Two weeks ago PBS began airing Make 'Em Laugh, a superb documentary series on "the funny business of America." The premiere episode focused on slapstick kings of silent films and early talkies: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Harpo Marx and the Three Stooges. If they'd been alive back then, the seven members of PB&J Theatre Factory might today stand alongside those giants, because their new show, Snack, is the best work of physical comedy that I've seen since … their last show, Sport.
It's 7 a.m., and two sleep-deprived servers (Brandon Roberts, Jason Horne) are preparing their diner for the day's customers. A fresh-faced kid (Mark Koenig) enters, "help wanted" sign in hand, and is immediately put to work serving an increasingly surreal succession of food-seekers: a sugar-snatching octogenarian (Becky Eck), a business traveler with a voluminously vocal digestive system (Patrick Braillard), an energy-shot—chugging obsessive jogger (Mike Gill, in one of several winks to Sport). When a brunette beauty (Meggin Weaver) with her nose in a cookbook comes in for coffee, the counterman goes overboard to brew the perfect joe. But she departs before their eyes can meet, compelling him to pursue her with cup and heart in hand.
The silly scenarios that follow, all revolving around the pursuit of food, are distinguished for three reasons. First, they are executed without any dialogue, which only enhances the emotional intelligibility (just as with Wall-E). The vocal void is filled instead with amusingly organic sound effects (mostly generated by Gill), bolstered with occasional verbal nonsense that recalls the pseudospeech from the Sims games. The show skates on a near-flawless soundtrack of snack-centric vintage music: from Scott Joplin to Satchmo; from "Beans and Cornbread" to "Yes! We Have No Bananas." The songs are more than just sonic wallpaper, as the musicality of the cast's comic timing makes many scenes border on ballet.
A second highlight is the cohesiveness of the entertainment, especially in light of the fact that this is a collaborative effort with no credited director (though stage manager Colin Peterson is the unseen "fifth Beatle"). I have a limited attention span for sketch comedy (Saturday Night Live is always 30 minutes too long), and their Fringe outings were under an hour, so I was surprised by how successfully PB&J sustained this full-length show. Topics range from TSA tortures and airplane indignities to enactments of corny kids' jokes, and it delightfully comes together by the end.
Finally, Roberts stands out in a superb ensemble as some sort of kinetic genius. From the shape of his ears to the slouch of his shoulders, Roberts appears to have been genetically engineered to be funny; whether he's a harried busboy or a hungry Neanderthal, he radiates pathos and pulls laughs with the smallest glance or squeal.
Slapstick, it's said, is the most primitive comedy, but that is no insult. Snack is a show jaded adults and wide-eyed kids can enjoy equally, not unlike a great Looney Tunes cartoon. Just watch your waistline: I demolished a bag of popcorn and a box of Whoppers before email@example.com