The stage at Plays & Players Theatre these days looks like a combination hamster cage/prison cell/Lego village, an environment that seems too tiny to hold several of the city's most outsized theatrical practitioners.
The staging of bunkbeds and cartoon props may physically squeeze Dave Jadico (comic thespian, writer, 1812 Productions staple) and Aaron Cromie (director, actor, mask- and puppet-maker). But nothing gets in the way of the fast-moving, belly-flopping, arm-flailing duo in Dave & Aaron Go to Work, a silent film-inspired comedy that's equal parts Buster Keaton and The Odd Couple. The play, now in previews, opens this week.
With Cromie as slob and Jadico as fussbudget, Dave & Aaron's characters offer up clunky ideas for odd jobs (astronaut, dog walker, etc.) with wrongheaded results.
"Although I'm the Oscar to his Felix, we have similar senses of humor, comic timing, and a copasetic idea of structure," says the wild-haired Cromie. Neatly coiffed Jadico cops to tidiness in real life, a nice contrast to Cromie's chaos. "Aaron's house is an explosion of books and art projects, while his kitchen looks like a masterful seven-course meal for 20 was just prepared," Jadico says. "My house looks like a hotel room. It's amazing we get along."
But oh, they do.
During 2003's Philly Fringe festival, they conceived Two Hats Two Heads, about vaudevillian hat jugglers, a spiritual prequel to Dave & Aaron.
In 2007, Cromie directed Jadico in Mum Puppettheatre's The Fantasticks, for which Jadico won a Barrymore Award as best supporting actor.
The pair cocreated the whimsical The Foocy with Tony Lawton and Matt Pfeiffer; were cast-mates in the Lantern Theater Company's The Comedy of Errors, and in 1812 Productions' Another Big Time (2001) and Batboy, The Musical (2003).
"I love what 1812 does, so any chance to work with them is a pleasure," Cromie says of the all-comedy outfit. "They're an office full of joyful people who love their audience."
Dave & Aaron is one in a series of dazzlingly unique events Cromie has crafted, for himself and for stages in the region, since the early 2000s.
"I definitely make my career and my mortgage payments with a combination of the two ideas - working for theaters as well as making my own work as an independent artist," he says. A master conceptualist, he is known for making boldly stylized puppets and creating vividly amorphous atmospheres with arcane theatrical effects (most recently the eerie, grisly shadow play of the Titus Andronicus he directed at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre in spring).
For Jadico, Dave & Aaron is a chance to make his bones as an 1812 leading man after years as writer, stager, and second banana. Since joining 1812 for its second show, 1999's Box Office of the Damned, he has been the quirky, quiet one, George Harrison to the rest of the Fab Four - boss Jen Childs and perennial leads Scott Greer, Peter Pryor, and Tony Braithwaite.
"Often I'm cast into secondary roles, despite my tall, handsome, leading-man good looks, so I guess this is one of the first times I am in a lead-type role," he says. "It's certainly the first time my name is in the title. But as they say, there are no small roles, only small actors, of which I am one."
Such humility can't undercut Jadico's value as artistic director of the improv group ComedySportz or his time with the much-missed LunchLady Doris long-form improvisational troupe. He met Childs in 1994 at ComedySportz, and she got to see his musical and juggling skills - which later turned out to be a perfect fit for 1812's vaudeville bits and slapstick agenda (a la Our Show of Shows), to say nothing of his ability to contribute to the rapid-fire patter of its annual This Is the Week That Is faux-news shows.
"I thrive in the collaborative process that 1812 often employs," says Jadico who also designed the Pee-wee's Playhouse-like set for Dave & Aaron, devising physical opportunities for its characters to explore. "I have a fascination with mechanics and how things work, so I like to see transformations on the stage and visual surprises for the audience," he says.
Before pushing himself into his current title role, Jadico had stretched beyond chatty physical comedy last season with a stern yet gleeful performance in The Golem with EgoPo Classic Theatre, for which "director Brenna Geffers was looking for a fortyish actor who played clarinet and did puppetry."
He notes that in his five years doing Shakespeare at Lantern Theater, he was cast as clowns but often was double-billed in serious roles: "I enjoy dramatic parts greatly but I like being an idiot onstage whenever possible."
Opportunities for that abound in the wordless Dave & Aaron, with its bows to the physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Losers in suits trying on new jobs is a venerable trope, a common theme of silents in which characters had to rely on wile and wits to get by. But this show is not a retro look at old-timey circumstance but a daffy display of physical comedy in an intricate modern setting. "The character relationship is classic but plays in a contemporary context," Cromie says.
With director Lee Etzold as a third set of eyes and composer/sound designer Alex Bechtel reinforcing the many environments the characters travel, it is as much the reflection of a friendship as it is a stage production.
"Aaron and I find the same things funny and have generated a shorthand over the years of how to communicate that," Jadico says. "Whether we're working on a prop for a special effect or choreographing a new way to hit each other in the face with a frying pan, we operate like the gears of a clock in our method of invention."
Dave & Aaron Go to Work
Wednesday to Dec. 31 at
Plays & Players Theatre,
1714 Delancey Place.
Tickets: $28-$38. 215-592-9560, www.1812productions.org.