Arriving early so I could get a good seat, I sat, knees practically touching the stage. The Bryant-Lake Bowl theater slowly filled up to the accompaniment of unsettling music: a soft bell tolling in the distance, anxious descending strings, alarmed horns, and occasionally that most disturbing instrument (at least to Americans), the accordion. The red curtain moved back and forth as if a tremendous beast lay breathing on the other side. All in all, a fit setting for the macabre, humorously grotesque William & Mary: The Way Out Experiment.
The story begins where so many end—with the death of the main character. Philosophy professor William Pearl (Lawrence Ripp) is dying of cancer, as his wife, Mary (Vickijoan Keck), learns, and the end will be soon. We quickly find out that the professor’s house is run on an autocratic footing, as he informs Mary of all the provisions in his will that will ensure things continue to be just as he likes them even after he passes. No spending money recklessly, no smoking, no jazz music, no pets, no newspaper, no telephone service, no eating anything but lean meat (certainly no cakes), and absolutely no visits from his idiotic brother. A violation of these terms means his (clearly long-suffering) wife will be cut off without a dime.
However, Dr. Landy—played with manic volubility by Sam Ahern—has a plan. Once William dies, his brain can be preserved indefinitely outside his body, even hooked up to an eye and a makeshift “ear,” and can communicate with the outside world via a light and a buzzer. Sounds perfect for a man who considered his pursuit of pure reason to be limited by this gross flesh, right? Well, Mary isn’t ready for “death-do-them-part” just yet . . .
The Way Out Experiment is based on the 1961 television show ’Way Out (no, that initial apostrophe is not a typo—at least, not our typo), which was hosted by none other than Roald Dahl, well known for his darkly humorous and occasionally unsettling children’s stories. The show was adapted for the stage from the episode of the same name by Lawrence Ripp, who also directed the production as well as playing Professor Pearl. Ripp notes that the inspiration for adapting the little known show came from how it stuck with him through the years: “My thinking now is if any show could have that effect on a 10-year old boy who up to that point only looked forward to Huckleberry Hound and The Three Stooges, well, it must have been something special,” he says.
Special it was, and the adaptation showed that to good advantage. Ripp’s William was irascible, crotchety, and callous to an alarming degree. Keck’s superficially bland and agreeable Mary later revealed secretive depths, much to William’s dismay. Ahern’s Dr. Landy was disturbingly eager to get to the dismemberment (for science!), while the rising tension was broken by amusing “commercials” featuring Cigarette Guy and Girl Michael Mayket and Shira Levenson-Mayket cheerfully shilling for L&M filtered cigarettes. Levenson-Mayket also switched to a more serious mode in order to play Greta, Mary’s lawyer and “special friend.”
Presented in front of unrelieved black curtains, the characters occasionally seemed to be surrounded by a pressing darkness—a feeling that grew as the show progressed and the macabre denouement inched closer. The “commercials” broke the serious mood, but their upbeat messaging turned back on itself when you considered the product they were pushing might well provide you with William’s unenviable and initially terminal diagnosis. A celebration at the end was flavored by the bitter joy of revenge best served while William’s unheeded protests added a delightful taste of horror, made sweeter by the cupcakes passed out by the cast to the audience. (Free cupcakes, yum!)
Not as long lived as its better-known cousin, The Twilight Zone, ’Way Out ended after 14 episodes, lasting from March to July of 1961. Many of the episodes can be found on YouTube. Like its namesake, The Way Out Experiment popped up and was gone, only playing for two nights (after previously being presented at the Fringe Festival). Despite being here and gone like a nose sticking out of doors on these frigid days, these shows are well worth catching if you can. Your next chance will be in March, when Mindless Mirth is presenting an adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Second Verdict. I’m looking forward to it!
William & Mary: The Way Out Experiment was presented at the Bryant-Lake Bowl theater by Mindless Mirth Productions on January 12 and 13, 2018.