Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 29, 2017
Meteor Shower by Steve Martin. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Set design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Fitz Patton. Cast: Amy Schumer, Jeremy Shamos, Keegan-Michael Key, Laura Benanti.
Meteor Shower reportedly was a work-in-progress for many years before seeing the light of day in a production in Los Angeles last year. The play, which has been given a star-studded treatment for its Broadway run, takes place in 1993, if that's any indication of its date of origin. But the theatrical shenanigans actually are more reminiscent of the sort of oddball juxtapositions and non-sequiturs that its writer became famous for in his many appearances on Saturday Night Live, starting in the mid-1970s. He would come out, often dressed in a three-piece white suit, and then, gleaming with pride, would proceed to make mediocre balloon animals or tell an outlandish story about bathing his cat ("It was fun for me, but the fur would stick to my tongue"). One of his better-known inventions was that of the Hungarian Georg Festrunk, one of the dorky "wild and crazy guys" (the other was Dan Aykroyd) who thought they represented the epitome of swinging hipsters and were always chasing after women and their "big American breasts." The underlying characterization in all of these would be of a man living in a world of his own, oblivious to the fact that his behavior lay outside the threshold of normalcy.
While you won't literally be seeing the balloon man or the cat bather or Georg in Meteor Shower, they are definitely there in spirit (including lots of jokes about female and male sexual organs). The premise is a get-together of two couples at the home of one of them (Amy Schumer as Corky; Jeremy Shamos as Norm) in Ojai, California. The guests (Keegan-Michael Key as Gerald; Laura Benanti as Laura) have invited themselves over to witness what reportedly will be a splendid display of meteors streaking across the night sky. But what ensues over the next 80 minutes is less an astronomical event than it is a shower of Steve Martin's absurdist humor, a constant explosion of setups and punch lines whizzing across the stage.
Not that there aren't plenty of zooming space rocks to be seen; there are, thanks to Beowulf Boritt's revolving set that rotates between Corky and Norm's suburban rancher and the open sky above their patio, and Natasha Katz's very effective lighting design. There's even a meteor mishap that becomes a plot element. But of the plot itself, there is precious little. What there is of one seems to have been inspired by the psycho-sexual "games" featured in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, what he called "Hump the Hostess" and "Get the Guests." Martin also throws into the mix a repetition of scenes, with variations, in which we know a little bit more about the intruding couple each time they show up at the door.
Corky and Norm seem like a cloyingly sweet couple (they "work" at their marriage through exercises in active listening and affirmation), while their visitors are loud, boastful, insulting, and sexually aggressive. Laura and Gerald's behavior makes them seem like extreme versions of Martin's Georg Festrunk, or even like visitors from another planet (what are those suspicious-looking eggplants they sent as a gift?), but there is purposefulness here. It seems they get their jollies out of planning for the "total collapse" of every relationship they can impose themselves on.
Laura Benanti, wearing a slinky dress (designed by Ann Roth, who gives Corky and Norm a more schlumpy suburban look) and dancing like a go-go girl to the sounds of Beethoven, presents herself as a temptress, seducing both Norm and Corky. For his part, Keegan-Michael Key goes for humiliating Norm and debauching Corky. Variations on this theme take up the first half-to-two-thirds of the play, along with a steady stream of jokes involving such topics as Corky's cannibalism and "Exploding Head Syndrome," and Laura's kleptomania and her life as a native Terra del Fuegoan. This represents the "Hump the Hostess (and host)" portion of the play. But in the final rendition of the repeating storyline, the tables are turned, and the play enters its "Get the Guests" mode after Corky and Norm are tipped off as to the others' modus operandi. It's actually very satisfying to watch the "Revenge of the Nerds" twist that kicks in here. While Ms. Benanti and Mr. Key are terrific performers and quite funny in their portrayal of their extreme characters, we can't help but cheer as Gerald and Laura are put in their place.
Meteor Shower is hardly the stuff of great comedy. While many of the jokes land by virtue of their eccentricity and delivery, the play as a whole suffers from one of the problems that has plagued Saturday Night Live all these years, by milking its premise past its "sell by" date. Despite the excellent quality of the performers (Amy Schumer comes closest to turning her caricature into an actual character) and the fast-paced direction by Jerry Zaks, the play is hard-pressed to get beyond the sketch comedy roots that always have been Steve Martin's forte as a writer. He is a master of a seat-of-the-pants, stream-of-consciousness style, but his writing lacks the discipline of, say, Yasmina Reza, whose God of Carnage is the model of the kind of comedy Meteor Shower strives to be, pitting couple against couple in situations that become increasingly off-the-wall as the evening progresses. Here, the wall has been ruptured from the beginning, and there simply is nowhere left to go.