The secret of the great clowns is delicacy: The bigger they are, the lighter they tread. Think of Oliver Hardy's simmering slow burn, or the ironic quietude that makes Jack Black's madman frenzies all the sharper.
Dan Fogler is a proud heir to this fine-honed, big-boned tradition. As he proved in his Tony-winning turn as the irrepressible geek William Barfee in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," Fogler has Tasmanian-devil energy tucked into his roly-poly frame, but he doesn't skimp on the finer filigrees of character and musicality. In the overstuffed new play "The Voyage of the Carcass," Fogler makes a feast of its zany antics and somehow saves room for its dramatic dessert.
He fares better than the audience, though, for at 2 1/2 hours, "Carcass" is an indigestible splicing of satire and inquiry, of improvisatory goofing and "attention must be paid" emotional payoffs. Playwright Dan O'Brien wants to offer a romp on the grave of hoary stage traditions and a mournful ode to the death of ambition. It's altogether too much of a good thing.
The play-within-a-play imagines three intrepid Victorian-era travelers to the North Pole, holed up in their stalled ship, the Carcass, for seven stir-crazy years. Bane (Fogler), who commissioned the doomed expedition, galumphs about in a clown nose and enormous strap-on padded derriere, trying to avoid the possibly murderous temper of Kane (Kelly Hutchinson), the ship's stern chaplain. Neither knows what to make of silent Israel (Noah Bean), the crew member who always seems to be packing.
It's often hard to guess which literary and theatrical targets this lampoon has in its sights, apart from the explicitly referenced "Moby Dick" and the current Off-Broadway hit "Slava's Snow Show." But under director Randy Baruh, it's such loosey-goosey fun that we don't really mind, as the actors layer gag upon gag, with the top-hatted Fogler as ringmaster.
This isn't the "real" show, it turns out, but the rehearsal of three unhappy theater gypsies with crushing college debts and stillborn dreams: Dan (Bean), who wrote the play, and the husband-and-wife team of Bill (Fogler) and Helen (Hutchinson), who are bankrolling it. Hutchinson and Bean etch strong portraits of youthful compromise, and Fogler's embittered Bill unleashes an aria of biting recrimination against the theater and its discontents.
Compared to the madcap adventure spoof, the framing story is strangely stiff and underrealized. Though there are links between the two disparate strands of "Carcass," they aren't knit convincingly. Yes, a career in the theater may be as unforgiving as Arctic exploration, but that's a slim icicle on which to hang a play. The formidable Fogler may go from zero to Zero Mostel in 60 seconds, but "The Voyage of the Carcass" makes a lumbering vehicle for his talents.
THE VOYAGE OF THE CARCASS. Written by Dan O'Brien. Directed by Randy Baruh. Through Nov. 12 at the Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., Manhattan. Tickets $40-50. Call 212-691-1555. Seen Thursday.