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The Mystery of Irma Vep" - An Excuse To Guffaw

Ridiculous! That's what the current offering at Arena Stage's temporary space in Crystal City is. Ridiculous!

Of course, it helps that it is supposed to be ridiculous. It is, after all, the best known play by Charles Ludlam, the late founder of The Ridiculous Theatre Company, a company on the fringe of the avant-garde. Ludlam wrote and starred in the play in 1984.

"The Mystery of Irma Vep" was his most outlandish send-up of pop culture as seen through the lenses of Hollywood. From Hitchcock ("Rebecca") to William Wyler ("Wuthering Heights'), with a slight stopover in Egypt for a visit with a mummy, the plot is completely secondary to the assembly of puns, predictable lines and gags.

It doesn't make much sense, which is precisely the point. The more you know of old movies, English melodramas and "Penny Dreadfuls," the more gags you will get. Not all are that dated, however. The show throws in more modern targets of parody and adds a series of sounds ranging from Bernard Herrmann's screeching violins from "Psycho" to the two-note sound that has become famous on television's "Law and Order" (which actor Dann Florek, who plays Captain Cragan on the "Law and Order SVU" spin off, called "the doink-doink," a term that stuck since no one could figure out a better way to describe it.)

Two prodigiously talented actors who excel at the zany side of comedy, Brad Oscar and J. Fred Shiffman, constitute the entire cast. Oscar, with his Tony Award nomination for the mad Nazi in "The Producers" and his subsequent success in the lead role in that block-buster, is the better known of the two nationwide. Shiffman, however, has the lengthier list of local credits after seven seasons at Arena Stage and many appearances at other local houses. He has no fewer than three Helen Hayes Awards.

Together, the two play seven roles, each with a costume more outlandish than the one that goes before. Oscar in particular sports a wardrobe that would put Scarlet O'Hara of "Gone With The Wind" to shame. His gowns while playing "Lady Enid Hillcrest" get so flamboyant that he is finally reduced to breaking apart the wall of the set and then backing out to make his exit, accompanied by the beep-beep-beep a truck has to make when shifted into reverse.

Not to be outdone in the drag department, Shiffman's dour dress and wild wig as the maid/housekeeper of Hillcrest Manner recalls the mysterious, super-polite control freaks who lorded over the occupants of the manor houses on the moor in those black and white mystery romances of the 1930s (think "Wuthering Heights").

Ridiculously zany comedy is at its best when the performers give the impression that they are having as much if not more fun than the audience. Early in the run, Oscar and Shiffman haven't quite developed the rapport that allows such an impression to permeate the piece and they seem to still be concentrating on the task of quick changes in costume and character. As the run continues through July 13, the bond between them should build and each will be freed from the logistical concerns through the confidence that multiple successful performances can give.