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Mr. and Mrs. Fitch

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jennifer Ehle and John Lithgow.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If you think it's impossible to ever have too much of a good thing, Mr. and Mrs. Fitch will rapidly disabuse you of that notion - at least with regard to epigrams. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane can churn out withering witticisms like no one's business, but you'd never know from his goopy new outing at Second Stage that the majority of them are usually sparkling, insightful, or useful for some purpose other than serial time-killing.

Of the roughly 69,105 he dispenses in under two hours, the number that are truly side-splitting can be estimated in the low double digits - and that's including a decimal point. Despite being uttered exclusively by two actors whose tongues know their ways around florid quips, John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle, and staged by the hardly comic-averse Scott Ellis, the nonstop spouting of arch cleverness consistently drowns in its own desperation. And desperation is almost never funny.

The exception, of course, is when it's rooted to character and circumstance - and then it can be hilarious. Beane himself proved this with his last major outing, The Little Dog Laughed (which Ellis also directed), which Second Stage premiered in early 2006 and which made it to Broadway by the end of that year. Its blend of jet-fueled entertainment power-players scheming for millions while street kids scrambled for pennies gave everyone sharply carved goals, which was more than enough to ensure some of the biggest comedy pay-offs New York theatre has seen in a decade.

It's not exactly true that the New York gossip columnists who give the play its title have nothing at stake. Technically, their jobs are on the line. Celebrity blogs (which both always refer to as if vomiting), anonymous chat rooms, and Twitter have made choice scoops hard to get, so when they exaggerate the semi-luminaries at one event and end up naming someone who died earlier that night on the West Coast, they're done for unless they can score some juicy news about someone truly scintillating. So they do what any self-disrespecting journalists would: they make up someone. And their creation, a young firebrand named Jamie Glenn, reignites not only the libidos of androgynous socialites, but also the gossipmongers' careers.

"Reality is the new fiction," Mrs. tells Mr. - and such a statement could fuel many a Beane play (and has). Just not this one. In part, this is because Beane sets up the Fitches' lamentations about popular art versus truth so baldly that there's nowhere else for the story to go. But it's even more because after spending the hour-long first act unveiling an idea that could have been explained in 15 lines of dialogue, all the wheel-spinning does little more than cut huge holes in Allen Moyer's sumptuously stylish Manhattan loft set. When you have nothing to say, saying it well is seldom very easy.

So Beane resorts to filling out the time with his melting bon-bon mots: "Gossip is just news that's interesting," "Where are the porn supporting actors?", "I was drunk. I was tired. You should not let me make decision when I am drunk and tired. Look at the color of the hallway." More endless still are the strings of oh-so-clever Gawker-ish descriptors for the nameless rabble filling the parties they attend: She-Who-Will-Not-Be-Ignored, Himself-the-Elf, His Impoverished Lordship, Generalissimo de la Horror Show, Love-Her-Used-to-Hate-Her, Hate-Her-Used-to-Love-Her... You get the idea. But because the names are essentially used interchangeably and are connected to almost no concrete details about them, they can't be used to tell us anything about the Fitches.

That which wouldn't be a problem if the actors filled in the gaps. But neither evinces any sense of populating or even understanding the Fitches' world. Ehle cuts the definitive figure of greasy elegance in Jeff Mahshie's society-clinging costumes, but chews every line for far too long for them to have the Gatling Gun impact they need. Though Lithgow was a shadowy master of menace playing gossip terrorist J.J. Hunsecker in the 2002 musical Sweet Smell of Success, here he always seems to be apologizing for the nastiness as he spews it.

Ellis's sleepy direction doesn't help, and encourages the actors natural tendencies to present everything as a swirl of monotone that isolates us from both the Fitches' world and the real world. Beane's wishy-washy moralism doesn't help - he guides us to care about the couple succeeding only so we can later care about them failing, but never successfully demonstrates why either would be preferable. He paints the duo as so disconnected from reality that they don't belong anywhere. If that's the point Beane intended, the almost somber second-act conclusion is grossly misjudged.

After all, Mrs. makes Mr. swear on their personal Bible - Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation - that he will never drag her to another deep-feeling event. "I shall do my best to shield you from all sincerity," he tells her, and maybe he means it - even if he can't live up to it. Beane, however, wants both the slick glitz and the honesty on a single platter, thus guaranteeing that neither looks appetizing. His message could only come across if the writing, acting, and direction were utterly unadorned and excess-free. Because they're not, Mr. and Mrs. Fitch is like a blind item that's obvious to even the densest reader: In other words, not nearly as much fun as it should be.

Mr. & Mrs. Fitch
Through April 4
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theatre

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