Everyone who works in the American theater hangs on to a story about how they fell into a crazy life of hits and flops, fulfillment and frustration. Sometimes those tales whisper of seductions — siren calls to a place where the lights promise to shine just a little bit brighter, where an artistic home beckons to free spirits and social outsiders. More than a few of those recollections go back to community theaters, where amateurs pursue their paths and discover the special camaraderie of show folks.
Shows for Days, Douglas Carter Beane’s misty-eyed memory play for Lincoln Center Theater (directed by Jerry Zaks), reminisces about the playwright’s own initiation into the theatrical tribe. Car (Michael Urie), the author’s alter ego, is a sweet, closeted kid who wanders into a busy backstage while waiting for his bus in downtown Reading, Pennsylvania. It’s May 1973, and this reticent but good-natured fourteen-year-old gets drawn in quickly. Within minutes, the troupe’s reigning doyenne, Irene (Patti LuPone), has put him to work answering phones and painting the set. Instantly he gets hooked on the ensemble’s grand ways: the airs and the rows, the affection and the acceptance, as they tease one another about being Jewish, gay, and black. Inside the Prometheus Theatre Company, these small-town thespians bond through giddy roleplaying offstage and on-, safely shielded from public scrutiny.
Car narrates to us from adulthood — always a cloying device — pointing out (in case we could possibly miss them) that summer’s many personal milestones: He pens his first play (on local lore and history) to help the troupe out of a tight spot with their funders; he acknowledges his sexuality and falls in love; and he dives deep into the repertory, reading every play he can to learn his craft. LuPone excels at playing tenacious types; here she brings her usual throaty dignity to the role of Irene, who aspires to theatrical greatness while stuck in the styx by marriage. She clings tight to her troupe and her minions. LuPone makes this empress instantly recognizable to anyone who’s worked in the profession — she’s equal parts muse and Machiavellian ruler, willing to sacrifice other people — even Car — to keep the doors open and the lights on.
Beane intends Shows for Days as a lightly fictionalized valentine to this surrogate family, even thanking them individually by their real-life names in the jaw-droppingly sentimental final scenes. While the script oozes sap, it also tries to underline (while never actually confronting) the era’s troubled attitudes about ethnicity and sexual orientation. In Beane’s sententious late scenes, when the little company has compromised the season’s program (and blackmailed some of its members) so it can survive, Car — speaking in the present as an adult — pleads earnestly for the larger theater to stay true to itself and its potential.
But Shows for Days wants to comment on social struggles while tugging at the heartstrings with endearing nostalgia and lovably quirky characters — competing priorities that ultimately cost the play some credibility. Last season Lincoln Center also staged Moss Hart’s autobiographical Act One, a more polished (but no less mythological) story of struggling young talent finding surefooted success; Shows for Days fits in to this ancient tradition of theater honoring the travails of theater people. Beane’s feel-good tale would be more stirring if it weren’t so cutesy.
Shows for Days
By Douglas Carter Beane
Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th Street