I’m guilty; I confess. It was the end of summer, still the dog days weather-wise, and the list of theater openings cracked neatly into two parts: the significant and the trivial. So of course I chose the latter. Who wants to get serious just because the calendar says September? Besides, the plays on the “significant” half of the list were just the kind that vex me: the ones that sound half-interesting, by writers who arouse moderate respect instead of enthusiasm. I give no names; they’re also the kind most likely to have another play for me to review in due time. Meanwhile, bring on the amusing trivialities.
David Pittu’s foray into musical satire, What’s That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling, may or may not set off seizures of really hearty laughter, but its bright, intermissionless 70 minutes will keep the needle on your giggle-o-meter in pretty constant vibration. Pittu’s earliest ventures into diversionary activity were erratic and flimsy in their humor. But his talent and his strong sense of vocation have kept him headed steadily in the right direction: By dint of hard work and harder thinking, he’s become a consummate comic artist, getting his laughs, both as actor and as writer, seemingly without effort, from inside his characters and the absurd world they inhabit.
Jacob Sterling is Pittu’s version of one of those eternally aspiring, no longer young, post-Sondheim theater songwriters; let’s lump the best of them together and call them Ricky Finn LaChiusa Guettel-Brown. His hair combed up in an electroshocked pompadour, his shirt unbuttoned with painstaking carelessness to display his gold neck chain, Pittu’s Jacob glows with artsy idealism, his calculated diffidence barely masking the relentless, grasping egomania that throbs underneath. Appearing as a guest on an imaginary cable show titled Composers & Lyricists of Tomorrow (its acronym, CLOT, inaugurates the evening’s string of puckishly ill-chosen acronyms), Jacob goes through all the fake-modest motions customary for entertainer guests on talk shows. Blushingly, he confesses his real name (Silverstein), mimes sorrow over his work’s failure to reach Broadway—his big break, a musical of La Femme Nikita, was bagged after 9/11—and plays and sings choice items from his oeuvre. Pittu’s slyly misfiring lyrics pair with Randy Redd’s music, which cunningly sneaks in phrases of almost-Sondheim and other near plagiarisms, to create that elegant brand of parody which encapsulates its targets neatly enough to make you worry, as you chuckle, that some innocent might mistake it for the real thing.
Even more elegant is the high-contrast pairing that pits Pittu’s precisely pointed throwaway performing style with the go-for-baroque swoops and sweeps of Peter Bartlett, who plays CLOT‘s burbling host, Leonard Swagg. Theater folk, like decorators, use the word “swag” to mean a gracefully gathered-up curtain, and Bartlett actually manages to resemble one, sounding and moving as if he were made mostly of bunched-up red velvet while he drapes himself adoringly over Jacob, gushing with show-queen fervor. When his excess meets Pittu’s exactitude, it’s like watching masters play a perfectly balanced game of aesthetic ping-pong.
Albeit slight, Pittu’s jocosities are top-drawer. From diversion’s middle drawer comes Enter Laughing, a reworked version of Joseph Stein and Stan Daniels’s 1976 musical formerly called So Long, 174th Street, based on Stein’s 1963 non-musical adaptation of Carl Reiner’s 1958 memoir, both also titled Enter Laughing. If the class is paying attention, we can proceed. In the Depression, a nice Jewish boy (Josh Grisetti) with an insensate lust for every young woman he meets dreams of becoming an actor; his nice Jewish parents (real-life spouses Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker) want him to be a pharmacist. In between musicalized erotic daydreams and real-world flirtations, he gets ensnared in a pay-to-play theater company run by a weary, alcoholic old trouper (George S. Irving). Chaos and humiliation ensue, but with all the familial kvelling, who notices? In the musical’s earlier version, pharmacy won; this time around, our hero sticks to the stage, presumably growing up to be Carl Reiner.
Thin and harmless, though not charmless, the second-rate material is enlivened by its largely lovable cast, and by director Stuart Ross’s many imaginative strokes, which keep tickling the less-than-great jokes and tunes into bouncy vividness. In addition to the players mentioned above, Ray DeMattis as the hero’s cranky boss, Robb Sapp as his wise-ass pal, and the appealingly varied trio of Emily Shoolin, Allison Spratt, and Janine LaManna as his feminine distractions all contribute mightily. Ross’s inventiveness extends to a bit that requires Matt Castle to set a record of sorts: He’s the first musical director in theater history required to take his curtain call in his boxers. A record of a loftier kind belongs to Irving, who created his role in the musical’s first production and, at age 86, zings his tart one-liners and rolls out his showstopping second-act number with undimmed adroitness. And that man was in the original cast of Oklahoma! It gives you hope.
Hope can be dampened, however; those who seek only diversion duly get punished. The best script on my week’s itinerary, produced by the company from which I expected most, was a huge let-down. Charles MacArthur’s 1942 farce, Johnny on a Spot, a sublimely cynical (and divinely up-to-date) study of crooked electoral shenanigans down South, can succeed; I’ve seen two joyously breakneck productions of it. But Dan Wackerman’s staging for Peccadillo Theater lumbers it with a flat tempo, a lusterless tone, and an every-word-counts speaking style that makes this brash, colloquial cartoon sound like an Iowa high school’s imitation of the Comédie-Française speaking Corneille. Americans should know MacArthur’s play, if possible before November, but I can’t honestly recommend Peccadillo’s rendition as the best way to meet it.