Patty LuPone is a highly original and always welcome star who has built a brilliant career primarily on stage, and we who love live theatre have been its beneficiaries. Season after season she’s brightened our lives with stellar work in Evita, Gypsy, Anything Goes, Master Class, Sweeney Todd, all projects worthy of her exciting work in them. Now and then she’s chosen less worthy material, but even in flawed works like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Robber Bridegroom, and The Anarchist she has never given less than her considerable best.
Now, she’s playing Irene Sampson Keller, a matron whose entire focus is on a community theatre in Reading, Pennsylvania of which she is Artistic Director, which means chief cook and bottle washer. She has collected a small company of devoted satellites with whom season after season she manages to mount several productions. Into this mix comes the narrator of Shows for Days, a mid-thirties successful playwright who narrates this tale of his return to his home town and his introduction to Mme. Irene and her theatre world. The playwright, who is called “Car” takes us back to October 1973 when fate draws him into the diva’s web, in which he is stuck for the rest of his life.
For Douglas Carter Beane, the author, this production is a bumpy road down memory lane, for in real life Mr. Beane learned all about theatre from just such a lady when he too was fourteen. Michael Urie plays the role here, bouncing back and forth from the mature and accomplished playwright to the teenager from which he emerged. His journey into his past takes him from rehearsal halls to the diva’s home to auto rides down country roads and just about anywhere else that pops into his head as he unravels the events of those early days which led to his lifelong commitment to writing plays, films and musicals. It brought to mind Joseph Stein’s Enter Laughing, Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound and George Kelly’s The Torchbearers, but isn’t as funny or as well-constructed as any of them.
Ms. LuPone has been handed a role into which she can sink her teeth and Beane has supplied her with cascades of words riddled with wit and venom. She is articulate and can rattle on with high humor, her speech punctuated by a loose cannon of a body, even hair that has a life of its own.
William Ivey Long has dressed her in a series of improbable gowns, plaid skirts, primitive shawls, and a knockout of a gold lamé worthy of Salomé that makes no sense, but is a thing of beauty. She is formidable and funny and in full command at all times. She even listens well, and broad as she can be, sometimes close to over the top, her readings and gestures are always grounded in truth. Her Irene is not someone you’d want to allow to get too close, but as an influence on an impressionable youth, and particularly on Car, the counterpart to Douglas Beane himself, she clearly was a positive force. The play’s conclusion, which is contrived, offers Car a chance to thank his muse for showing him the way.
The writing is undisciplined, and Director Jerry Zaks has managed to stage it by literally allowing tape on the stage floor to help us understand where we are during our journey that’s over 2 hours long. I am puzzled by the exaggerated style of the supporting cast’s acting, for all of them seem to be playing “types” — there is the aggressively masculine lesbian stage manager, the effeminate black leading man, the overly eager ingénue, and the bisexual juvenile with whom both Diva and Teenager will have an affair. Characters throughout seem to make entrances just as they are needed and just as often they flounce off when their moment is over.
Daniel Swee is a great casting director and Jerry Zaks has proven again and again that he understands high-comedy better than most directors, but both seem to have miscalculated here in casting and directing the supporting cast, for all four seemed to me to have headed toward cliché.
Michael Urie emerges as the best thing in the play — once again. After many seasons playing Mark St. James on the hit TV comedy “Ugly Betty” he proved his range by doing equally good work in The Temperamentals, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, and Buyers and Sellers. In 2014 he won the Clarence Derwent Award for this last one, a one-man show that truly established him as a major player on stage. He manages this time out to convey both the boyish anguish and angst as well as the mature professional that his character morphed into. He grounds the play with reality, and Patti LuPone is at her very best in her scenes with him. It’s worth a trip to the Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center to see these formidable artists working their way through a play that needs them desperately.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.