Why are sitcoms so popular in America? Perhaps it's because nothing bad ever really seems to happen, at least nothing that can't be shrugged off and reset by the end of the episode. David Adjmi's intriguing remix of Three's Company, 3C, takes the opposite approach: nothing good happens, and the powerful spate of laughter that serves as the climax of the show is quickly followed, and ultimately stifled, by a deadening silence.
The sitcom conventions are all there, most notably in the outlandish landlords, mentally unbalanced Mrs. Wicker (Kate Buddeke) and horrifically racist Mr. Wicker (Bill Buell). But the thematic structure of the play can be summed up by its subversion: a massive series of comic misunderstandings lead the fastidious florist Linda (Hannah Cabell) to first believe that their Night at the Roxbury-like neighbor Terry (Eddie Cahill) is sticking his dick in the nose of her ditsy, promiscuous roommate Connie (Anna Chlumsky) -- they're actually doing coke. ("How can I feel good when I have all of this white stuff coming out of my nostrils?") Her prudishness makes it difficult to explain this to her new roommate, Brad (Jake Silbermann), which leads him to believe that she's figured out that he's actually gay -- not just pretend gay, to fool the landlords -- an issue that makes her condemnations -- "I'm sick, you're making me sick to my stomach" -- wound him even more. Likewise, when Connie comforts this former Vietnam soldier, trying to get him to confront his trauma, he mistakes her solidarity as a confession that she's a lesbian: "Just today I was with someone [at the beach]. It felt nice. I love getting all wet."
Jackson Gay does a terrific job of staging all the beats of this production: pratfalls for clumsy Brad ("Is there some sort of insupportable weight you're carrying?"), striking one-liners for Connie ("I just get lonely and needy. Boy, I hope I don't get raped!"), and a whole series of elaborate dance sequences choreographed by Deney Terrio that express the ways in which Linda attempts to get out of the body that she feels trapped in. Gay's also absolutely brutal and unrelenting in the pacing, so when Mr. Wicker abruptly starts masturbating an unwilling Linda, or when Terry's "faggot" teasing turns violent, the shifts are shocking, as if the characters in a Nickelodeon cartoon abruptly started acting as if they were in an HBO drama. The cast, without exception, is exceptional, with particular attention given to Cabell and Chlumsky, who get the lion's share of reversals and breakdowns.
The best example of Adjimi's technique can be seen in a simple game called "Faces," which Brad and Linda play in an attempt to cheer each other up (or, more literally, to mask their true feelings). One person calls out an emotion, the other person displays it: elated, anxious. But whereas a sitcom might leave things at this level -- broad strokes of showing, not telling -- Adjimi digs deeper, demands more: carefree, with an undercurrent of fanaticism. These are things that shouldn't -- can't, really -- go together, and yet these contradictions are part of the all-too-human condition. Is it any surprise that Linda breaks down for real after attempting to convey "Anguish, with an undercurrent of sexiness"? That could just as easily be her life, or at least, it could be, if she only had the confidence to embrace her looks.
Don't dismiss 3C, then, as being simple or silly, although it is, at times, both those things. If you like, you're welcome to try to laugh it all off -- surely we've come a long way since this 1978 setting -- but you'll most likely find, as these unlikely roommates do, that we're terrifyingly stuck in some ugly conventions and some uglier lies. Tune in, turn on, don't drop out.