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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Even the drop-dead, ultra-modern Long Island house (bravo to set designer Heidi Ettinger) where the Paul Weitz's comedy unfolds has stage-y features. The ocean view is obviously painted. The fireplace is a large screen television that crackles at the flick of a remote button. And then there are the first players on this stage, the invited weekend guests. They're two has-been Broadway actors, Marnie (Debra Monk) and Jerry (Lawrence Pressman in a double breasted blazer right out of Anything Goes). Seems that the couple, who are married and devoted to each other, have been hired by Tom (Ty Burrell), the owner of this dream house, to be stand-in parents to present to his violinist girl friend Natalie (Judy Greer).
Tom is handsome and rich and apparently about to become even richer (Microsoft wants to buy the banking software developed by him and his partner for a cool $175million). Yet he feels the need to produce a family to match her physicist dad and ex-diplomat mother. And so Marnie and Jerry have been cast as his loving mom and dad in on a flying visit to Montauk from their retirement home in Switzerland.
As it turns out, the elaborate deception is just step one in Weitz's all the world's a stage theatrical bon bon. I wouldn't be spoiling too many surprises if detailed why and how none of these people are quite what they seem because the reason to see Show People is less for its surprising twists than for the way the actors grab hold of those twists and the whole artificial set-up. They commit themselves to what is essentially the sort of light divertissement that was standard Broadway fare before television as if it were a play for the ages. All of Weitz's many sharply amusing lines land with marksman-like precision. While all four actors are good, listening to Monk's wry delivery and watching her facial expressions is a special treat -- as when she bites into one of Natalie's inedible muffins (it's made with horse radish!) and, in a private moment, tells her that she's no Mrs. Fields but "more like a prison cook."
As he did with Weitz's last Second Stage play, Privilege, Peter Askin keeps things moving along at an invigorating pace. However, like that play, Show People has second act problems. The final and only surprise twist that you might not have guessed right, isn't as convincing or organic as what preceded it. The scene, in which the meta-theatrical conceit briefly shifts to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory and jabs at the pain of Marnie and Jerry's childlessness, is too heavy-handed. Troupers that they are, Monk and Pressman handle this with genuine feeling. If Tom's revelation about the details of his carefully planned deception were a more successfully poignant theater homage, perhaps it would have added enough emotional depth to this comedy to live up the promise of the comedy and tragedy mask at the top of that proscenium.
Until Weitz, a successful filmmaker and director, writes his perfect play, this one will do nicely. And you don't have to like backstage comedies, for this one to tickle your funny bone.
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