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Douglas Carter Beane scored a critical success in 2013 with The Nance, a bittersweet backstage drama that explored the queer subculture of 1930s New York and provided an excellent starring vehicle for Nathan Lane. His new play, Shows for Days, is another prickly valentine to the theater, this time in a semi-fictionalized recollection of the gay playwright’s simultaneous discovery of his vocation and his sexuality. However, the personal investment is dulled by characters that too rarely escape stereotype to acquire humanity, and by shapeless writing that’s not short on humor, but sacrifices poignancy through lack of focus.
Part of the problem is the production, directed with surprising awkwardness by veteran comedy ringmaster Jerry Zaks. As is the norm for Lincoln Center Theater, the design elements are strong — John Lee Beatty‘s set, William Ivey Long‘s costumes and Natasha Katz‘s lighting conjure the shabby magic of a small-town amateur stage troupe and the wardrobe crimes of the 1970s with great flair. There also are some delightful comic characterizations, even if the actors at times seem to be doing their own thing rather than working as a unified ensemble. But Zaks‘ clumsy blocking frequently keeps them nailed as if at points around a circle. If his aim is to filter memory through the mind of a protagonist who thinks in stage terms, the result is merely stiff.
One-man charm arsenal Michael Urie plays Beane’s personable stand-in, Car. Directly addressing the audience as a successful New York playwright in his 40s, he guides us back to his youth, beginning in 1973 at age 14, in Reading, Pa. Venturing into the dying downtown area from the well-heeled suburbs, the high schooler stumbles into the makeshift venue occupied by Prometheus Theater, and before long gets recruited to play the butler in a Philip Barry comedy. But Car has no interest in acting. Instead, as the wrecking ball threatens the company’s survival, he reveals a talent for writing, first in humorous program bios, and later in The Rumspringa of Jacob Yoder. That comedy about a teenage Amish boy’s voyage of discovery marks his first attempt at playwriting.
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The surrogate family that adopts Car will be instantly recognizable to anyone ever involved in local theater, especially since the members are more types than authentic characters.
Their leader is haughty diva Irene (Patti LuPone), who makes it clear she could have been one of the greats but instead has deigned to share her bountiful gifts with this motley crew. Her male counterpart, Clive (Lance Coadie Williams), is no less self-inflated, a big black flamer who sees the young Car as a company asset. “It’s all ladies and queens,” he proclaims. “Whenever you see a photo from a past play you wonder — ‘Was there a war on during this show’s run?’ ” Dungaree-clad Sid (Dale Soules) is the classic wisecracking lesbian jack of all stage trades, and a priceless foil for LuPone’s grande dame. But Beane’s inspiration abandons him with Maria (Zoe Winters), the hysterical ingenue — needy, dim and colorless. Likewise, with young stud Damien (Jordan Dean), the sexual opportunist whose favors are contested by married Irene and intoxicated first-timer Car.
Beane animates the comedy with accurate firsthand observation of this milieu, from the artistic overreaching to the scramble for funding and a permanent home to the bitter rivalry with other local companies a notch or two higher up the ladder of theatrical respectability. And yet, this paean to amateur theater as a life-altering career starter and a nurturing haven for outsiders needs more definition. That leaves Car’s coming out and his painful first experience of romantic and personal betrayal to serve as the play’s default heart. But strangely, this never acquires the dramatic heft of lived experience. That’s no fault of Urie’s captivating performance, with the lanky actor bringing eager physicality and wide-eyed hunger to distinguish his character’s teen years from his worldly middle age.
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Beane has always been better with dialogue than structure, and there are plenty of funny one-liners to keep the muddled play entertaining. The best of them go to the hilarious Soules (Orange Is the New Black), whose butch character is both the sourest and the warmest person on the stage.
Then there’s LuPone, gleefully poking fun at herself as a larger-than-life stage presence who never met a piece of scenery she couldn’t devour. Swanning around in a bouffant wig that screams matronly self-importance, and outfits so hideous they take on a life of their own — the gold opening-night gown and the plaid wool suit are particular horrors — she’s a hoot even when the writing does her no favors. Irene’s venality makes her somewhat off-putting, and her vindictive response to being called a sellout rings false. She also halts the momentum with a poorly conceived scene at the top of Act Two in which she courts board members for Prometheus’ transition to a full-season subscription company.
The familiarity of the characters and situations will make this baggy memoir a natural fit for regional theater troupes, but it feels a draft or two away from its ideal form. Or from clarifying exactly what it wants to be about.
Cast: Michael Urie, Patti LuPone, Jordan Dean, Dale Soules, Lance Coadie Williams, Zoe Winters
Director: Jerry Zaks
Playwright: Douglas Carter Beane
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater
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