What makes a person funny?
Despite fending off fits of laughter for the last six weeks, Judy Becotte can't answer the question.
"It's very difficult to put it into words," said the 74-year-old. "You either have it or you don't.''
But she can tell you where to find a stage full of comedians. Beginning Friday, the Largo Cultural Center's theater troupe, Eight O'Clock Theatre, will present Dearly Departed, a comedy based south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The show includes a cast of hilarious actors, said Becotte, the show's director.
"And what I can tell you is that the secret to making Dearly Departed work, what makes it so funny, lies in the actors playing it straight. Even the playwrights at the beginning of the script stressed that the characters should be real people. The success is in the line delivery.''
The play, written by David Bottrell and Jessie Jones in 1991, includes a dysfunctional family living in the Bible Belt. After the father, Bud Turpin (played by Buddy Cate), croaks at his breakfast table, the clan gathers in an attempt to give the patriarch an honorable send-off.
Unfortunately, as the story unfolds, havoc ensues. The eldest son, Ray-Bud (Rafi Rodriguez), drowns his sorrows with hard liquor. The daughter, named Delightful (Morgan Dixon), seeks her solace in food. Junior (Trey Ryan), the younger son, is in the midst of financial panic. Meanwhile, his wife, Suzanne (Lynne Coleman), suspects him of infidelity, while his kids behave like wild animals.
And this doesn't even include the neighbors.
Trey Ryan, who also performed in Eight O'Clock's production of Guys and Dolls in March, concurs that delivery is central to successful comedy.
"One thing that can guarantee that a person is not funny is when they try too hard to be funny. When you have material that is already proven, deliver it properly, and it'll work,'' said Ryan, 37.
Lynne Coleman, who plays Ryan's on-stage wife, believes part of the play's success is that it has qualities mirroring families all over, not just Southern clans.
"I'm from upstate New York, and, hey, I see some of my family on that stage, too,'' said Coleman, 51.
Ryan agreed. "This may be in the Deep South, but dysfunction is everywhere. From the first read through, I could hear people cracking up. People can't help but identify the characters with someone in their own life.''
Dearly Departed will be followed by Eight O'Clock's finale of the season, The Melody Lingers On: The Songs of Irving Berlin, which will run July 10-19.