A fascinating experiment is underway on Broadway. A substandard comedy that received, let’s just say, mixed reviews out of town has been recast with fashionably hip actors in a new production testing whether contemporary star power can override feeble playwriting.
When Steve Martin’s “Meteor Shower” had its world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe last year in a co-production with Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre, I remembered being almost in disbelief that a work this half-baked was being produced not just by one but by two venerable nonprofit theaters. Martin’s celebrity goes a long way, I said to myself on the drive back to L.A., never suspecting that Broadway producers and top-tier talents from the worlds of comedy and theater would also be seduced by this bill of goods.
The play, which had its official opening Wednesday at the Booth Theatre, is now under the direction of Jerry Zaks. No one who has seen his blissful revival of “Hello, Dolly!” with Bette Midler could deny his sparkling way with levity, though the cards are stacked against him here.
“Meteor Shower” racked up quite a hefty box-office advance, thanks to the casting of comedy titans Amy Schumer and Keegan-Michael Key. Big names can sell anything, sight unseen. No news there. But the other two cast members, Tony-winner Laura Benanti and ace utility player Jeremy Shamos, suggest that the producers are aiming for more than a commercial hit. Why else would this lucrative sheet cake get gourmet icing?
I can understand how Schumer and Key, both of whom are making their Broadway debuts, could misjudge a script, especially one that plays like an elaborate sketch by a comedy legend they no doubt revere. But I was surprised that Benanti and Shamos weren’t more discerning.
Their attraction to the material made more sense when I saw them gleefully jesting and joshing with Schumer and Key. Merry madcaps with prestigious Broadway credits, Benanti and Shamos have no trouble holding their own with more experienced clowns.
The laughter is definitely more raucous on Broadway than it was in San Diego. The daffy non-sequiturs are delivered with lunatic aplomb. Everything is crisper, including the modern Californian home in Ojai (designed by Beowulf Boritt to tickle Broadway theatergoers’ fetish for flashy real estate). The blasts of Beethoven and the jaunty celestial displays between scenes accentuate the briskness of Zaks’ staging.
But the play is still the play, which is to say it’s barely a play at all. “Meteor Shower” is really a collection of funny (in both senses of the word) lines, packaged together with a few conceptual ideas tossed about in a manner that can seem random even if there’s an all-too-tidy explanation written into this new version of the script.
Norm (Shamos), who’s married to Corky (Schumer), has invited another couple for the evening to view what promises to be a spectacular meteor shower from their Architectural Digest-ready home. Norm plays tennis with Gerald (Key), but doesn’t really know his wife, Laura (Benanti), whom Corky is unnerved to find out was once a West Coast editor at Vogue. These well-off combatants are primed for a battle of the lifestyles.
Different versions of the evening play out, the events growing more outlandish with each turn. Competition about home décor, sex appeal and therapeutic well-being breaks through the surface with a hatchet. Gerald and Laura, swingers on a mission, are the predators. But their prey turns out to have sharp fangs too.
Cannibalism (a skeleton in Corky’s closet) is one of many running gags in a piece that lurches from savage Edward Albee-esque party games to “Saturday Night Live” surrealism. If a character were to wear Martin’s signature headpiece arrow or affect his wild and crazy guy accent, it would hardly seem out of place. Gerald starts shooting up drugs with the casualness of a guy sneaking a few puffs of a cigarette, Laura decides that she’s now from Tierra del Fuego and, boy, those meteors are getting awfully close to Earth.
The enjoyment of the actors compensates (to a degree) for the deficiencies in the writing. It’s best to approach “Meteor Shower” with a Zen-like immersion in the nutty moment.
Schumer incites happy tittering the moment she walks onstage. Corky has a few lines that would sound right at home on the actress’ Comedy Central series, “Inside Amy Schumer.” “You want a pre-wine?” she asks Norm, explaining that this is the “wine before the wine,” which of course doesn’t count. Schumer has fun enacting the touchy-feely couples-therapy rituals when Corky and Norm hurt each other’s feelings, but her character is more Ethel Mertz than Lucy Ricardo. Schumer’s bug-eyed reactions gauge the absurdity.
Benanti, whose performance is of a piece with the hilarious impersonation of Melania Trump she performed on Stephen Colbert’s talk show, plays Laura as though she were a telenovela vixen fired for a lack of subtlety. There’s a fearlessness to her line of attack that’s invigorating, but all the vamping signifies nothing. Benanti can’t even take it seriously: She broke character when Norm, mocking Gerald’s dithering speech, offers a darn good Porky Pig impression. Benanti’s uncontrollable laughter incited Key’s and even induced a fugitive smile from Shamos. Only Schumer was able to hold it together in a moment that might have been more fun to play than to watch.
Key, who received almost as much curtain applause as Schumer, is dressed like a smug movie director with a litany of sex scandals waiting to explode. He’s a supple physical comedian — his elongated physique is always poking around for mischief. But Gerald, a nonsensical character, is nothing more than a composite of Key’s comic charisma and Martin’s hit-or-miss outrageousness.
Shamos, the strongest actor in the quartet, replaced Alan Tudyk, who left the production for what is euphemistically known as “creative differences.” Shamos’ Norm is the affluent everyman — a now accepted Broadway oxymoron — who can fly off to comic extremes and return to his nest of normalcy as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Shamos brings a bit of reality to a comedy that can sorely use some.
“Meteor Shower” is set in 1993, though not much is made of the period. Why not 2003 or 2013? Perhaps there’s a meteorological explanation, but I assumed the chronology reflected just how long the play has been under construction. Some works are better left in the drawer. Martin is essentially throwing paint on a canvas, hoping that the figures that accidentally form turn out to have some import.
The script revisions made since San Diego clarify that “Meteor Shower” is intended to be a zany cautionary tale of repression. Martin repeats a Freudian line in case we doubt the thematic seriousness of his effort: “If you don’t deal with your subconscious, it deals with you.”
But the deeper significance of the work may have to do with the superficiality of our celebrity culture, which normalizes theatergoers paying top dollar for the privilege of having no artistic experience whatsoever. “Meteor Shower” is a pretext for a Facebook status update on a giggly night out when thought and feeling are held in abeyance.