“If theater was easy, the goyim would do it!” bellows regional theater grande dame Irene (Patti LuPone) in Douglas Carter Beane’s Shows for Days, the author’s muddled, tonally wonky ode to growing up during a Pennsylvania stage troupe’s salad days in the early ‘70s. This memory play, playing at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre through Aug. 23, aims to be Beane’s own Glass Menagerie via Borscht Belt, but what results here—as Glass storyteller Tom Wingfield might say—attempts to rise but does not shine.
The Tennessee Williams influence courses throughout here: we have a quippy, mostly reliable narrator here, Car (the charming Michael Urie)—short for Douglas ‘Car’-ter, in case there was any doubt—who inhabits a kooky group of theatrical oddballs as a young teen. Irene, the oft-deluded, battle-axe ringleader prone to (ahem) dizzy spells, wrangles her prized group to small victories, including an Afro’d black leading man (Lance Coadie Williams) with a potentially controversial male partner, an overreaching drama queen (Zoë Winters) possibly more tuned-up than Irene, and the gruff “AC/DC” stage manager (Dale Soules) who is the unlikely den mother to Car and the crew, even as money woes and wrecking balls threaten to squeeze out their labors of love.
It’s a funny thing that this production debuts at Lincoln Center one year after their play version of Moss Hart’s Act One, given that Hart’s book is considered the apex for growing-up-in-the-theater tomes, and Shows certainly owes something to that classic work, but Car’s journey here amounts to little more than a navel-gazing string of yuks in search of a unified vision. Director Jerry Zaks (Six Degrees of Separation, Sister Act) opts to turn most of the enterprise into a laugh factory, which is a good choice in theory given the comic talent involved. But when the laughs aren’t really there much of the time, it ends up a losing battle, and when the play takes a turn for the dramatic, notably during Car’s romantic interest in a trouper (Jordan Dean) with whom Irene is already carnally in-the-know, the play’s timbre is even more askew. (Plus, Car’s fourth-wall-breaking asides about how great life turned out to be prove a tad disingenuous; which ‘Car’ are we supposed to be focused on here?)
Thank heaven for the casting of LuPone and Urie, who bring much-needed levity to the uncertainty, not to mention the sharp tongues to lash out a sharp one-liner. (“This is Pennsylvania, they literally have pitchforks”, jibes Irene in one of the best exchanges.) The remaining players fare less well, perhaps because of the reactive and sometimes too-blunt nature of their characters, though Soules valiantly struggles to forge a real woman out of a cliché. (Seriously, Mr. Beane–what is up with all the unseemly lesbian jokes?)
When Beane’s creations land, the results can be dazzling (Julie White’s Tony-winning tigress agent in The Little Dog Laughed, Nathan Lane’s tortured, sad vaudevillian in The Nance), but his inward focus seems to have created a knotty challenge. Car remarks late in Shows for Days that he has twisted the narrative—“facts rearranged to make sense to me”, in the now-adult Car’s words—but it would have made for a much-improved experience if it was rearranged to make sense to us. C