Timeless Laughs

The Comedy Playhouse honors the works of humorist Robert Benchley

By day, Bruce Bieszki is an accountant and co-owner of a used-car dealership.

But as day fades into dusk, Bieszki becomes a theatrical entrepreneur. Having knocked around community theaters for about 17 years, Bieszki decided he would create one of his own. So almost two years ago, the Comedy Playhouse was born.

In a little strip mall at the corner of First Avenue and Prince Road, Bieszki found a small but workable space where he has set about to establish the Bieszki brand of theater.

"I want to present my audience with a pleasant and cheerful two hours of entertainment when they walk into my door," he explains.

Unlike most theaters in Tucson, Comedy Playhouse is not a not-for-profit-organization; it is a sole proprietorship with Bieszki in charge. "I do everything," he says.

He has no employees—all of his personnel are volunteers who, as at most community theaters, jump at the chance to participate in something they love to do.

"I've seen theaters do things right, and theaters do things wrong, so when I set this place up, I made sure there was low overhead," he says.

Bieszki chooses the plays, directs them, and designs the sets, costumes and lighting. And sometimes he performs as well.

"I'm also the janitor," he laughs.

Why did he choose to sidestep the nonprofit model, which opens up eligibility to outside funding sources?

"At this point in my life, I can't deal with committees," he explains. "And we can be nimble when we need to be."

That agility has given rise to a rather unique addition to the standard comedies and mysteries typical of Comedy Playhouse. It's a series called The Comedy Genius of ... , in which non-theatrical literature is given a somewhat theatrical presentation.

"Our experience has shown that the most effective rehearsal time for us for a standard production is seven weeks," he explains. "But our audience would begin to fall off after five weeks. Since I really can't afford to have the theater dark for two weekends, I was looking for something that could be produced simply, but would be fun and a bit unusual. There are certainly plenty of humorists out there, and their material falls well within the type of comedy we want to be known for."

Bieszki draws from authors whose names may be familiar to most of us for their delightfully humorous essays, lectures and/or short stories. He compiles some of these pieces into an evening's worth of entertainment. With the help of actors he feels have the ability to communicate effectively in the style, these pieces are presented in a readers'-theater type of format.

"The goal is to get talented people to get this material off the page," he says.

The series' first presentation, in May, was The Comedy Genius of Mark Twain. "I wanted to start with something folks would be somewhat familiar with," he says.

The five performances over two weekends were successful enough that Bieszki is continuing to keep the series alive. The current presentation, which concludes Friday and Saturday, is The Comedy Genius of Robert Benchley. A humorist, satirist and theater critic who wrote for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, Benchley offers an output that's impressive in quantity as well as quality. He was also a founding member of what came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table, along with Dorothy Parker, Robert E. Sherwood and George S. Kaufman, among other literary notables.

Bieszki declares, "He wrote very good stuff, very funny material."

He's right. I attended last Saturday's performance, and it was a pleasure to hear Benchley's wonderfully sophisticated yet accessible humor. Bieszki joined Tony Eckstat, Drew Kallen and Nell Summers to bring 14 pieces of Benchley's material to life with skill and a light touch. From "Not According to Hoyle," a slap at uppity bridge players, to the hilarious "Polyp With a Past," it was a well-put-together evening of—Bieszki would be glad to know—pleasant and cheerful entertainment.

These were the same actors who presented The Comedy Genius of Mark Twain, and they were more than enthusiastic about participating in the Benchley project.

Summers says, "I think Bruce has a really good idea with this series. It provides a bridge between the regular plays, and it hasn't really been done a lot before. Because we're reading the material, not as much rehearsal time is required, but we put a lot of ourselves into it. It's just a lot of fun."

Kallen agrees. "It's quite unusual for an audience to see and hear a humorist they may have read years ago. They get reacquainted with the authors in a really different way than by just reading them. Characters come alive, and we hear the writers' wordplay and their great descriptive language. And as an actor, it's fun, because it's something different than what we usually do. It feels fresh."

Eckstat shares Bieszki's commitment to theater as entertainment. "You want people to feel good when they leave the theater," he says.

One of the things he likes most about the The Comedy Genius of ... series performance style is the chance to really interact with the audience. "It's a real give-and-take experience."

Next up in the series is The Comedy Genius of O. Henry, and after that, the Playhouse will bring new life to Edna Ferber's great humor.

"Although she wrote about her experiences as a young woman in Chicago 100 years ago, her stories are just as fresh and funny today," Bieszki says.

When asked how his theater is doing financially, CPA Bieszki says he actually may turn a profit this year. He laughs, "In 2011, to make sure a theater stays above water, you'd better have a degree in accounting."