Volume 75, Number 49 | April 26 - May 2 2006

Photo by Joan Marcus

Debra Monk lifts “Show People” up from its half-baked storyline, making it a hilarious TV sitcom for the stage.

Hilarious banter keeps ‘Show People’ in business

By Scott Harrah

Prolific writer/director Paul Weitz directed the smash hit “American Pie,” penned last year’s Off-Broadway play “Privilege,” and wrote screenplays for the Oscar-nominated “About a Boy,” “In Good Company” and the new feature film “American Dreamz.” His latest Off-Broadway comedy, “Show People,” contains the same outrageous humor found in his Hollywood films, and many genuinely funny scenes, but its half-baked storyline and unfocused narrative both fall flat. However, the mega-talented cast and director Peter Askin do a brilliant job of polishing up the thin material and manage to make “Show People” a thoroughly enjoyable, laugh-out-loud evening of theater. The show’s underlying theme is artifice, and Heidi Ettinger’s gorgeous set—a split-level multimillion-dollar home with a fake seascape in the background and a phony-looking video fireplace—sets the mood of deception quite well.

Tony winner Debra Monk and Lawrence Pressman play aging Broadway has-beens Jerry and Marnie, two actors who haven’t worked for years. Montauk software millionaire Tom (Ty Burrell) offers them a truly unorthodox job: pretending to be his loving parents for a weekend while he prepares to propose to his naïve Midwestern girlfriend Natalie (Judy Greer). The two thespians gladly accept the offer and travel to his palatial beachfront mansion at the tip of Long Island to play along with the ruse in exchange for $10,000. Weitz more than pays homage to Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap” and Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of An Author” with an entertaining but often confusing plot that features countless twists, imaginary children, word games, drunken tirades, and existential commentary about the theater and why actors have a need to perform. The play is less a story about the dysfunctions of family, marriage and greed than it is a satirical character study about the eccentricities of people in show business.

The most ingenious aspect of Weitz’s script is the droll manner in which he portrays the irony of vulgar, down-on-their-luck actors posing as aristocrats. Though Jerry and Marnie pretend to be sophisticated jetsetters who’ve just arrived from their home in Switzerland, they’re anything but. Marnie’s an acerbic, brash alcoholic farm girl from Missouri who swears like a sailor, and Jerry’s a milquetoast who was raised in a Lower East Side tenement. They once starred in numerous Broadway shows as a pair of lowbrow Lunt-Fontanne types, but years of unemployment and Marnie’s drinking problem have left them nearly penniless. Out of desperation, Marnie urges her timid husband to get a higher fee from Tom. But at the end of the first act, it’s evident that things are not at all what they seem. Tom’s girlfriend Natalie reveals that she isn’t the curiously sweet and innocent girl Tom thinks she is, while Tom’s true intentions and supposed fortune become questionable.

By the play’s end, Tom’s mysterious scenario is finally exposed, but the outcome is disappointing. Regardless, with such a first-rate cast and razor-sharp direction, “Show People” is still a lot of fun. Weitz’s dialogue is witty and eloquent, the cast’s comic timing is seamless, and their hilarious banter makes even the weakest jokes work. Debra Monk, with her gift for physical comedy, animated expressions, a delightfully quick-witted delivery and radiant stage presence, is that rare actor who can give a performance so powerful that it actually keeps a play from collapsing through its thematic flaws. She and her outstanding ensemble have taken an otherwise average script and turned it into a sophisticated, amusing TV sitcom for the stage.

SHOW PEOPLE. By Paul Weitz. Directed by Peter Askin. Now playing through April 30 at Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd St, between 8th and 9th Avenue. Tickets $42 to $62. (212-246-4 04422; www.secondstagetheatre.com).

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