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Joan of Arc is knocking at Aurora’s door

By John Angell Grant, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday March 16, 2002

The children’s joke “knock knock” invites the response, “Who’s there?” The answer can be “uncle Milty’s underwear” or “boo” or any number of responses. 

In cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s 1976 existential sitcom “Knock Knock,” the answer is “Joan of Arc.”  

On Thursday, the Aurora Theater Company opened a production of Feiffer’s dark, comedic ode to cynicism in downtown Berkeley. 

In tone and character, “Knock Knock” is a lot like Feiffer’s famous Village Voice cartoons of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s that feature neurotic, intellectualizing, self-absorbed characters who comically try to think their ways out of despairing and narcissistic feelings.  

As the play opens, it finds two such crusty old geezers sharing a log cabin in the woods and bickering about the meaning of life. 

Cohn (Will Marchetti) is an unemployed musician who hasn’t left the house in 20 years. His philosophy of life is, “I believe in me. After that, there’s room for doubt.” 

His roommate, Abe (Dan Hiatt), is a retired stockbroker , who is also unable to find anything in meaningful life.  

Their verbal gymnastics skip across the topics of reality and illusion, beauty and ugliness, parallel worlds, religion, change and the probability of things turning out one way or another. It’s the same pseudo-intellectual guff of Feiffer’s cartoons.  

It’s as though Felix and Oscar from Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” have somehow merged with Vladimir and Estragon from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” 

When, by the magic of whimsical divine intervention, Cohn is granted three wishes, Joan of Arc (Rachel Brown) knocks at the cabin door along with a zany sidekick named Wiseman (Sara Moore). The story then becomes one of a cynic getting his wishes granted, and finding he’s not able to deal with that very well. 

But the play’s absurdly twisting and turning storyline is not consistently funny. At its best, under Michael Butler’s direction, “Knock Knock” achieves moments of entertaining dialogue a little like the Abbott and Costello who’s on first routine. 

Other highlights include a funny scene where Cohn tries to stuff Wiseman into a trunk and the limbs keep popping out. Elsewhere, there is a hilarious poker game between Abe and Wiseman. 

But ultimately it’s hard to care much about these two humorless, dogmatic, self-centered men who take their self-absorption so seriously. 

Further, there is a definite New York Jewish humor component to the two men’s dialogue that goes mostly unrealized in this production. Where the lines in “Knock Knock” often aren’t funny per se, their phrasing and rhythms invite the performers to make them funny with attitudes and inflections. 

In many ways, the two women in this production do better with the humor than the two men. Sara Moore is a zany, frenetic, motor-mouthed Wiseman, outstanding in the poker-playing scene, and bizarre as a UPS delivery boy with a vacant Valley Boy accent. 

Brown turns in a distinctive performance as goofy, blissed out Joan, someone who appears not to be playing with a full deck.  

Oddly, “Knock Knock” is the second play this year at the Aurora in which Joan of Arc figures as a major character. The first was January’s “St. Joan." This appears to be some kind of Aurora in-joke. 

Feiffer began his famous Village Voice comic strip in the mid-1950s, and won a editorial cartooning Pulitzer for it in 1986. Abe and Cohn of "Knock Knock" are cousins to the characters in the comics. 

But in elaborating their stories beyond a few quickly read newspaper panels, Feiffer hasn’t given them enough complexity to carry the weight of a full evening in the theater. 




Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for "American Theatre," "Backstage West," "Callboard," and many other publications. E-mail him at or fax him at 1-419-781-2516.