Thursday, June 25, 2015

Shows For Days

photo: Joan Marcus

The trickiest part of crafting a memoir is getting your very personal story to speak to something universal and recognizable for a wide audience. The best works of autobiography -- whether on the page (think Helen Keller's The Story of My Life or, more recently, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking) or the stage (Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Glass Menagerie) -- burrow deep into their authors' most private, painful and significant life experiences to create work whose power supersedes the specific. In an era where memoirs are more ubiquitous than ever, it is becoming harder and harder to strike this balance.

Unfortunately, Douglas Carter Beane's Shows For Days (at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater) misses the mark by a wide margin. In telling his own story, Beane is so hyper-specifically focused on minutiae that you're left to wonder if the people he's writing about would care to spend time with -- much less recognize the humanity in -- themselves.

The play opens in 1970s Reading, Pennsylvania, an industrial city close to the privileged enclave where Car (played, as child and adult, by Michael Urie) lives. On the cusp of manhood -- and burgeoning homosexuality -- Car seeks refuge in a local theater troupe run with an imperious iron fist by Irene (Patti LuPone), a fairly standard-issue small-town diva.

And that is the trouble with so much of this play -- the characters are hardly individuated from stereotypes. Car is a prototypical proto-queer, and stage manager Sid (Dale Soules, a usually fine performer who's quite misguided here) clodhops around as fairly stereotypical backstage dyke. The flamboyantly gay leading man (Lance Coadie Williams) and the hysterical soubrette (Zoe Winters) are nothing we haven't seen, and failing originality, neither actor tries very hard to fill the deficit through finely-etched performances.

Urie manages, at least, to convincingly play his teenage scenes without being cloying. He's a gifted actor with great presence and a limber, expressive body, but Beane's writing does him no favors. (Also, not to venture off into John Simon territory, but is there some kind of rule that portly, average-looking authors must write their stand-ins to be cast with hunky, gym-toned young actors?) 

Unfortunately, LuPone is less successful. As written by Beane, Irene is petty and hateful when she should be imperious and forceful. She comes off as a hard, mean woman who burns bridges for the hell of it, and late-play revelations do nothing to soften her. Although I'm a huge fan of her work, the last word I would use to describe LuPone's stage persona would be "warm," and warmth is something this role sorely needs. An actress like Cherry Jones probably would have brought less star power to the role, but she might have struck a more appropriate balance between Irene's diva facade and the crumbling facade it belies.

At the end of the evening, Beane awkwardly tries to dismantle the fourth wall -- yet another tactic that throws this awkward play further off the rails. Despite a winning central performance from Urie, Shows For Days proves that some trips down memory lane are better left untrod.

[Member ticket, first row]

1 comment:

Wendy Caster said...

Prototypical proto-queer. Nice!