July 11, 2015

"Shows for Days" is Just a Passing Fancy

Shows for Days is Douglas Carter Beane’s paean to the power of theater to change lives. But theater is most powerful when a playwright transforms his personal experience into a story that tells each person seeing it something about themselves and Beane’s shaggy-dog coming-of-age tale, now playing at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through Aug. 23, falls far short of that.

It tells the story of the scrappy community theater in Reading, Penn. that gave the teenage Beane his start in show business back in the ‘70s. It's presented as a memory play, complete with a stage version of the playwright who narrates the action and even offers a where-are-they-now account of the characters at the play’s end.

Because Beane is Beane, Shows for Days is filled with laugh-out-loud one-liners like "If theater was easy, the goyim would do it”. But the storytelling is a mess, undermined by underdeveloped characters and overcomplicated plot lines.

Beane may have meant to extend his meta concept by making his characters the kind of stock figures that lots of people think of when they think of community theater: the self-dramatizing actress, the sexually ambiguous leading man, the wisecracking stage manager, the flamboyant black drama queen and the temperamental diva who runs the troupe (click here to read a run down of some other community theater stereotypes).

But because Beane doesn’t root his characters in any semblance of reality (it’s never clear what any of them do for a living, why they’re drawn to the theater or if they’re any good at it) it’s hard to care about them.

Meanwhile, he heaps on plot upon plot: there’s the battle to find a home for the theater when its old one is marked for demolition, its rivalry with another theater company in the town, a bunch of ill-fated romances, a secret illness, a debate over the n-word and Car’s debut as a playwright.

Both Beane and director Jerry Zaks seem to know it’s too much and so their solution is just to rush by it all. The result is like one of those rambling anecdotes that someone you’ve just met tells you: it’s far more entertaining to the teller recalling it than for the listener who has no idea what the hell any of it means.

What partially saves the show are the performances, lead by Michael Urie’s as the Beane stand-in, here called Car. Urie, who smoothly switches back and forth between the older narrator Car and his 15-year-old remembered self, is such an endearing stage presence that he might have kept Moose Murders running if he’d been around then (click here to read an interview with him).

But, of course the evening belongs to Patti LuPone who plays Irene, the force of nature who runs the theater. Perhaps because the role seems so tailor-made for LuPone’s own larger-than-life personae, she relaxes into it and downplays the Patti mannerisms, while still flashing hints of the passion Irene feels for the theater.

In fact, as has now been widely publicized, LuPone was so self-possessed at the performance I saw that, without any histrionics, she was able to lean over and snatch the cellphone of an audience member who had been texting during the second act (click here to read an interview with her about that).

Theater lovers love shows about theater and so this is the kind of show that, after detailing all the things wrong with it, critics tell you to see anyway. My husband K likes to say they can do that cause they don’t have to pay for their tickets. So, all I'll say is if you’re a big Patti, Urie or Beane fan, you should see Shows for Days. Otherwise, you might want to wait for some other show.

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