In 18 years, it's easy to go from laughing wild to laughing mild. What once produced shocks can often produce shrugs.
It's a tribute to Christopher Durang, both as a writer and as an actor, that ''Laughing Wild," first presented in 1987, works as well as it does in its current revival by the Huntington Theatre Company. With references galore to people and events that were topical in the '80s and all but forgotten now -- remember harmonic convergence? -- Durang's play can sometimes seem like the theatrical equivalent of Nick at Nite.
And in the beginning, it doesn't seem even that good.
The play is about two people, identified only as Woman and Man, who are neurotics on a good day. They met in a supermarket aisle. She couldn't believe he was taking so much time reading a tuna fish label and conked him on the head. Act 1 consists of their monologues recounting that event and recapping their losing battles with the world.
First up is Woman. One of the reasons director Nicholas Martin wanted to revive the play was his desire to see two of his friends, Durang and actress Debra Monk, work together in these roles. Martin had directed award-winning productions of Durang's ''Betty's Summer Vacation" in New York and Boston, and he and Monk teamed for a strong staging of ''The Time of the Cuckoo" at Lincoln Center, right before Martin came to the Huntington.
The magic doesn't extend to Martin's and Monk's work together in ''Laughing Wild." As Woman, Monk, dressed in black with a red shawl, quotes Beckett (quoting Thomas Gray) about ''laughing wild amid severest woe." Taxi drivers, the seasons, Alan Alda, Sally Jessy Raphael -- all bring on states of melancholy and anger that threaten to send her back to a mental institution.
With stiff body language and little nuance in her delivery, Monk actually seems like a desperate stand-up comic, particularly when she lets loose with one of her all too frequent laughs, which are more grotesque than wild. ''Tell me," she says, ''Are you enjoying my company, or are you wishing I'd go away?" Well, since you asked . . .
Did Durang let her down, or Martin? Or did she let them down?
Durang sure didn't let himself down in his monologue. He originated the part of Man in 1987, and he's brilliant at it at the Huntington. Dressed in gray, trying to self-medicate with a new-age mantra, Man strives for a calmness -- maybe even a happiness -- that's clearly beyond his reach. He's a nebbish waiting to happen.
Durang also recalls a stand-up comic, but a good one. If his material is a little lost in the '80s, there's nothing dated about his mannerisms, which recall Nathan Lane on tranquilizers. A tender smile keeps the audience on his side. His timing, particularly when he imagines a conversation between God and the angel Gabriel, couldn't be better.
The subject of this conversation is the religious right's contention that AIDS is God's plague against homosexuals. Although not something you hear a lot about these days, the conversation is a perfect example of how a topical reference can outlive its time and still be funny. Durang's understated delivery is so attuned to the absurdity of the homophobia he's satirizing that you're invited to think of contemporary corollaries. And it's obvious with the selection of the new pope, things haven't gotten any better in the teachings of the Catholic Church, the object of plenty of Durang derision.
Man and Woman are united in Act 2. They keep imagining each other in their dreams, which overlap and replicate each other's. They both dream, for example, that Man, dressed in so much red and white religious finery that he can't sit down, is the Infant of Prague appearing on the Sally Jessy Raphael TV show, only Woman has killed the talk-show hostess and taken her place.
Their byplay in this scene goes on too long, but Durang the actor is always buttressing Durang the writer. That's particularly true in a series of supermarket dreams, in which his varied reactions to Woman breathing down his neck and bopping him on the head keep the action rolling.
By the play's end, Man and Woman find some acceptance of their shared sadness and common humanity, at least in their dreams; they've established themselves as worthy successors to Beckett's ''I can't go on, I must go on" figures. It's unfortunate that Man and Woman aren't pulling the load equally on this journey, but at least it feels that they ultimately get where Durang wanted them to go.
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.