“These Paper Bullets!: A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’” lives up to its frisky subtitle and then some.
This lively if overstretched show, which opened at the Geffen Playhouse on Wednesday, transplants the merry war between Beatrice and Benedick to London in the swinging ‘60s.
The stage is a kaleidoscope of miniskirts and go-go boots, beehives and mop tops, and more sex and drugs than anyone over 35 could possibly want or handle.
The rock ‘n’ roll, however, is just right: Green Day front man Bille Joe Armstrong, returning to the theater after his success with the musical “American Idiot,” has written a few pastiche songs for the occasion that are touched by his brilliance.
This isn’t a musical but a comedy infused with some deftly calibrated tunes. Rolin Jones, a playwright best known for his sprightly drama “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow” and a television writer whose credits include “Weeds,” Friday Night Lights” and “Boardwalk Empire,” is the principal creator here, and he has a field day translating Shakespeare into a new idiom.
Bea (Nicole Parker) is now a fashion designer, dreaming up aggressively stylish raincoats while looking after her quaalude-addled cousin Higgy (Ariana Venturi), who sports the look of fashion model Twiggy but seems to be channeling Paris Hilton after a pitcher of martinis.
Ben (Justin Kirk), no longer a soldier but still a faithless and cynical lover, is part of the Quartos, a Beatles-like rock band besieged with female fans begging to bear their idols’ children.
Wearing a permanently soused expression, Ben is as allergic to committed romance as Bea, who bears a grudge for the way he treated her after they hooked up years ago — a mistake she doesn’t intend to make again. “I had rather wear a sock with a sandal than a man swear he loves me,” she blithely informs him.
The skirmish of wit between Beatrice and Benedick that lights up “Much Ado” with its verbal pyrotechnics is subordinated in “These Paper Bullets!” to the general frenetic scene. Jones updates the sauciness of their language (Bea to Ben after he admits that he loves no one: “And a grateful England is spared 12 more cases of gonorrhea”). But he’s less interested in character than in farcical horseplay.
The plot, which could use significant pruning, revolves around the romance between a habitually zonked Higgy and a wildly infatuated Claude (Damon Daunno, making clear with his puppy dog eyes why he’s the band member “the dolly birds love most”). The course of their love naturally doesn’t run smooth with the villainous Don Best (Adam O’Byrne), the band’s former drummer demoted to roadie, out for revenge.
But it isn’t easy to stay invested in what happens to Higgy after doctored sex photos spoil her mammoth publicity-event wedding day. First, because innocence and purity have never been her thing. And second, because her brain, awash in pills and vodka chasers, has essentially been lobotomized.
“These Paper Bullets!” might not have much emotional depth (Bea and Ben might want to hold out for Internet dating), but it has tremendous fizziness. The production, directed by Jackson Gay on a revolving set by Michael Yeargan that at times seems a bit cramped on the Geffen’s stage, is always in delirious motion.
Largely set at the posh hotel owned by Higgy’s father, Leo Messina (assured veteran Nick Ullett), the story unfurls with tipsy swagger. The characters, operating under the influence, careen into one another as the machinations grow more cockeyed and convoluted.
Higgy’s posse, which includes the hilariously salacious Ulcie (Keira Naughton), would fit right in with the “Absolutely Fabulous” crowd. (Jessica Ford’s costumes add to the levity of these fashionably louche ladies.) Claude’s cohort, enlivened by the squirrelly schemes of the band’s drummer Pedro (James Barry) and featuring Balth (Lucas Papaelias), the quiet but game Quarto, might be confused with the Monkees were the Monkees smothered in cocaine.
Shakespeare’s subplot starring Dogberry, the constable who can never find the right word but somehow manages to help apprehend the real culprit, isn’t easy to reinvent. Jones imagines a bumbling Scotland Yard crew.
After a cumbersome setup, the detective work takes flight, but then the logistics grow so complicated the humor is exhausted.
Jones needs an editor, someone to remind him that in comedy especially less is often more, even when it’s uncertain which gag will work and which will thud. The bit featuring the Queen (played by Christopher Geary) could have been sacrificed with no loss of mirth, though BBC reporter Paulina Noble (Kate Blumberg), who covers the wedding like a journalistic kamikaze, adds a delicious layer to this comic confection.
As insouciant as Jones is in his freehand approach to “Much Ado,” it’s surprising that he should feel so beholden to the original plot. Even when he attempts to out-finesse Shakespeare, he keeps reverting back to him.
“These Paper Bullets!”, which premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre last year, fearlessly modernizes “Much Ado.” But for all the work’s profane zing, Jones’ farce has an old-fashioned quality. Vintage British comedy may be the model, but Shakespeare is still the daunting precedent, and the resulting sprawl can get messy.
Fortunately, Jones’ cleverness never abandons him for long. Hilarity, whether from some slapstick that Gay’s direction precisely puts forth or from some tweaked line of Shakespeare’s that sounds Elizabethan by way of Joe Orton, rescues the show from its own excesses.
“These Paper Bullets!” also has the saving grace of Armstrong’s ardent lyricism. The songs, which are performed by the Quartos, aren’t integrated in the traditional book musical way. But the show is suffused with rock ‘n’ roll that could be from the Beatles’ era but has subtle indie hallmarks from our own.
The music, secondary but indispensable, contributes greatly to both the farcical and emotional flow. When Claude sings “Regretfully Yours” to a Higgy he fears will never forgive him, Shakespeare’s tale of brutalized love miraculously restored shines through in all its moving majesty.