If you look at some of the season openers around town in Charlotte – The Fantasticks, You Can’t Take It with You, Wicked, or the upcoming Rocky Horror Show – you might conclude that the common calculus among theatre companies and presenters is to begin their seasons with familiar titles that will amuse and delight their audiences as they return from their long hibernations, rather than fare that might challenge or upset them. So Paul Elliott’s Exit Laughing, just opened in a Davidson Community Players production, is an interesting case, breaking the mold while fitting comfortably into it. You might think you’re distantly familiar with this title if you associate it with a Joseph Stein script based on a semi-autobiographical Carl Reiner novel. That 1963 comedy was actually Enter Laughing, later adapted for film and directed by Reiner in 1967 – and twice transformed into musicals, most recently by Stan Daniels in 2010. Now that’s two or three years before Elliott’s Exit was completed.

Elliott’s comedy is a more recent creation than even Wicked, but it feels older because it’s more in the style of George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It with You. Like Kaufman, Elliott’s characters are wholesome heartland people who are set in their ways, with a decided lean toward harmless, comical eccentricity. Dimwittedness makes them more American rather than less, and Elliott sees his generational divide in much the same light as Kaufman did: the younger generation is more sensible while the older generation is more fun. Exit Laughing is more tightly plotted than the Kaufman comedy, two acts instead of three, with a running time of 80 minutes, plus a 20-minute intermission.

All of the action, not withstanding the break at a key moment of discovery, is continuous. We convene in the home of Connie, who has hosted a weekly bridge night for three of her closest chums over many, many years. Why she is hosting a bridge night tonight is likely a question that audiences will puzzle over during intermission or on the drive home, because of the info we digest after the action starts, so we must allow Elliott to get away with that little credibility gaffe. Connie is too humdrum and unadventurous to create any complications, so we rely on two far more erratic women to jumpstart the plot. First to burst through the front door histrionically is Connie’s college-aged daughter, Rachel. She has put herself out there (younger generation talk), agreed to go out on a date with a classmate, but this villainous Bobby has stood her up! This catastrophe recedes temporarily into the background when Millie, Connie’s singularly eccentric chum, enters with a crisis cradled in her arms.

No, it isn’t a newborn baby. Quite the opposite. Millie’s longtime bridge partner, Mary, has just died, and her three cardplaying friends were all at the funeral home earlier in the day, viewing the remains with Mary’s family. Those remains had already been cremated and transferred to a tacky urn. In a moment of perverse and ditzy inspiration, Millie has decided to break into the funeral parlor, “borrow” the urn, and bring Mary to the bridge table one last time before she must be buried the next morning. Completing the bridge party, the seductive Leona, already prone to drinking, is hysterically alarmed at the prospect of spending an evening with Mary’s ashes. Soon even Millie is convinced that the next knock on the front door will be the police in hot pursuit of the stolen crockery.

When the knocking actually happens, we begin to divine who is actually driving the action, abetted by a couple of fortuitous coincidences that Elliott has tossed into his brew. Artistic Director Sylvia Schnople guides this production with a seemingly fervent belief that she and her cast are offering us high-grade Kaufman ore rather than cut-rate Golden Girls, so everyone bursts with vitality, confidence, and energy. Foremost among these is Cat Rutledge, tasked with bridging the vast gap between Millie’s dimwittedness – except when she’s visited by brilliant ideas – and believability. Wide-eyed trancelike blankness often came to Rutledge’s aid, but there are also engaging lacunae in Millie’s innocence, as when she breaks down and accepts a shot or three of booze.

Destiney Wolfe lavished nearly the same amount of verve on Rachel’s wounded prudery, so she’s downright irritating at times, as the playwright clearly intends. Alyce Mayors-Sminkey effortlessly stitched Leona’s wantonness and squeamishness together, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when she let her hair down. Holding down Fort Sanity while everyone else in sight went haywire was a largely thankless assignment for Jean Kadela as Connie, but we ultimately saw our host’s little foibles emerge from their hiding places, and she ultimately became the barometer for the elders in indicating how they should move forward.

As the Policeman who comes knocking, Axel Garcia Frias wasn’t the brawniest choice imaginable in his DCP debut, but he repeatedly surprised us – more of a messenger, as it turned out, than an enforcer. The message became clearer and more definite as the comedy rolled onwards to its predestined conclusion. As Frank Sinatra would have sung it: you gotta live, live, live until you die. Yes, there was champagne as well as whisky.

Exit Laughing continues through Sunday, October 10. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.