By Karen Isaacs
The night I saw Shows for Days, the new Douglas Carter Beane play at the Mitzie Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, was the night after star Patti LuPone took a cell phone from a texting audience member and walked off stage with it.
Let’s be honest — too many times during performances cell phones go off despite repeated announcements, inserts in programs, etc. asking that all electronic devices be turned off. I’ve seen audience members near me check their email or sports scores or even text during shows — again, despite those pleas. It is just rude.
But, for me at least, I could perhaps understand that texting audience member losing interest in the play — I did.
Shows for Days is a memoir of sorts. Beane tells the story of how he got involved with a community theater group in his home town Reading, Penn., when he was a teenager.
The play is told as a flashback with Car, the Carter figure played by Michael Urie, setting the various scenes and fleshing out some details. One problem — Urie supposedly ages from a teenager in 1973 to an obviously middle-aged man in the present — yet he always looks and sounds the same. Perhaps two actors should have played the role.
It begins with the 14-year-old Car stopping by the local theater because he has some time “to kill” before catching the bus home to his suburban town, an obvious ruse. He’s put to work painting the set and soon meets the various, eccentric cast members. Yes — each is a “type” — the butch lesbian tech person, the gay African-American actor, the slightly ditzy actress, and, of course, the driving force behind the theater, the overly dramatic founder, Irene (Patti LuPone). Then we have the young hunk delivery man who ends up staying to become a member of the company.
What happens? Not a whole lot. Threads of plot run in all directions — from the competition with another small local theater (Irene and Sid left or were asked to leave it due to “artistic difference”), the need to find a permanent theater from city officials, urban redevelopment, suburban sprawl, the conflict between playing it safe with play selection or being adventurous, and Car’s sexual coming of age and first love.
That is enough for many plays and unfortunately in Shows for Days these are never woven into a meaningful or attention holding totality. Since the characters are “types” it is difficult to truly get involved or care about them and it makes difficult for the actors to create individuals.
Director Jerry Zaks has assembled a top-notch production team. John Lee Beatty has created a set that looks like a typical backstage with various color tape on the floor marking different scenes and locations. William Ivey Long has, as usual, created terrific costumes and the lighting by Natasha Katz and sound by Leon Rothenberg are very good.
Zaks’ direction keeps the pace moving and helps the cast get the most out of the jokes.
The performers from LuPone and Urie to Jordan Dean as “the hunk” Damien, Lance Coadie Williams as Clive, Zoë Winters as Mariah and Dale Soules as Sid are all good. LuPone manages to play the overly dramatic diva without becoming a caricature and bringing some humanity to the role.
But the problem is with the script — Beane has thrown in all types of jokes — often based on the stereotypes– from a sprinkling of Yiddish words, to derivative lines about politicians, gays, lesbians, etc. Yes, individually they garner laughs.
But for me at least, the whole was much less than the sum of its parts.
In the final scene, Car updates us about when he left to go to New York and indicates that many of the characters were composites. Perhaps that was one of the problems.
Shows for Days is a back stage play about how a playwright got his start; unfortunately, it just does not hold our attention.
Shows for Days is at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. For tickets visit Telecharge.com.