Saturday, July 11, 2015

SHOWS FOR DAYS: A Comic and Heartfelt Memory Play About Falling in Love with the Theater

Thank you, Patti LuPone. Because of you, I had the all too rare experience of seeing a play without the distraction of a single cell phone from start to end. 

The show in question is Douglas Carter Beane’s comic memory play Shows For Days, which I saw the day after Ms. LuPone made headlines by snatching the cell phone from the hand of an audience member who had spent the entire first act texting. Next evening, Ms. LuPone took to the stage pre-show and greeted the audience at the Mitzi Newhouse: “Whip out those cell phones, turn them off, and come to the theater.” 

"Come to the theater" is the perfect invitation to Shows For Days, an autobiographical work with roots in Moss Hart’s great theatrical memoir Act One, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, and any number of Neil Simon’s plays set during his own youth. Mr. Beane made his mark with comic satires about ambition and skewered values in the theatrical and motion picture industries  (As Bees In Honey Drown; The Little Dog Laughed). But with this play he wears his heart on his sleeve and keeps the satire on the gentle side as he examines the world of not-for-profit community theater, where he got his start.    

As the playwright’s alter ego (and, really, as a stand-in for all of us), Michael Urie glows with charm and the excitement of discovery. Here he is called Car, a nickname presumably drawn from Mr. Beane’s middle name, although Ms. LuPone’s character does refer to him as “Douglas” at one point in Act II  (a nice touch, that). Car narrates the play as his older current self, and then, by removing his glasses and changing his posture, becomes the 14-year-old suburban kid whose life changed forever when he stumbled across a community theater group in Reading, Pennsylvania back in 1973. 

Car’s first encounter is with the company’s tough-but-tender lesbian stage manager Sid, carried well beyond stereotype by Dale Soules’s rich performance (she could have been the role model for the pivotal song “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home). Sid hires Car on the spot, hands him a paintbrush, and launches him into his new life. The other company members are the clueless ingénue Maria (Zoë Winters); the flamboyantly gay Clive (Lance Coadie Williams); and Damien (Jordan Dean), the 19-year-old boy toy who is the object of lust for Car and for Irene the company’s formidable queen bee, portrayed by the formidable Ms. LuPone. 

Act I is the most fun. Under veteran director Jerry Saks’s sure hand, the comedy flies as quickly as farce. Car sets up each scene by moving a couple of pieces of furniture to taped-off spots on the otherwise bare stage and then telling us where we are. The rest of the cast then joins him in acting out his recollections of life in community theater. My favorite has everyone running around dressed for a performance of a certain well-known but unnamed play about a boy who refuses to grow up, who lives in a land of pirates, Indians, and other lost boys.

What strikes about this particular scene is the details – the well-worn look of the costumes (by the always brilliant William Ivey Long), the back wall crammed with various props and furnishings (set design by the likewise brilliant John Lee Beatty), and the complaints by the company that they actually have to go on performing the play for (gasp!) a whole month while juggling their day jobs that pay the bills.   

Act II takes on a more serious tone, as Car learns about the backstabbing, the politicking, the rivalry, and the constant search for money that is necessary in order to sustain the arts. In the end, Car discovers much about himself and this world that he has so willingly embraced, and he is thankful for it all.   

Throughout, it is Ms. LuPone who dominates as the possibly bipolar Irene (her handbag is filled with pills to keep her steady), who takes her theatrical fix wherever she can get it. Amateur or professional, it’s all the same. What’s a little blackmail, bullying, and betrayal, so long as the theater is served?  Irene, with her dubious Yiddish accent and her ability to get things done, is like Tom Sawyer, getting us to willingly trade our apple for the privilege of whitewashing the fence. 

Admittedly, Show For Days could use some reshaping. Act I has an overabundance of snappy one-liners (albeit, funny ones), and Act II gets a bit preachy and speechy about the politics of keeping the arts alive. But this funny and heartfelt play will speak volumes to anyone who remembers how it is they came to fall in love with theater in the first place.

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