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Shows for Days

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Urie and Patti LuPone
Photo by Joan Marcus

The scheming. The backbiting. The feuds. The trysts. Making theatre has never been for the faint of heart or the delicate of constitution, but—oh, sorry, did you think I was referring to a professional company? No no no! In his new comedy at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Shows for Days, Douglas Carter Beane demonstrates that the fragile egos, volcanic tempers, and barely tamable lusts that are (occasionally) justified stereotypes of the Broadway scene are just as likely at the amateur level. More so, even: The lower the stakes are, the higher they seem to be to those who aren't destined to do or be anything better than they are right now.

Call it Beane's own personal Waiting for Guffman, if you will; and there are certainly some parallels to be drawn. Like Christopher Guest's now-cult 1997 mockumentary film, there's a beguiling, and sometimes bewildering, undercurrent of a love of the art for its own sake that is sometimes obscured when bigger budgets, bigger productions, and bigger names rule the roost. And nearly everyone in Beane's play, which has been directed here by Jerry Zaks, shares Guest's troupe's belief that they're glittering diamonds in a business of rough who only need to be uncovered to reveal their blinding sparkle.

With Waiting for Guffman, however, you always feel as though Guest is operating from a significant, if admiring, remove that makes it possible for him to retain a razor-edged objectivity and a similarly honed comic viewpoint. Beane has successfully utilized a similar ability on his previous successes As Bees in Honey Drown and The Little Dog Laughed, this time around affection and even—gasp—sentimentality muddy the waters so much that comedy, to say nothing of insight, is of at best secondary consideration. And though it may still have its moments, Shows for Days does suffer somewhat as a result.

Beane himself is even a character, to begin with, and one that's hardly thinly veiled. Car, as he's called here, is a bit of a goof thanks to his aw-shucks smile and a bit of a nerd thanks to his glasses, just as Beane tends to appear, and the actor playing him, Michael Urie, brings out the kind of lovable, mischievous streak that's every bit as essential to Beane's personality as well. "I've been thinking about theatre a lot lately," he says, simultaneously a bit ashamed and a bit proud. "I don't usually think about theatre, I just do it. But I have been thinking about it and inevitably where I first learned what it was."

That would be the Prometheus Theater in Reading, Pennsylvania, circa 1973. This community theatre company has snagged their new performance space, a former hat store, in the middle of the depressed downtown, but their spirits are hardly as shabby as their surroundings, as Car discovers when he walks in to kill time before catching his bus back to Wyomissing. Sid (Dale Soules), an unapologetic middle-aged lesbian who loves coveralls, runs the shows and manages the phones. Maria (Zoë Winters) is an especially needy actress. Clive (Lance Coadie Williams) is an older African-American who's every bit the leading man type, except for his flamboyantly gay attitude. Damien (Jordan Dean) is the naïf: young, good looking, and ready to do anything or, ahem, anyone.

Michael Urie and Patti LuPone with Lance Coadie Williams, Dale Soules, and Zoë Winters
Photo by Joan Marcus

As for Irene (Patti LuPone), she's the heart and soul of Prometheus, its artistic director, its star, its biggest asset and its most damning liability. She's a stocky, fire-breathing combination of Helen Hayes, Dorothy Parker, Fran Weissler, and Gypsy's Madame Rose: exactly the kind of force that could believably enthrall, ensnare, and transform a young man like Car into a creature of the theatre, all by offering him a nonspeaking role as a butler in a Philip Barry play. But amid using him for anything and everything she can get away with, she unlocks his innate comic gifts, makes him use them to scribe her a play about the area (for the government grant money, of course), and, in doing so, transforms him into something far greater than she herself could ever be.

Exactly what she is, in reality as well as in her own mind, is one of the evening's chief mysteries, so the subject will not be dwelt upon here. Suffice it to say, she makes a marvelous focal point for the action and gives the ever-tenacious LuPone something to gnaw on every moment she's onstage (which is most of them). Whether she's blazing down her competitors, shaking down contacts and ruining lives for a better theater, or coercing her cohorts into sticking out another month of a miserable play they didn't expect to run, Irene is a glorious monster that LuPone makes equally graceful and terrifying, and beautiful and grotesque.

Even so, her impact is muted because Beane's treatment of Irene is uneasily gauze-covered and rose-tinted, right up the eye-poppingly maudlin final minutes. For example, only lip service is paid to her appalling treatment of others, particularly Sid and Clive, and everyone ends up crawling back to her anyway. The implication is that the theatre she creates is worth their sacrifices, but as we see neither any of the plays nor so much as a glancing survey of the damage she inflicts along the way, how can we know for sure? Beane pulls no punches with Sid, Maria, and Clive, and the actors in those parts gallantly stretch as far as they can without striking pure caricature. But Irene is, largely, immune.

Because she's such a big part of the show, the result is safe, dull, and, when compared to Beane's better pieces of writing (including his raucous rethink of the movie musical Xanadu), it's not that funny. There are absolutely laughs—many of them concentrated in a cocktail party benefit at the start of Act II that shows just how many lies Irene is willing to forward for Prometheus—but far fewer than you might expect. And many seemingly obvious avenues for comedy are ignored entirely along with major subplots that are made out to be enormous in the first act but are scarcely to be found after intermission at all. This occurs so frequently, you may find yourself wondering whether Beane delivered, and Zaks staged, an early draft rather than a finished piece.

There are hints that Beane might be tweaking our notions of the reliability of memory, and how true any piece of art really is. Car constructs his flashback for us using marking tape and individual set pieces that suggest half-formed, free-floating places as disconnected from viability as the towering wall of prop and scenery storage upstage on John Lee Beatty's set. (The mildly parodic costumes by William Ivey Long and Natasha Katz's dreamy lighting further this idea as well. And though Zaks keeps all of the performers at least a little grounded (Dean the most, with Urie and LuPone close behind), they're bigger, broader, and simply... more than anyone ever can or should be.

Shows for Days is likable enough a depiction of this world, and what it means to approach it from both the inside and out, and those who have worked at the lower levels of theatre will probably find some of what Beane depicts too familiar for comfort. But his past deployment of hilarity has let Beane cut deeper and say more than he is able to do here. Even as you'll recognize as late as the final scene how much Beane loved and learned from the people who taught him what the theatre was, they're on too high of a cloud to impart equivalent lessons to you.

Shows for Days
Through August 23
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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