Running on Empty

Theresa Rebeck pays a perfunctory revisit to an all too familiar place

I never know which puzzles me more about Theresa Rebeck—her willingness to churn out plays of such empty factitiousness or our nonprofit theaters' willingness to produce them. The latter, I imagine, may be explained somehow by enhancement money from Hollywood connections, spawned by Rebeck's extensive career as a TV writer; for the former I have no explanation whatsoever. I suppose Rebeck means something by her plays, but seeing and reviewing at least half a dozen of them has never given me a clue as to what that might be. Her principal characters tend to lead high-fashion, fast-lane lives, which are exploited for their glamour and simultaneously indicted for their meaningless empty materialism. Though represented as intelligent, hard-edged people with substantial professional careers, these folks can display a stupendous naïveté about the things you would expect them to be most accustomed to, for Rebeck's dramatic action leans on twists that you often see coming way, way ahead of the stage time she takes to convey them. The interim tends to be filled up with jargon-laden beautiful-people chitchat, some of which is funny but a little of which goes an awfully long way.

Rebeck's new play, her second to be produced by Second Stage in an eight-month period, is notable only for the triteness it combines with its pointless implausibility. Its hero, if you can call such a sad sack a hero, is Charlie (Tony Shalhoub), a currently unemployed actor, living off the income his wife, Stella (Patricia Heaton), brings in from the job she hates, booking talent for a talk show. Long married but childless, overworked Stella and under-challenged Charlie are planning to adopt a Chinese orphan, though what we see of their marriage doesn't suggest that Charlie has much enthusiasm for foster-fatherhood or anything else. Grudging and inward, talking only when he needs to vent about the lousy state of the world, he hardly resembles today's New York actors; he's more like the now-quaint "real-guy" types who sprang up in Brando's wake 50 years ago, when the Actors Studio was young.

As, indeed, the play Rebeck builds around truculent Charlie resembles an ineptly made version of those 1950s Broadway comedies, about adulterous or would-be adulterous husbands, in which a spoof Brando figure was often a subsidiary character, usually getting, or seeming to get, all the girls the buttoned-up hero lusted after. Such comedies were a staple of commercial-theater life in that ancient time, usually bearing twinkly titles that flashed the audience a hint of spicy doings to come: The Tunnel of Love, The Marriage-Go-Round, Champagne Complex, Under the Yum-Yum Tree—they were legion. Audiences giggled in delight at their lukewarm double entendres and comically interrupted tête-à-têtes; critics usually groaned through them. (One critic wrote about Under the Yum-Yum Tree, "I longed for somebody to get to bed with somebody so I could go home.")

Party games: Camp and Shalhoub
Joan Marcus
Party games: Camp and Shalhoub

This being the 21st century, long after all those 1960s foreign movies corrupted America's virginal mores, Charlie does get to bed —or, rather, to couch—with Clea (Anna Camp), a vapid-like-a-fox blonde twentysomething he meets and loathes at a party given by a wealthy colleague. What she wants with him; why he doesn't realize what he's getting into when he must have been there several million times before (he has sitcom recognition in his past); why he displays such limited recourse when his wife discovers them fucking and throws him out—these are matters Rebeck never explores. We never learn enough about either Charlie or Clea to make their brief entanglement interesting. She leaves him, after a few indulgent weeks, to hook up with a TV-producer friend of his whom she could easily have met, without Charlie's assistance, at the party in the opening scene. Charlie's best friend Lewis (Christopher Evan Welch), whose interest in Clea inadvertently triggers Charlie's involvement with her, seems altogether nebulous (we never even learn what he does for a living), and Charlie's own sense of his vocation, even more so: In a historic first, he's the only actor-character in the history of New York playwriting who never mentions his agent.

The production values suggest that Second Stage has expended a large amount of money on this dreary go round the familiar bases, and Rebecca Taichman's staging mostly moves everybody through it with efficient aptness, though why Charlie and Stella habitually leave their front door open is another puzzle. (It's not entirely clear that it is their front door, but what New York apartment today has a living room with a door that closes?) Apart from Heaton's strangely spinsterish rendering of Stella, the cast performs with the expertise that's become a matter of course as our nonprofit institutions increasingly produce these underwritten or fake-written episodes in which the actors have to repair the authors' shortcomings. Welch, playing his second sensitive-male doofus of the Off-Broadway season, is so effective that I dread a third round, which would probably seal his typecasting for life. Tony Shalhoub handles Charlie's alternation of sullen mutters and fervent outbursts with the same flamboyant expertise that he brought to a similar role in a far more interesting play, Harry Kondoleon's Zero Positive, at the Public Theater, eons before he became a TV byword. And Anna Camp, as the girl who apparently conquers all straight male hearts by talking like a bad cartoon of Kristin Chenoweth, makes a technical triumph of this unsavory task; I look forward to seeing her meet the challenge of playing a human being in a real play sometime soon.

 
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