In the Wings
nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
September 26, 2005
In the Wings, a new comedy about actors struggling to make it big and keep their relationship intact, is set in a Lower East Side apartment in 1977. The hero of the story is Steve Leonard, a Jewish kid from Scarsdale, who, along with his live-in girlfriend, Melinda, is forking over thousands of dollars to their acting teacher, a charlatan with a bad Russian accent named Bernardo. Bernardo has cast them both as leads in his opus: the musical theatre retelling of his parents' struggle against McCarthyism, entitled “I Married a Communist.” The show goes to Broadway and Melinda becomes a star, while Steve is left “waiting in the wings” through the machinations of Bernardo and Steve’s replacement, Nicky.
Playwright Stewart F. Lane is a Tony Award-winning producer of an impressive pile of Broadway hits, which perhaps explains how In the Wings managed to find its way to the off-Broadway stage of the Promenade Theatre. This light romantic comedy makes tepid stabs at being a satire about the theatre business and at being a '70s nostalgia piece, but succeeds only in presenting a mismatched mess of half-baked clichés that have been done countless times before, and have certainly been done better.
This production pulls so many punches and plays it so safe that there is rarely a moment that isn’t hackneyed or a joke that isn’t stale. Lane calls his show a snapshot of what it was like to be a struggling actor in the days before cell phones, but this story is too banal and poorly told to provide any kind of insightful or comedic take on its theme. In the Wings bends over backwards to create a fantasy world that is warm, fuzzy, and safe, which makes it impossible to care about the dreams and aspirations of its main characters in even the most superficial way. If you then factor in a heap of predictable gags and an awkward and poorly wrought story that is part romantic comedy, part slapstick farce, and part play-within-a-play, In the Wings emerges as a comedy that offers little to even the most easy-to-please theatregoer.
Nor does the era in which this piece is set add anything positive to the mix. Maybe there’s somebody out there that can still be convinced that '70s kitsch is interesting or funny, but even that person would be disappointed with this half-hearted attempt to exploit such well-mined territory. There is little in the script tying this story to the era other than having its characters hovering around a rotary phone waiting for important calls, and anyone hoping to revel in the details of a nostalgic journey that captures the life and spirit of the Disco Age is bound come away empty-handed. The set and costume designs are thankfully a little more detail-oriented. William Barclay’s set does a good job of capturing the feel of a 1977-era apartment on the Lower East Side with all the appropriate appliances, electronics, and knickknacks, but ultimately the choice of period comes off as mostly a lame attempt draw a few titters by having the actors play dress-up in costume designer Mattie Ulrich’s era-appropriate ensembles.
Director Jeremy Dobrish tries to buttress this sagging piece with pratfalls and broad slapstick moments, but all of this straining to be funny only serves to illuminate the many cracks in the edifice. Lisa Datz as Melinda and Josh Prince as Steve are trying to draw blood from a stone, and do a fairly good job considering. As Bernardo, Peter Scolari brings to the table the boyish exuberance and unique physicality that charmed Newhart fans during the '80s, and does it with an over-the-top gusto that results in a unique and sometimes interesting creation. Unfortunately, the part as written is neither likeable nor amusing, and Scolari’s valiant efforts come off as forced and insufficient. The few laughs that can be had are due to the comic ability of a perfectly cast Marilyn Sokol, who fares the best as Steve’s opinionated and meddlesome mother. Brian Henderson is adequate but forgettable as Nicky, an admittedly thankless role that probably shouldn’t even be there.
Datz, Prince, and Scolari do manage to show off some of their chops in the “I Married a Communist” musical numbers that are haphazardly tossed into the play; so at least this show isn’t a total wash for them. Prince does some accomplished hoofing in “The Man Who Would Be Roy Cohn,” Datz shows her Broadway-caliber voice in “Love Theme from I Married a Communist,” and Scolari is agreeably zany in “Can I Get a Witness?” While I can’t say these vignettes ever won me over, they did make me wonder if Bernardo’s make-believe musical wouldn’t have been a whole lot more fun to attend than the evening that was presented.