Painted Alice raises a very important question about human nature.

Whither the Fart Joke? 

Painted Alice raises a very important question about human nature.

The first fart joke, I'd hazard, probably came about 30 seconds after the first meal.

After that, its descendents have been wind in the sails — or perhaps gas in the tank — of our literature, funking up Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dante "Trumpets of Their Asses" Alighieri. Mark Twain imagines Walter Raleigh essaying "a godless and rockshivering blast" at the queen; lesser light Kurt Vonnegut predicts that the only human characteristic still bouncing around in the seal-like creatures we'll evolve into will be the giggly pleasure we take at each other's stinks.

Our half-controlled gasses are nature's great levelers. You might feel like Fred Astaire sipping Château Léoville with the Duke of Wellington, but as soon as one slips from the chamber you're right back to being Joe Shit the Rag Man.

So how come so many smart people today fail to make this universal joke funny?

Even at the Unicorn, the smartest theater in town, fart jokes hardly fly. For example, the one ripped halfway through the otherwise funny Painted Alice is painfully weak.

The problem, I think, is twofold. First, smart people don't believe in the fart joke enough to really sell it. Proper care isn't taken to set it up, time it and make it sound right.

Second, smart people tend to think of their fart jokes as dangerous, even political. Too often, they mistake an ability to laugh at sloppy biological truths for something that separates earthy and honest realists from the rest of us prigs who sit stonily through the theatrical cheese cutting.

What they don't get is that we will laugh — when it's funny.

We do laugh at the bulk of Painted Alice. Writer William Donnelly and director Joseph Price chuck great gobs of nonsense at us, most of which is executed with a wit lacking when it comes to that gassy nadir.

The show starts slowly, with troubled painter Alice (Alyson Schacherer) fighting flatly with her girlfriend (Katie Gilchrist) and fretting over a blank canvas. Alice has been commissioned to paint a piece for a wealthy benefactor (Teri Adams, playing many characters and making off with every scene she's in) but finds herself hesitant. Only someone selling work can call herself an artist, she tells us, yet here she is, an artist bought and paid for, suddenly unable to create. Neither this dilemma nor Alice herself commands our attention, and Schacherer — who nearly saved Blink Twice for Her from sailing over a cliff this past summer — hasn't figured out a way to elevate Alice's pouty concerns into something more universal.

Only Adams brings any snap to the opening scenes. When Schacherer and Gilchrist argue, they sound not like lovers who don't listen to each other but like actresses who are waiting for cues. It's a relief, then, that the show quickly flings Alice into a wonderland, in this case a splatter-paint set of spinning walls, kaleidoscopic lighting, projected video and everything else the Unicorn's talented stage crew can muster.

Here, beneath flats whose primary-colored splotches recall both pelted fruit and the old Dating Game set, Alice's concerns take an amusingly literal form: One of her childhood doodles has come to life. The Skoal-dipping mermaid (also Adams, spurring midshow applause) resents the fact that Alice's loose linework has left her physically impossible. The mermaid was happier when she was just an idea, a color, a crayon hanging around with her box.

Alice defends herself, insisting that she tried her best.

"You know who else tried their best?" the mermaid snarls. "Everyone who ever fucked up anything, ever."

In a succession of bizarre — and often very funny — encounters, Alice's doubts are embodied by Adams, Gilchrist and Nathan Darrow, each of whom makes the most of Donnelly's inspired balderdash. An artists' support group is full of idiot narcissists who draw their own sores while waiting to be discovered; a gasbag critic — described by Alice as "a greasy, know-it-all asshole" — wheels onto the stage to announce that "Happy artists are dead artists." He also, unfortunately, farts and sneezes simultaneously.

Most amusingly, a pair of chirpy, interchangeable Tweedles named Sugar and Sucra demonstrate what seems to Alice to be an artist's choices: popular hackdom or obscurity with integrity. When Alice asks to see their work, we get the show's (and one of this year's) best laughs.

Donnelly's script doesn't say much new about the artistic temperament, but its thoughts are sharpened into strong, surprising gags, most of which director Price stages for maximum impact. Adams helps immensely — her performance is the funniest in recent memory — and, Gilchrist, throughout the wonderland scenes, demonstrates comic gifts that belie her early listlessness.

Schacherer, I'm sorry to say, seems adrift in the plotless madness. She has her moments, particularly in monologue, but is mostly called upon to react. We never grow to care for her Alice, which means that when she finally reconciles art and life in the real world — a scene already far too pat — we don't feel much, despite Price's exquisite staging of the final moments and fine in-the-clutch acting from both Schacherer and Gilchrist.

Donnelly's trying to move us, here, but, just as the Unicorn crew seems too smart to rise to his fart joke, it feels as though he's too smart to believe his own happy ending.

When playful, Painted Alice aspires toward the "godless and rockshivering."

When serious, it couldn't stink up a Hyundai.

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