All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Tom Teti’s scholarship impresses. The actor has not only done research to write a script that assigns him the laudable part of America’s finest humorist, Mark Twain, but he has obviously studied the man and his life to the point he can go beyond Twain as a character reeling off his jokes and observations to the writer as a man, able to speak authoritatively about all matters Twain.
Teti’s show, “Mark Twain Unplugged,” at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse through February 8, entertains throughout, but the highlight is a question-and-answer session in which Teti fields random and unscreened questions from the audience. Maintaining his stance as Twain, Teti answers these queries quickly and accurately. It takes a lot of confidence and knowledge to pull off such a feat, and Teti does it with assurance and aplomb.
Since questions are asked to be directed towards Twain, I couldn’t ask the one thing I want to know, and that is whether Tom Teti is a Mark Twain aficionado of long-standing or someone who looked in the mirror one day, saw some traits of Twain in his graying hair, and set about seeing if he could craft a show about him.
Either way, Teti scores big as both a performer and as an expert about a man all Americans should cherish as an original thinker who gave humor a voice and whose comments and insights are often as true today as when Twain presented them. Especially about government, upon which he looked askance.
Teti is nonchalant is his approach to Twain. The 70 minutes he is on stage is like a relaxed visit with a friend of long standing. Teti doesn’t fuss or preen. He talks to the audience, giving biographical information that contains a zinger or eight and telling stories that lead up to a famous Twain quote or aphorism. While gentle, cerebral comedy dominates Teti’s performance, he takes time for a thoughtful passage Twain composed about slavery. (Being from Philadelphia, where for some reason slavery touches deep nerves, I sometimes tire of the subject, but Twain and Teti keep things basic, and it’s good to hear from someone, Twain, who saw slavery firsthand and who had various attitudes towards it, including as an abolitionist.)
Unrushed, yet well-paced, Teti lets Twain’s stories flow. Twain talks about his boyhood in the towns of Florida and Hannibal, Missouri. He reminisces about his models for Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Jim, and Becky Thatcher, and tells how he caught his younger brother, Henry Clemens, square on the head with a hollowed out watermelon gourd — hollowed from Twain eating the fruit — from a third floor window as Henry walked down the street unaware. From his mother’s response to his antics, you can see where young Samuel Clemens got his sense of humor. And piercing honesty.
That humor derives from clear-sightedness and truth. Twain did not ridicule as much as he noticed things and put them in perspective. He often said the things people think but never utter but said them in a dry, wry manner that may cause controversy but were too on the mark to trigger offense from those innocent of the folly he was lampooning. (The people who did write complaints to Twain often receiving a return letter than was more scathing and to the point than the original barb.) Teti captures the humorist’s ease with well-crafted phrasing while showing that Twain could set people thinking in a particular direction in addition to mirroring their thoughts. Today, Twain would probably be doing observational stand-up in addition to writing novels and essays.
In a way, “Mark Twain Unplugged” is a stand-up routine, a show based on the lectures Twain gave widely in Philadelphia and throughout the U.S.
You learn a lot about Twain as Teti’s show continues. 70 minutes may sound like a short span for the theater, but they are enough to give you an satisfying taste for Twain’s way of working a story into a joke and for the scope of the man’s interests and obsessions.
In essence, Twain was a communicator. He learned his business in a day when one had to be a real reporter and not a face and voice that rehash information from an assignment card. He knew all there was about newspapers and was as useful as a compositor as he was a writer. Appearing in Ambler, Teti has Twain mention he worked for more than a year for The Philadelphia Inquirer, but after days of trying to find out, no source can tell me where the 18-year-old Twain lived while he worked in the city. (I should have asked Teti during q&a.) Twain also drew from his extensive travel throughout the United States — He spent the Civil War in Nevada once he realized he could not bring himself to kill a man he didn’t know. — and around the world. He was sophisticated beyond most people of this time but direct and folksy enough in expression to get his points across clearly and hilariously.
Twain’s targets were the pompous, the self-righteous, the pretentious, and the political, although he also had fun with everyday folk like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Teti knows how to measure a Twain line so that Congress and other dubious entities get a proper, yet civil, skewering. I wish Teti’s show was just a little longer, so I could relish Twain’s comments on the opera and on German grammar.
‘Mark Twain Unplugged” has some audience participation. It begins with everyone standing to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which allows Twain to enter the theater as a critic of the crowd’s choral work. It also invites an unwarned woman to the stage to play Becky Thatcher in a scene in which Tom Sawyer is trying to get her purposely withheld attention.
The Becky Thatcher gambit seems to come from the playbook of “Mark Twain” director Tony Braithwaite, who did a fine job in having Teti use the entire stage and in pacing the show.
Of course, I could be and probably am wrong. Braithwaite may not have suggested including someone from the audience in the action, but I noticed a couple of other junctures when I sensed Braithwaitisms, for instance after an early routine that ends with Twain telling an audience member to “see a doctor.”
Whether Tony contributed more than staging to Teti’s show, I don’t know, but the director and actor worked well together to create a show that sails by quickly yet feels complete. Among other myriad things I don’t know is whether Teti intends to use “Mark Twain Unplugged” as a sinecure, a two-man vehicle he can easily take to schools, theaters, and meeting halls around the country.
Yes, you read correctly. “Mark Twain Unplugged” is a two-hander, the second part being that of a hired pianist who stands in for Twain’s usual accompanist, his niece, Gladys, and who is called Gladys even though, at Act II, the role is filled by Sonny Leo, a man of amiable gifts who is a good foil for Twain and pleasantly fills pauses with Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and other jaunty piano works from Twain’s period (1835-1910, the years when Halley’s comment came into view).
Maura Roche did a nice job with the set which features a large leather wing chair stage right, a lectern, and lots of real estate for Teti to move in. Teti’s costume is the white ice cream suit one cannot help but associate with Mark Twain.
Like most who have read Twain, I walked into “Mark Twain Unplugged” expecting wit and enjoyment, and I found both in great measure. Along with a large dash of a veteran actor’s performance savvy.
‘Mark Twain Unplugged” runs through Sunday, February 8, at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, in Ambler, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. No Saturday matinee in scheduled for Jan. 31. Tickets range from $35 to $28 and can be obtained by calling 215-654-0200 or by visiting www.act2.org.