It's time for the talent show at La Jolla Playhouse Summer Camp.
That's what "Don Quixote de La Jolla" amounts to--happy campers showing off for a friendly audience. Lots of self-referential humor. Allusions to other plays, movies, obscure Actors' Equity policies, the National Endowment for the Arts, the lambada and, yes, "Don Quixote." Pirandellian pratfalls. Props that look homemade or bought from some practical-jokes store.
Of course, these particular campers are unusually talented. Onstage are the clown Geoff Hoyle ("The Fool Show," La Jolla, 1988), funny sidekicks Robert Dorfman and Ellen McElduff and one-woman band Gina Leishman. Behind the scenes are playwright Eric Overmyer ("On the Verge, or the Geography of Yearning") and director Stan Wojewodski Jr.
The conceit--and apparently the reality--is that these people came to La Jolla a few weeks ago to stitch together something called "Don Quixote de La Jolla." Hoyle is cast as the man of La Mancha, Dorfman plays a New York actor who is assigned the role of Sancho Panza, and McElduff plays the blond bombshell who is assigned the role of Dulcinea.
Other than that, to quote Overmyer's script, "the play doesn't seem very set, does it?"
It doesn't seem all that funny, either. Which is a big problem, because there is nothing here except the jokes.
The show's creators talked of more ambitious aims in pre-opening interviews. Reading those quotes, one would expect to be moved as well as amused.
Forget it. While this show does require a broader cultural literacy than might be needed at the Comedy Store, it is no less punch-line oriented. The tone hardly ever transcends "aren't we clever" and its corollary--"aren't you clever for understanding our jokes?" Any attempt to show us our own plight, or even that of these actors, as parallel to Don Quixote's or anyone else's, takes a faraway back seat to all the hip yuk-yuks.
Those yuk-yuks are of varying quality--depending almost too much on each viewer's personal sense of humor. Hoyle does an uncanny impersonation of a man vomiting, which will surely disgust as many people as it entertains (count me among the latter). The quartet dons Zapata-style mustaches for a brief mariachi number. Silly, yes, but good for a chuckle.
Another highlight is the show's stream of cross-references to "Waiting for Godot," culminating in a scene when fog covers the stage and the boy from "Godot" (Hoyle's son Jonah) comes out to encounter Don Quixote and Sancho--a couple of guys who were not accustomed to waiting. This scene very briefly sets off the sort of larger speculation that might have made the show more challenging, more rewarding.
Hoyle is the only one onstage who takes "Don Quixote" seriously. And, because the script really doesn't take the book seriously at all, Hoyle's act comes off--intentionally, no doubt--as a bit pompous and--unintentionally, no doubt--as one-dimensional. At least Dorfman and McElduff are allowed to move in and out of character more often, creating a few comic sparks as they go.
Dorfman gets many of his laughs from debunking the book, in his guise of a smooth-talking American actor. He points out how "the windmill thing comes down" too early in the book for maximum dramatic impact; why can't they rearrange the story to save the best for last? He notes how the buddy/road/male bonding genre is getting stale and suggests making Sancho "a divorced but caring father."
McElduff comes on as Marilyn Monroe, complete with the famous white dress that rises in an updraft. She also gets the show's best costume change (designer: Christine Dougherty) when she finally consents to putting on the fat housekeeper outfit that she has been resisting all evening.
Considering the free-wheeling nature of this enterprise, the actors were very precise and knowing on opening night. Leishman adds valuable musical support.
But nothing is as funny as it's supposed to be. The in-joking (a half-dozen references to La Jolla artistic director Des McAnuff) is tiresome. The show looks very post-modern, but is it all that different from the old days of La Jolla Playhouse, when Hollywood stars would come down the coast for a summer workout, more or less as a lark?
While these aren't Hollywood stars, it still feels as if this Playhouse-commissioned show is hardly a major priority in the careers of its creators (with the possible exception of Hoyle, who thought up the concept). Otherwise, they would surely have something more pressing to say, something more passionate to express.
At the Warren Theatre, UC San Diego, La Jolla, Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2, through Sept. 16. $20-$26. Information: (619) 534-3960.
'DON QUIXOTE DE LA JOLLA'
By Eric Overmyer. Inspired by Miguel de Cervantes' novel. Original conception by Geoff Hoyle. Created in collaboration with Robert Dorfman, Geoff Hoyle, Gina Leishman, Ellen McElduff and Stan Wojewodski Jr. Directed by Wojewodski. Music by Gina Leishman. Lyrics by Dorfman, Leishman and Overmyer. Set design by Neil Patel. Costumes by Christine Dougherty. Sound by James LeBrecht. Lighting by Stephen Strawbridge. Dramaturge James Magruder. Stage manager Michael B. Paul. With Dorfman, Hoyle, Jonah Hoyle, Leishman, McElduff.