"Is this really happening?"
Those words, uttered by Judy Greer near the start of the second act of Show People, attain instant immortality as the 2005-2006's season most perceptive quip. Audience members daring to slog through Paul Weitz's befuddling new comedy at Second Stage will have no trouble identifying with that bewildered sentiment, but how much else they'll find relatable is a very different question.
This is one of those plays that piles on surprises in staunch defiance of appropriateness, common sense, or narrative integrity, so you may want to skip the next two paragraphs to avoid risking exposure to certain plot details. Not that it matters much: Despite brisk, careful direction by Peter Askin, and game performances from Greer and her three castmates, Show People is junk-food theatre that, like Twinkies, doesn't spoil easily.
On some - ostensibly deeper - level, it purports to be about how, as William Shakespeare famously wrote, all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. But the Bard likely never intended anyone to take his comments as seriously as Weitz has: He's brought two faded Broadway stars, Jerry and Marnie Steel (Lawrence Pressman and Debra Monk), to the gorgeous Montauk mansion of young banker Tom (Ty Burrell) to perform... Well, it's hard to say exactly what.
Tom claims he wants Jerry and Marnie to pretend to be his parents, Theodore and Estelle, for the benefit of his girlfriend, Natalie (Greer). But Tom is too consumed negotiating a multimillion dollar deal with Microsoft by cellphone to devote much attention to any of them. So when Marnie and Jerry start talking with Natalie, it doesn't take them long to discover that Natalie isn't really living with Tom, but is also an actress he hired.
This lightweight lunacy leads to no end of coruscating comic confusion in the audience: At intermission, practically everyone around me was buzzing about who Tom was, what he was doing, and why he was doing it. If it was Weitz's intent to elicit excited chatter from the audience about the story's mounting absurdities, he's succeeded admirably.
But eventually the twists stop coming and the characters are left alone to churn while we wait for the resolution of this silliness. That ever-loosening story, and Weitz's use of hoary dramatic devices - Jerry and Marnie's marriage is a rocky one, defined by their numerous professional failures; Discouraged Newcomer Natalie must beg Resolute Stalwart Marnie for advice on perfecting her audition piece from Hamlet ("To be or not to be," if you must know) - suggest Weitz's concerns lay not entirely with solid, creative plotting.
No, Weitz is really aiming to tell a story about how we're all performers, and what that means to those both inside and outside the world of the theatre. But as was the case with his play Privilege, which played at Second Stage last season also under Askin's direction, Weitz's reach for meaning exceeds his grasp of generically intriguing storytelling. Trying to unravel the myriad twists in the elaborately tangled Show People is fun; not much else is.
That includes watching such pros as Pressman and Monk - looking and behaving like low-rent Laurence Olivier and Ethel Merman impersonators, with all the appropriately grandiose vocal inflections and hand gestures - flail against torrents of flat writing and even flatter emotions. The stony Burrell and the bubbly Greer give slightly more natural but not more believable performances; there's never a moment you're not aware of all the actors strenuously working to make this mess credible. The general enthusiasm they all exude is like what you might experience at a show where the closing notice was posted just before the curtain rose.
Speaking of curtains, Heidi Ettinger has designed a lovely, semitransparent, white-and-gold one for the false proscenium she uses to frame her set: When it parts, the assiduously angular Montauk manse revealed behind it proves highly colorful, if less interesting, than the backdrop of waves crashing against rocks always visible through the upstage windows. If only everything that transpired downstage weren't equally two-dimensional.