Mr. & Mrs. Fitch -- Theater Review

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Gossip columnists are not one of the more widely admired subsets of humanity, and Douglas Carter Beane's new comedy, about a long-married couple who spend their professional lives reporting on the foibles of the rich and famous, is not likely to enhance their reputation. The title characters of "Mr. & Mrs. Fitch" wear out their welcome long before the show reaches its conclusion.

John Lithgow, making his second New York stage appearance as a gossip monger -- he also played J.J. Hunsecker in the ill-fated musical version of "Sweet Smell of Success" -- and Jennifer Ehle star as the titular duo, who work together out of their spacious Manhattan loft.

Although one would think that an experienced playwright/screenwriter like Beane would know something about gossip columnists, his creations here seem more suited to a 1930s-era Hollywood comedy than contemporary tabloids. Coming across as a less soused Nick and Nora Charles, the pair indulges in endless bon mots and witticisms while throwing in countless cultural references ranging from Moliere to Edith Wharton.

Of course, that's all part of the joke, as we watch Mr. & Mrs. Fitch struggle with a strange new world that includes Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, Lithgow's Valley Girl-inflected imitation of a typical tweet is one of the funniest moments in the show.

But what might have been mildly amusing as a one-act gets strained to the breaking point over two hours, and a plot element involving the pair's making up a fictional character who suddenly takes on a life of his own is far too silly to make its intended satirical point.

And really, did a major theme have to be Mr. Fitch's unrequited desire to write the Great American Novel, for which he already has the all-too-pretentious title of "America: A Prophecy."

To be fair, the play boasts more than its share of funny one-liners. (How could it not, coming from the author of "The Little Dog Laughed" and the screenplay of "To Wong Foo?") Indeed, Mr. Fitch's definition of theater -- "You know, that thing that movie people do when they want to announce they're available for television" -- is an instant classic.

But the characters are far too smug and self-satisfied with their witticisms to prove appealing. Lithgow, with his seasoned comic chops, comes off well, especially because his Mr. Fitch reveals vulnerability. But Ehle, despite her elegance and charm (or perhaps even because of it), struggles with a character to which she's not ideally suited.

The play is intended to be little more than a trifle, and on that level it succeeds. But it's hard not to wish that the playwright had been a little more ambitious with such potentially rich comic material.

Venue: Second Stage Theatre, New York (Through April 4)
Presented by: The Second Stage Theatre
Cast: John Lithgow, Jennifer Ehle
Playwright: Douglas Carter Beane
Director: Scott Ellis
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Jeff Mahshie
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Bart Fasbender
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