nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 5, 2006
If actors don’t have a traditional script or an audience, are they still acting? That is the question posed by Show People, a new comedy by Paul Weitz that is fixated on the idea of performance, and what constitutes one. It’s one that would be worth asking if there weren’t other nagging questions at the center of Show People. Like, why was this play written? And, why is it being produced? Despite its intention to celebrate and poke gentle fun at its eponymous title characters (at least, I’m assuming that’s its intention), Show People’s cosmetic and half-hearted attempts to address its theme only serve to underscore what it's really about: the author’s deep, blistering contempt for actors.
Perhaps I’m just being sensitive, which could be since I’m an actor, too. And as such I know first-hand that Weitz’s long list of grievances against the thespian profession is, by and large, true. Actors can definitely be greedy, selfish, shallow, vain, stupid, silly, petty, overly sentimental, and short on both objectivity and good judgment…but that’s only part of the time. The rest of the time they are some of the most loving, generous, funny, charming, intelligent, grounded, and level-headed human beings on the face of the earth. Those positive qualities are what’s missing from Show People. Weitz, instead, focuses solely on the negative aspects with the ferocity of a man with an ax to grind. (Inexplicably, too, I might add. The reason for his ire is never revealed.) This one-sided myopia makes the play a little less than enjoyable and a little more than distasteful.
For the record: the play’s protagonists, Marnie and Jerry, are two middle-aged Broadway actors who have been out of work for several years. Desperate for both money and work, they accept an unorthodox job posing as the parents of an eccentric rich yuppie, Tom, for the weekend. He’s planning to propose to his pretty, young fiancée, Natalie, and wants to impress her with a harmonious, picture-perfect family unit. Hence, the stage is set for Marnie and Jerry to give what could be the performance of their lives—except that no one will be there to see it. Jerry, an old-fashioned stickler for learning lines and going to rehearsal, is skeptical that what they’re doing could even be called acting. “If this is acting, where’s the script?” he asks early on. Marnie assures him that they are acting, but in a fashion that he’s not used to. Despite being given an entire backstory for each of their “characters” by Tom, these veteran thespians find themselves in the increasingly uncomfortable position of having to improvise. Jerry shudders at the mere mention of the word.
Little do Marnie and Jerry know that, as much as they need to keep their real identities a secret, Tom and Natalie each have secrets of their own to keep (to say more would spoil the plot, so I won’t). Slowly, as everyone inevitably reveals what they’ve been hiding, Show People goes from weird to weirder.
Whether Weitz knows it or not, Tom and Natalie’s secrets also serve as critic-proof defense mechanisms. They show the depth of his contempt, but can’t be discussed in this forum because doing so would give most of the story away. What’s a poor reviewer to do? Blow the show for everyone for the sake of proving a point, or keep the play’s secrets intact and hope that readers will take it on faith that the show is flawed without being able to tell them completely why? Even though I choose the latter, it’s still an infuriating conundrum.
One thing I can say is that Show People, on top of its condescending scorn, doesn’t make a lot of sense. How easy it is to accept the initial set-up (i.e., Marnie and Jerry accepting the job) will depend upon the individual theatre-goer. Personally, I decided to go along with it. But, as things progress—and revelations continue to pile up—Show People strains both plausibility and credibility. Why anyone—even the actors that Weitz constantly turns his nose up at—would behave the way these characters do defies logic. Starting halfway through Act I, about the time Natalie reveals her secret, there’s just no rhyme or reason to it.
This is a shame, because a lot of Show People is very funny. Everyone’s reaction to Natalie’s homemade blueberry muffins (spiked with horseradish, no less)—a collection of stone faces, wide-eyed in disbelief, chewing very slowly—is tried-and-true comedy at its best. A game of Charades evolves into an uproarious contest of spot-the-theatre-reference. And Tom’s insistence on calling Marnie and Jerry by their characters' names, even when Natalie isn’t around, is amusingly creepy. Of course, with a cast this good, one expects a few laughs. Show People’s four-person ensemble of Ty Burrell, Judy Greer, Debra Monk, and Lawrence Pressman turns out to be its biggest asset, by far. Their presence gives the play a credence it otherwise doesn’t earn or deserve. Director Peter Askin helps mightily in this regard, successfully hiding how thin and vindictive the play is until, upon Tom’s big revelation late in Act II, he no longer can. The contributions of set designer Heidi Ettinger, lighting designer Jeff Croiter, and costume designer Jeff Mahshie are also of the highest quality.
But the fact remains that Show People is a play without a purpose, except to give Weitz a chance to vent his spleen. What is the audience supposed to learn from all of this? What do they get out of this play? And what is Second Stage Theatre, a reputable institution that has launched the careers of many gifted actors, doing producing a play that holds those craftsmen in such low regard? Shame on them. And shame on Weitz. Whatever issues he has with the acting community, I hope they’re all worked out before he comes around again.