Guthrie Theater’s “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”: Knights, erudite but light

Guthrie Theater’s “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”: Knights, erudite but light

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher can hardly open his mouth or lift his pen without dropping a dry witticism or an erudite bon mot. That gift has served him well, but in the play now on stage at the Guthrie Theater, Hatcher coasts on it—settling for an intermittent patter of chuckles rather than building to belly laughs.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court adapts and updates Mark Twain’s 1889 satire, in which an engineer gets whacked on the head with a crowbar and wakes up in Camelot, ultimately using his knowledge of 19th-century technology to become acclaimed as a magician. In Hatcher’s version, the unwitting time-traveler is an underemployed schmo from 2015, who dons a suit of armor that belonged to an early-Medieval ancestor of his. He stumbles, and when he rises he’s in his ancestor’s shoes in more senses than one.

Director Ian Belknap’s take on this material—in a joint presentation by the Guthrie and the Acting Company—plays less like a satire than a situation comedy, in part because the Round Table has become such a battered target over the century-plus intervening between Twain and Hatcher. Monty Python looms over Arthurian comedy, and though Hatcher studiously avoids any references to that fact, we feel an implicit taunt in this show’s general direction every time it’s not as funny as Monty Python and the Holy Grail—or even that film’s overstuffed theatrical adaptation Spamalot.

Though Hatcher’s verbal facility and rapid-fire references keep this Connecticut Yankee from ever falling completely flat, isolated gags die on the vine for lack of a structure that would make them more than the sum of their parts. What’s more, there’s a strangely sloppy feel to the way that jokes are set up and ignored, and to the opportunities that are missed.

For example, much is made of the play’s initial setting: a 15-year reunion of a Hartford high school class of 2000. We’re regaled with late-century pop music as we take our seats, but that’s the end of it: the play doesn’t do anything in particular with this minor act of time travel, either before or after we travel back even farther. Then, there’s the fact that a central prop is a character’s family Bible that was apparently printed a millennium before Gutenberg—an anachronism that’s explained so offhandedly I couldn’t even tell whether it was meant to be a punch line.

Other comic cul-de-sacs are due to miscasting and loose direction. Comedy thrives on strong characterization—that’s why Steve Urkel, who would surely have rated a reference at an actual class of ’00 reunion, managed to last an unlikely nine years (plus syndication) on national TV. The only really successful comic creations in Connecticut are Grant Fletcher Prewitt’s Clarence, Susannah Stahlmann’s Morgan LeFay, and Adam Mondschein’s Arthur—though the king falls victim to an uncanny valley of homoerotic humor.

We think we’re getting set up for an illicit romance between the fey monarch and his floppy-haired First Knight (Torsten Johnson), who instead turns out to be a heterosexual horndog with effete mannerisms. This could all have worked if the show had slowed down to engage the unlikely situation, but instead it’s brushed off and we’re left not knowing what to make of a weird romantic triangle.

At the center of the show, time-traveler Andy Nogasky seems adrift. A hapless underachiever with the benefit of a library of knowledge he’d fortunately downloaded (“I don’t trust the cloud”) to his iPhone—which has a battery that lasts for over a year, exactly until it’s convenient for the plot that it die—Nogasky’s Hank is caught in a no-man’s-land between cracking the jokes and being the butt of them. The character is drawn so weakly, the show lacks a center of gravity to draw us in—and a romance between Hank and Suzy Kohane’s Sandy seems purely hypothetical.

Despite some memorable quips and a couple of wicked barbs, I’m sad to say this Connecticut Yankee strikes out.

Jay Gabler