SAN DIEGO — Steve Martin, the beloved comic whose career has branched out in unforeseen directions (bluegrass composer, art collector and curator, playwright) is often described as a modern Renaissance man. There's no denying his wide-ranging talents, but there's also no point in pretending that celebrity isn't the "open sesame" of today's star-fornicating culture.
"Meteor Shower," the world premiere of a comedy Martin started ages ago (technical term for these works, I believe, is "trunk play"), has an air of juvenilia. The quizzical feeling I had leaving the theater after Sunday's opening night performance at the Old Globe was similar to the reaction I often have after reading one of Martin's strained humor pieces in the New Yorker — why isn't this precious space going to a writer less known but more talented?
You've no doubt heard of "corporate welfare." Less talked about is "Hollywood welfare," which can range from thousands of dollars in swag to the keys to venerable cultural institutions.
Martin has had a long relationship with Barry Edelstein, artistic director of the Old Globe, where the Broadway musical Martin co-wrote with Edie Brickell, "Bright Star," had its world premiere. So there's nothing untoward about any of this — it's just frustrating from an artistic point of view.
"Meteor Shower," which is set in 1993 for reasons that might be cosmological, but your guess is as good as mine, begins charmingly enough with the eccentric banter of a husband and a wife about to entertain another couple at their Ojai home. Corky (Jenna Fischer) and Norm (Greg Germann) are living a life they wouldn't mind seeing one day in the pages of Architectural Digest.
On the surface, all is attractive in a clean, modern way. Yet the sleek ambience of this home (thriftily conjured by scenic designer Michael Yeargan) seems to be covering up some disorder and discontent.
When Norm or Corky says something mildly hurtful to the other, they have to perform a little ritual, in which they take account of each other's feelings ("I understand you probably did not know you hurt me"). It's cute if intentionally cloying — and annoying the more it's repeated.
Norm explains that he invited his tennis partner Gerald (Josh Stamberg) to the house after Laura (Alexandra Henrikson), who picked him up after a match, said how much Gerald wanted to see the fiery meteor shower in the sky this weekend. Norm doesn't know much about Laura, only that he thinks she was once a West Coast editor at Vogue. This information slightly unnerves competitive Corky, who apparently has a history of cannibalism (though nothing too macabre, thank heavens!).
After Norm mentions that Laura laughed at one of his jokes, Corky remarks, "I read people know if they want to sleep with a person within two seconds of meeting them." Norm wonders whether this is "a non sequitur or a sequitur" — an amusing question that is repeatedly provoked by the play itself, as the plot leaps into unhinged fantasy as soon as Gerald and Laura arrive.
Martin keeps rewinding the scene of Gerald and Laura's entrance to imagine different possibilities of this predatory encounter. The visitors, whose sexually aggressive and highly belligerent conduct would be outrageous were it remotely believable, seem to be playing a game with their hosts, one designed to expose the hidden chaos of marriage.
"Meteor Shower" plunges into the absurd without establishing a philosophical grounding for the mania. It's sitcom Ionesco crossed with a "Saturday Night Live" parody of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Martin may have also taken inspiration from two experimental works presented on Broadway in recent seasons — Will Eno's playfully baffling "The Realistic Joneses" (a portrait of marriage written almost entirely in non sequiturs) and Nick Payne's time-bending "Constellations." But "Meteor Shower" lacks the aesthetic texture and structural discipline needed to pull off its larky vision.
A writer, it has been observed by practitioners as great as Tolstoy and Chekhov, can invent anything but human nature. Martin may believe he can do what he likes by explaining that Gerald and Laura are in effect projections of Norm and Corky, but the psychology here is hard to credit and even harder to care about.
The problem is that the play never establishes a coherent set of rules. An artist draws a magic circle around a work, and this circle is called "form." Martin still seems to be improvising. He has a metaphor in the meteor shower but hasn't yet found a dramatic reason for it to exist.
The production, directed by veteran Gordon Edelstein of New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre (which is co-producing this world premiere), is pitched to those theatergoers predisposed to loving any comedy by Steve Martin. (That market must be fairly sizable, judging by the success Martin had with "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," a quirky if insubstantial stage farce that popped up all over the county.)
The most Henrikson and Stamberg can do with their cartoon roles is play them to the hilt for laughs. Fischer and Germann nobly try to tether themselves to reality, but when unreality hits, it sweeps everything away in its path.
Where: The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 18
Tickets: Start at $49
Info: (619) 234-5623 or www.theoldglobe.org
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes