Laughs are not epic in Epic Proportions — which is not to say that the show is (as Noah might put it) a complete washout. This spoof of Biblical and Roman film epics from Larry Coen and David Crane certainly has funny bits, just not enough comic spark or momentum to justify its two hours. The play — which focuses, à la Stones in His Pockets, on extras (or " atmosphere personnel " ) in a 1930s Hollywood movie that’s being filmed in the Arizona desert — weaves an unlikely tale of two brothers who start out as spear carriers but become the ex post facto director and star of the film. The problem is that, apart from the conceit that life on the set comes to imitate the shlock art being filmed, the play is a one-joke pony. Biblical epics are hoky and wooden and full of surging bodies in sandals.
Although the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, cavorting before hieroglyph-decorated columns, gives the play a game go, it looks like what it is — namely, a goof by two college pals inspired one night by The Ten Commandments to riff on the genre à la Saturday Night Live. What has happened since Coen and Crane brainstormed the work in the early 1980s and got it produced at Manhattan Punch Line in 1986 is that Crane has gone on to co-create the television mega-hit Friends, which means that everything his young hand touched must be re-plied. Epic Proportions was produced, without success, on Broadway in 1999, whereupon its creators decided their spoof of large-scale filmmaking would play better packed onto a small stage. Hence its New England premiere at the Lyric, where Coen recently gave a winning performance in Dirty Blonde. I wouldn’t go so far as to send Charlton Heston for his gun, but Epic Proportions is little more than an extended skit by two clever guys who decided to run their youthful talents through DeMille.
The premise is that 3400 extras have been marooned in the Arizona desert of the 1930s (though most of the films being sent up were made in the ’50s). These increasingly desperate wanna-bes (represented, along with the film’s principals and staff, by seven actors) are enslaved in the service of a hackneyed all-purpose epic of the ancient world directed by " Cecil De Witt. " After a career at the helm of these things, he’s wigged-out enough to dress like Moses, talk like God, and abdicate like Edward VIII. But the play’s real focus is a pert assistant director, who’s assigned to herd the supernumeraries, and the two brothers who fall out over her. Of course, this little love triangle is sketched against a low-budget backdrop of asps and tents and gladiation, the off-camera plot interspersed with intentionally badly acted epic hokum and instructions to the extras. Reminiscent of Michael Green’s hilarious The Art of Coarse Acting, these last, which include a detailed demonstration of four different ways for crowd members to wave a conqueror in, are the best bits.
Laura Given Napoli is Louise, the AD in charge of the extras — some of whom, as one running joke has it, have all the luck, being assigned to " rejoice with wines and sweetmeats " while their less fortunate fellows are relegated to plague, pestilence, and the vomitorium. Of the brothers, Phil (Terrence O’Malley), whose marching-band experience has prepared him for large-scale choreography, gets increasing on-set responsibility and the girl while Benny (Christopher Robin Cook) spends his days as fodder for goon guards and locusts. But as life and movie bleed together, Phil, who’s been put in charge of the film, becomes monomaniacal while Benny and Louise, playing the leads, fall in love. (The fresh-faced, conscionable pair not being Liz and Dick, they feel terrible about this.)
Although the play is belabored, Beau Jest Moving Theater honcho Davis Robinson keeps it moving, distinguishing between the stiff, flowery utterance of the film within the play ( " Say not so! " ) and the sweet, serial romance. Newcomers O’Malley and Cook bring an eager, era-appropriate innocence to Phil and Benny. And the reliable Richard Snee, Neil A. Casey, Maureen Keiller, and Nathaniel McIntyre mug, fume, conspire, and perish amusingly in the campy epic. But the real reason for taking in the over-milked Epic Proportions is Napoli, with her perky authority, mincing robot walk, and — as she moves from extras’ camp counselor to Cleopatran damsel in distress — woozy thrall. In this performance, cartoon is folded into reality in just the right proportions.