‘Lost Laughs’ has promise, but lags near the end

Aaron Muñoz (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle) and Kristen Mengelkoch (Will) in “Lost Laughs.” Photo by Meghan Moore

LOWELL – He is the answer to a trivia question. Who was the first movie star to make $1 million in a year?

No, it wasn’t Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. Before they became household names, there was none bigger — literally and figuratively – than Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who made 153 motion pictures in 11 years in the silent movie era.

In 1918, as his star was at its zenith, Arbuckle was signed to a three-year contract worth $3 million, $74 million by today’s standards

But today, if we think about him at all, it’s because of his politically incorrect nickname and vague memories that he was tied to a sex scandal that brought down his career, and his eventual death from a heart attack at the age of 46.

The rise and fall of a bright star – and the accompanying rise of the celebrity culture – is at the heart of the world premiere of “Lost Laughs: The Slapstick Tragedy of Fatty Arbuckle” at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

MRT Artistic Director Sean Daniels promised to be a champion of new work when he arrived in Lowell and he has fulfilled that promise, with its accompanying high risk/high reward factor due to the new shows’ lack of a brand name with proven results.

Aaron Muñoz (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle) and Kristen Mengelkoch (Minta Durfee) Photo by Meghan Moore

New works often get reshaped or reworked by critical opinion, but a world premiere hasn’t yet been vetted before the public and the critics.

Lowell-born and Billerica-raised Andy Bayiates and Aaron Munoz, who performs the title character, have fashioned a funny, often poignant look at the perils of celebrity and a man tasked with trying to unravel the mystery of what really happened to him. It is a cautionary tale about the two sides of fame, a reputation smeared and – perhaps – lost unfairly

But at the end of the currently 75-minute piece leaves us with the nagging feeling that we really aren’t sure what made Fatty tick,

Munoz the playwright hasn’t always done well by Munoz the performer, and“Lost Laughs” has by the end the feeling of a piece wandering around the stage trying to find a good place to sit down.

A number of great comics have arisen from truly tragic childhoods and led, in many cases, equally tragic lives. Arbuckle was one of nine children and was 13 pounds at birth. His mother died when Roscoe was 12 and his father – who blamed Roscoe for his mother’s death – eventually abandoned him, forcing him to go to work at a young age.

Munoz does a fine job replicating Arbuckle’s skills; physically, he was a mass of contradictions, famously agile and quick on his feet, a bit of an acrobat who could easily pull off the slapstick stunts in the “Keystone Cops” series.

He also fared well with the comic’s bread and butter vaudeville tricks , including a couple of audience participation bits when we’re asked to play a vaudeville audience.

The money changed Arbuckle – how could it not – and the womanizing and the drinking were in full sway when he attended that wild party in 1921, with a dying Virginia Rappe pulled from Arbuckle’s hotel room several days late

Kristen Mengelkoch (“Veronica Mars”) is tasked with attempting to keep up with a catalog of disparate characters, including the comic Buster Keaton, Arbuckle’s three wives, and Rappe, the woman/victim at the center of the scandal, as well as an all-purpose character called “Will,” who accompanies Roscoe on his journey through life and is also a sounding board

Mengelkoch puts her all into every role, and she’s more effective in some of the portrayals than others, with her Keaton a weak spot.

Some of the more effective moments in “Lost Laughs” do come with Mengelkoch on stage as Rappe, returning from the dead to defend herself to us after her reputation was soiled in the effort to clear Arbuckle.

The set by Meredith Ries features a single bare light bulb on a portable standard on a bare stage – a so-called “ghost light” – appropriate because the stage will be the setting to bring Arbuckle back to the stage to tell his story.

History plays tricks on you. Arbuckle was vigorously prosecuted but most forget that after the first two mistraials on charges of rape and manslaughter, he was cleared of all charges after a third trial. The jury went so far as to issue a written apology for him having to endure the trial

Despite the acquittal, the lurid headlines and details of the debauchery at the partry and the stress of the trials took their toll on Arbuckle and his career.

As the former Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan said after he and seven of his colleagues were acquitted of fraud and grand larceny: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”

The problems for “Lost Laughs” come late in the 75-minute production, when there are times the play is foundering and looking for a way to exit gracefully from the stage.

That is the fault of playwrights Byiates and Munoz and not actors Munoz and Mengelkoch or Director Nathan Keepers, who has elicited strong performances. There’s just not enough “there” there.

Even in what feels like an unfinished state, “Lost Laughs” succeeds as an unvarnished look at a cultural icon gone bad, and a guide to how we brought down celebrities in the days before social media and the #MeToo movement.

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s world premiere production of “Lost Laughs: The Slapstick Tragedy of Fatty Arbuckle.” Written by Andy Bayiates and Aaron Munoz. Directed by Nathan Keepers. At the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre through March 11. mrt.org.