Friday, August 14, 2015

This Diva Needs Her Stage, Small Though It May Be

Review: Shows for Days

Caught with his cell phone out during the show, Michael Urie is forced to hide from Patti LuPone's wrath.

Douglas Carter Beane must be quite the charmer. Despite a tenuous grasp of cohesive storytelling technique, the playwright and musical librettist not only continually convinces producers to mount his often undercooked shows, but he also manages to attract some of the industry's top talent to perform it. Beane's last play The Nance starred no less than the great Nathan Lane, and his latest work Shows for Days has the distinction of featuring two-time Tony-winner Patti LuPone in one of the central roles. LuPone does heroic work in a play that doesn't really merit her many talents, even if individual scenes in the piece prove to be side-splittingly hilarious.

This semi-autobiographical comedy about Beane's early days in the theatre follows Car, the idealized author stand-in who stumbles across a small community theatre troupe in Reading, Pennsylvania during the summer of 1973. Initially volunteering as a set painter to kill time, 14-year-old Car finds himself entranced by the allure of this tight-knit group of misfits led by the firebrand producer/director/actress Irene. Irene dreams of a permanent, legitimate theatre company to rival any of the town's established troupes, using her outsized personality to cajole, convince, or outright threaten the city into supporting her cause with funds and free performance space. Car soon becomes a valuable member of the group, eventually commissioned to write their first original play all while trying to find an escape from the small town life that has left him feeling trapped.

John Lee Beatty's set cleverly mimics the organized chaos of any low-budget performance space, with colored tape indicating the outlines of the play's many different settings (this will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever set foot inside a rehearsal studio). Beane and director Jerry Zaks also use the charming conceit of Car literally setting the stage as he narrates his life, moving chairs, tables, and other pieces of furniture to their various locations as the action shifts from place to place. It all evokes a warm nostalgia for the simplicity of small scale theatre, and reminds you of the magic that can be achieved by a group of actors fully committed to doing their best with whatever is onhand.

Unfortunately, Beane's script is the opposite of simple, so overstuffed with sitcom-style zingers that the intricacies of the plot get lost amid the quest for laughs. While portions of the script are admittedly very funny, all of playwright's dialogue smacks of a need to demonstrate the breadth of his theatrical knowledge and wit. It's acceptable and even admirable to expect your audience to keep pace with your rapid-fire references (Something Rotten is grossing a million dollars a week using precisely that brand of humor), but Beane's writing tries a little too hard to call attention to how clever he's being, with a vague air of judgment should you be unable to keep up. Beane and Zaks also appear uncomfortable with any moment of genuine emotion, bulldozing over the play's more serious beats in a breakneck race towards the next punchline.

As Car, Michael Urie is in no way a convincing teenager (something both the actor and the script acknowledge early on), but he brings an impish, innocent quality to his performance that is innately appealing despite its lack of depth. Urie embodies the play's more negative aspects by shamelessly mugging throughout, even during the few times when Car is required to show some genuine anguish. The actor's undisputable good looks also undermine a key subplot where the object of Car's first crush specifically rejects him for being sexually undesirable, which in a play with so much metahumor registers as a joke until you realize that is actually the root of the pair's relationship issues.

While Urie may be the nominal lead, LuPone is the unquestioned star of the show. Yes, casting the famously temperamental LuPone as an outsized theatrical diva is an obvious choice, but the genius of her performance is she manages to simultaneously surprise while also giving you exactly what you expect. She chews the scenery while delivering many of the play's best lines, highlighting her top notch comic timing in an effortlessly hilarious performance. Yet unlike Urie, LuPone remembers to create a real person underneath Irene's over the top exterior, and when the script presents her with the opportunity to let us see behind that bravura fa├žade she brilliantly capitalizes on it. The few times Irene's shell cracks and we glimpse the wounded woman underneath not only showcase LuPone's versatility, but also ground Irene as recognizably human and someone worth rooting for.

The rest of the cast offers solid support to the two leads, although the script doesn't provide them with much more than broadly drawn outlines. Dale Soules as the lesbian stage manager Sid is the most multi-dimensional, although her more understated moments get lost among the overt hamminess of Urie's mugging. Jordan Dean plays the dumb pretty boy very well, and Zoe Winters is suitably high strung as the needy actress Maria. Understudy Lance Roberts went on in the role of the troupe's gay leading man Clive at the performance I saw, and did a fine job despite the fact that Beane has written him as a caricature rather than an actual human.

Ultimately, Shows for Days proves to be an enjoyable if slightly frustrating experience as LuPone and company struggle to find the right balance between the play's farcical leanings and its brief flirtations with more dramatic material. Playwright Beane's insistence on making almost every line a laugh line proves exhausting for both the cast and the audience, a relentlessness that is only highlighted by Zaks' by the numbers staging. Yet Beane has an obvious and sincere affection for both this period of his life and small-scale theatre in general, lending the play just enough emotional honesty that it cannot be dismissed completely out of hand. Patti LuPone once again proves she is a theatrical force to be reckoned with, and if nothing else, Shows provides its audience with the chance to watch this legendary diva work her magic.

1 comment:

  1. I know this has nothing to do with this particular show, but I think it's worth mentioning that Patti LuPone and her fellow stage vets Betty Buckley and Cherry Jones have all been invited to join the actors' branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences as Oscar voters.

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