Thursday, 9 July 2015

Patti Lupone and Michael Urie in Douglas Carter Beane's SHOWS FOR DAYS at LCT

     Last season Lincoln Center Theater offered an overlong and overblown adaptation of Moss Hart's memoir, ACT ONE. It was one of the major "why" productions of the season. Why turn this memoir into a play? Why not include what we know now of Hart's complex sexuality? In James Lapine's adaptation, we were given an older Hart (Tony Shaloub) reminiscing about his younger self (Santino Fontana). Now Lincoln Center Theater is offering Douglas Carter Beane's memoir of his youth in the theater with the wonderful Michael Urie playing the playwright as he is now and as he was at fourteen, wandering into a very low budget theatre in Reading, Pennsylvania, presided over by an impressaria whose life is only redeemed by her attempts to bring art to the masses in a town that is collapsing economically. The sound of the wrecking ball becomes an ominous presence.
      Irene's company is a composite of theatrical types: The butch lesbian techie who is the most essential element in the theatre's survival, the queeny leading actor (in this case Black as well), the insecure actress and the randy eighteen-year-old sleeping with men and women, and young Car, drawn to the theatre and honing his comic talent first by writing funny program notes, then writing a comedy about an Amish teenager. Irene seduces Car into the company where he learns that theatre is his calling and men are the objects of his desire. We watch his heart get broken after which Irene tells him that heartbreak is essential if he is ever to write Great Drama. Have we heard that before somewhere?
      The trouble is that Beane is not a Great Dramatist. He's not even the solid technician Moss Hart was. He writes amusing comedies that don't always work as they should because he doesn't have a good sense of structure or rhythm. While there are funny moments and some applause-worthy lines in SHOWS FOR DAYS, it's a sloppy play. Since the characters are types, they can't really develop. What we are told doesn't always make sense. Why would the Black queen be willing to live with a white politician who aggressively pursues homophobic policies? What was life like for a gay Black man in Reading in 1973? What is Car's home life like? Are these folks so desperate to be part of Irene's troupe (there are other theatre companies in town) that they will put up with her ruthless, sometimes vicious schemes? Most important, why should we be interested in this saga? The rhythm lags and the climax isn't very believable. Director Jerry Zaks used to be a specialist in "Faster, Louder" productions that were often too fast and loud. Here he seems lost.
     The only way to find any interest in SHOWS FOR DAYS is to see it as a companion piece to Beane's recent play, THE NANCE, about a gay burlesque comedian in the 1930s. The best scenes in that rambling, overlong play were those that dramatized what life was like for closeted gay men in the 1930s. In this play. we have a picture of what the gay world looked like to a teenage boy discovering his sexuality in a small city in the Nixon era. Most of Irene's schemes involve blackmailing her lesbian and gay colleagues into doing her bidding. Her power depends on the closet. If only that were the focus of the play, but SHOWS FOR DAYS doesn't have a focus.
      Patti Lupone and Michael Urie are terrific performers, but they seem to be repeating material they have done before. Urie delivers his narration with his usual goofy charm, but we have seen him do that with much better material in BUYER AND CELLAR. His younger self seems a cipher, a fault of the writing, not the actor. Irene is a more ruthless Madame Rose without the songs. Lupone can play that sort of character in her sleep. We see her scheming, but not much of the pain that draws her to theatre. Other than Dale Soules as the lesbian techie, the supporting cast is just OK. Jordan Dean is much older than the eighteen his character is supposed to be, which takes the danger and pathos out of his scenes with Lupone's Irene.
       It's always fun to watch Lupone and Urie at work, but I would have liked them to have material that stretched them more. Other than them and a few memorable lines, SHOWS FOR DAYS is a disappointment. I wasn't surprised to see a number of empty seats after the intermission. And, folks at Lincoln Center Theater, enough already with mediocre plays about life in the theatre.
SHOWS FOR DAYS, Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse. July 8, 2015.

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