A Thurber Carnival
Running through March 26Footlight Players Theatre20 Queen St.722-4487

As A Thurber Carnival begins, the curtain opens just enough to allow a glimpse of the ingenious set — what looks like a rollercoaster rail suspended high across the proscenium, with a wooden structure and door underneath. James Thurber appears through this curious chink, introducing the show with a brand of gentle humor that causes as much head-scratching as mirth.

Thurber’s little intro is the show in microcosm — a glimpse of the renowned humorist’s work, laced with some warm-hearted, mediocre gags and a sense of the vaguely familiar. For some, that familiarity will come from having read Thurber’s work (think Dave Barry with bigger words and darker themes) or his posthumous TV show, My World and Welcome To It. For others, his insight into human nature will resonate.

His carnie folk include anthropomorphized animals (monkeys, mongooses, and bears, oh my!), military bumblers, dreamers, and dancers alongside everyday secretaries, sales people, doctors, and nurses. The cast cover all of these oddballs and archetypes with deft precision. It’s fitting that professional local storyteller Brian McCreight plays Thurber; in many of his appearances, that’s just what the character is doing — telling stories. In others he’s an attentive observer or participant in his own vignettes. McCreight is assured and amicable, never overplaying his jokes.

His fellow actors each play several characters, with certain roles that stand out. Calais Gomes-Guglielmi is memorable as a giggly floorwalker and Nelly, an over-enthusiastic poetry pillager. Terry Schildcrout makes a couple of brief, memorable appearances as Walter Mitty’s insufferable wife. Mark Wheeler brings subtle touches to a part that could easily be hammed up — a hung-over General Ulysses S. Grant, struggling to accept the Confederate surrender. He’s also entertaining as a stoic British man, although his performance in “The Human Being and the Dinosaur” is disappointingly one-note.

Wheeler’s monodimensional reading of “The Human Being” is a hazard of doing this show. Aside from his writing, Thurber was feted for his minimalist cartoon sketches that often appeared in The New Yorker. Many of the carnival characters are little more than that, caricatures depicted with big fat brushstrokes, ciphers for thin gags or sly social comments. A lot of the time, men are drunken bears and women are shrews or ditzy dames. Thankfully, the casting helps to counter any stereotypes; in fact the actors give many of the characters more credibility than they deserve, including Christina Rhodes’ American Woman and Greg Lovelace’s Walter Mitty.

Mitty’s the spiritual granddaddy of Billy Liar, Alley McBeal, and other fictional creations who persist in dreaming despite the constant disappointments of their real-world surroundings. His imagination seems to have rubbed off on director Kyle Mims and set designer Richard Heffner, who provides an ingenious transforming set that incorporates a portable staircase and swing, a code-breaking crate, and interior design elements from the ’20s through the ’50s. The costumes are visually pleasing, too. Film and stage veteran Gwendolyn James-Chisholm helps create strong period vibe, particularly effective in an overlong “File and Forget” scene.

There’s plenty to admire in this eclectic show: the choreography, as flappers dance across the stage and stop to quote Thurber in the first act; the brass quartet, playing a jazzed-down “Smells Like Teen Spirit;” the imaginative leaps that transform a stepladder into a ship’s rigging or a Shakespearean tragedy into a murder mystery. But time hasn’t been kind to all of Thurber’s witticisms, and some of the play’s references are too obscure to work. Others are hilarious because we can still relate to them.

Experiencing this mixed bag is like looking at most New Yorker cartoons — you can get the joke if you stare at them long enough, but they’re not that funny. The Footlight Players do their best to keep their production relevant, but by choosing to put on this quaint old cavalcade they’re up against something as blind and callous as any of the intolerances Thurber railed against — the whirligig of time itself.