Roast is a world premiere and a credible first play by Northwestern alum Harry Wood, produced by the Comrades. It’s often funny and occasionally poignant, even though the structure of the play is a little jumpy and erratic. Roast actually is a roast, in the form of a funeral service, for a comedian who committed suicide. That’s the not-funny part. (The theater company provides info and a link to a suicide prevention hotline on a welcome card in their program.)
Derek Bertelsen directs the roast, which begins with a welcome to the Tranquil Leaves Bereavement Palace by the funeral director Albert Lassiter (Roy Pugh). Six of the comic’s friends and relatives are here to tell stories about Sam, with opening remarks and speaker intros by Lassiter, who admits he has never presided over this type of funeral before (or told a joke before). He now is relishing his turn at the mic a little too much.
The participants include Sam’s sister and muse Alyssa (Kyra Jones) and his absent father Edward (John Miraglia), who each have their own backstories and memories of Sam. The comics are Sharon (Alison Plott), Sam’s childhood friend and confidant; Sonny (Mike Newquist) and Keith (Reginald Hemphill), his comedian colleagues; and Beth (Kelli Walker), who counted Sam among the comics she mentored. The scene between father and sister near the end is sad and rather compelling but quite a switch from the earlier black hilarity.
The event is carried out with breaks between each of the speakers, taking us back each time to the moments before the funeral began. To get there, the participants close the curtain in front of Sam’s casket and move furniture to set up the second set. It’s a little clunky.
Roast ran 95 minutes on opening night and it could be tightened up to a crisp 75-minute story. Some of the speakers go on too long—is that a surprise? The interludes between speakers could be abbreviated or, in some cases, eliminated.
Set design is by Sydney Achler with lighting by Nicholas Coso. Becca Venable is sound designer. One of her pre-show music choices was the Queen song, “Another One Bites the Dust.”
The Comrades is a three-year-old theater company. Earlier this year, we reviewed their fine production of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone.
Roast by the Comrades continues at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., through August 18. Tickets are $15-20 for performances Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm.