The life of a drama critic inevitably includes a confrontation with an angry playwright who insists that every character and situation in his or her very bad play is a 100-percent-guaranteed-true facsimile of real people and events in said playwright’s life. So it is with Shows For Days, Douglas Carter Beane’s self-portrait of the artist as a boy irresistibly attracted to the glamour and thrill of community theater.
This is a familiar meme — think of Nicholas Nickleby’s adventures with the Crummles family troupe, Dickens’ fictional version of the story, or Act One, Moss Hart’s beloved, semi-fictionalized version. In the case of Beane, the prolific author of de trop comedies including The Little Dog Laughed and As Bees In Honey Drown (as well as his very fine portrait of a gay vaudevillian, The Nance), the subject is the Prometheus Theatre, his affectionate recasting of the Reading, Pennsylvania company he stumbled upon as a 14-year-old boy in the early 1970s, only to be caught up in the rich, self-dramatizing world within the confines of its ramshackle space. In the outside world, mall developers are threatening to erase what’s left of Reading’s deserted town center and a competing troupe is run by someone who doubles as the local newspaper’s drama critic.
Yet no deck could be stacked so well as to dim the passion and purposefulness of Irene (Patti LuPone), artistic director of Prometheus and doyenne of all things Reading. Crazily bewigged and draped in gold lamé (costumes by the great William Ivey Long, community theater be damned), spouting — or rather, butchering — Yiddishisms about the “goys,” she builds team spirit through a personality-driven mix of insult, intimidation and inspiration, all conveyed with an urgency that’s 50 percent caricature and 100 percent LuPone.
The troupe includes the self-described bull dyke company manager Sid (Dale Soules), the aging-out ingénue Maria (Zoë Winters), the “flamboyant” Clive (Lance Coadie Williams) and the sexually all-purpose Damien (Jordan Dean), with whom married Irene is in lust. Under Jerry Zaks’ perhaps too-respectful direction, every performance is true to type and each actor exudes conviction in this Lincoln Center Theater production.
And then there’s Beane’s stand-in, Car, played by Michael Urie, of the wonderful Barbra Streisand demolition job Buyer & Cellar. Car sets the scene by welcoming the audience to John Lee Beatty’s bare-bones set, in which the stage is outlined in various colors of tape to indicate, as Car tells us, the different locations. Think of it as The Glass Menagerie meets Our Town. Urie elides charmingly between the feckless teenager and his older-but-wiser self, as Car is drawn into the vacuum of life among this rag-tag troupe raging and pushing against the forces of inevitable extinction.
Delicious and toothsome — and accurately drawn, I’m certain — as each of these characters is, Shows For Days comes with an outer costume not of Ivey Long’s making. It’s more like the hard armor of situation comedy that seems to be its own irresistible force for Beane. The wise-crackling zingers prevail, and our own laughter, some forced, some guilty, prevents us OK, prevented me) from getting inside the Prometheus players in any meaningful way. And so Shows For Days dissolves in the ether before we’ve even left the theater.
But let me tell you about the New Agape Theater Ensemble, of White Plains, New York, with whom I, a college dropout, spent a year in the early 1970s making theater. Now that was drama…