunday nights at 8 p.m., through January 21. Tickets are $15, or $10 for students and senior citizens. For more information, call 499-6991.


17 January 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations