A tough gumshoe type checks out a smart-looking moll at a bar. They launch into an amusing, rat-a-tat-tat dialogue that embodies the knowing comic lightness of Steve Martin. For a first scene, you're thinking, this play is going somewhere.
Then Robert Sutton's comedy, "Waddles and Wonk," care of the Zeitgeist Theatre Company at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, suddenly stops going anywhere, and soon resembles a sad man pacing the floor. The story is a play within a play about irritable, aging stage director Jake Plow (Sutton) rehearsing a '30s-era Hollywood show-biz play titled--you guessed it--"Waddles and Wonk," but the results aren't remotely as clever or entertaining as the self-referential concept.
Fortunately, unlike Jake, Sutton the writer opted not to direct (that's the task of Dana Vitatoe), but he has handed his director the kind of play Jake would blow his stack over. Unformed, rough and far from anything like a final draft, "Waddles" is too uncrafted itself to be in a position to cast a satirical eye on the shortcomings of its fictional theater people.
There's something immediately disheartening when the opening bit between actors Sam, playing movie producer Wonk (Rob Boltin), and Marge, playing girl-up-from-the-gutter Penny (Tracey Rooney), is cut short by Jake's giving them notes. Jake gives a lot of notes. As time goes on and his offstage personal life goes downhill, he tosses out insults at Sam and the Oscar-winning Thaddeus, who plays producing partner Waddles (Alex Ferrer).
We're meant to be amused as Jake's wife, Jane (Ancorneil), leaves him for a guy with one testicle; this leads to extended jokes and cracks that are pathetically unfunny. It hardly helps as well that the play we're seeing rehearsed looks colossally silly and as messy as Sutton's own.
Sutton's play is so formless, crudely shifting focus from the show to the action of the play within a play to the offstage story that it deeply infects the attempts at comedy. Vitatoe and his actors can never seem to find the comic beats and end up either desperately overacting or blending into the scenery (which happens too often to both Rooney and Ferrer).
Sutton the actor unaccountably muffled a few of Sutton the writer's lines at Sunday's performance.
The exceptions are the droll, surprising Boltin and the acutely funny Ricardo Ibarra-Rivera, who plays an actor doubling as a bohemian poet and an Arab sheik.
The only thing to take away from the play is the bitter, potentially comic truth that actors will seemingly do just about anything for a job. We knew that already, of course, and "Waddles and Wonk" hardly adds a new chapter to this old story.
"Waddles and Wonk," Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Aug. 8, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 14. $12-$14. (818) 343-6967. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.