Theater archives

Theatrical Mysteries


Back in the 1950s, Eric Bentley once suggested, only half jokingly, that it would be easier to explain the existence of the universe than some Broadway producers’ choice of commercial plays. As if to prove that the latter mystery is not merely fiscal, today’s nonprofit institutions increasingly seem to choose the same damn third-rate pieces that Bentley puzzled over, only now under different titles and credited to younger authors, with their content barely updated beyond a few topical references and the addition of cell phones. What a theater supposedly under public obligation to further the cause of art can see in such drivel beats me: I’m likelier to discover Einstein’s unified field theory than to be able to tell you, for instance, why Second Stage would choose Paul Weitz’s Show People, a piece of 1950s summer-stock schlock, in the comedy-thriller genre, so lame that it makes some of the season’s earlier subsidized-theater humiliations, like the Roundabout’s Mr. Marmalade and Playwrights Horizons’ Manic Flight Reaction, resemble bold leaps of theatrical daring, while Second Stage’s previous piece of fluff, The Little Dog Laughed, comes off looking like Congreve by comparison.

A married pair of washed-up elderly actors (excellent Lawrence Pressman and splendiferous Debra Monk) arrive at the customary deserted mansion—it’s a glass-and-steel Hamptons beach house these days—to impersonate the parents of a mysterious young tycoon (Ty Burrell) so the gal he wants to marry (appealing Judy Greer) will know he’s from solid stock. Obviously—way too obviously—nothing in this arrangement is what it seems, and the audience lopes lazily ahead of Weitz in figuring out the unsurprising surprises to come. Intermittent passable jokes—they seem lots better than passable when Monk zings them at us—relieve the arid atmosphere. The characters all ring hopelessly false—why won’t actors tell a playwright he doesn’t know what he’s talking about?—and my heart went out particularly to Burrell, a decent actor trying hard to build bricks of truth from the script’s pathetic wisps of sand and straw. I missed Weitz’s two previous plays; you won’t catch me at his next one, either. I’ll be at the beach, rereading Avery Hopwood.