This 90-minute sketch by Steve Martin begins as a situation comedy. Until fairly recently there were always several lighting up Broadway; and they were usually written by the likes of Neil Simon, Jean Kerr, or John Van Druten, and–for those of you over fifty–F. Hugh Herbert or the team of Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov. Many of those comedies (staples each season) involved the romantic foibles of young couples in plays like Barefoot in the Park and Mary, Mary, and a decade earlier Kiss and Tell and My Sister Eileen or The Doughgirls.
In the 1930s, during the depression, when actors’ salaries were minimal, the funny plays would often have huge casts: You Can’t Take It With You and Stage Door come to mind, but there were dozens of others that supplied our laughs before they all left the stage and moved into our living rooms where we could watch them on the tube in our bathrobe and slippers. That’s all changed now. With onstage production costs still rising, playwrights have cut characters down to a maximum of four (often only two or three) and acts from three to two, and now mostly one. Their comedies once filled our evenings for two and a half hours.
Nowadays we’re lucky to get 90 minutes of mirth out of them–with no bathroom or any other kind of break to give us time to appreciate them. Meteor Shower, Steve Martin’s very contemporary recent arrival at the Booth Theatre, is a charming example of the eighty-minute soufflés now offered up as “full length plays.”
It begins with Corky and Norm as a long-married couple living in a nicely appointed home in Ojai, California, in 1993. They are aptly named; she is adorable and bright-eyed as played by the refreshing Amy Schumer; Norm is slightly bearded and wrinkled–an average Joe appealingly calm and seemingly together played smoothly by Jeremy Shamos. They’ve been working on their marriage for some 16 years; and, when one unwittingly offends the other, they don’t push the slight offense under the rug. Instead, they hold hands and admit that they understand the hurt they’ve caused and vow not to cause it again. On this night, they are looking forward to meeting Gerald and Laura, whom they’ve invited to dinner for the first time. Norm had occasionally chatted with Gerald at the tennis courts and on impulse invited them both to dinner.
As we watch these four interact with each other, switching partners as they share chores and pre-dinner wine, we find Gerald (a tall and very present Keegan-Michael Key) behaving inappropriately in conjunction with Laura (a modern woman who seems to enjoy the games she and Gerald play with each other). We’re told she is an “ex-editor of the Chicago edition of Vogue,” but that somehow never gets explained and remains questionable. Laura Benanti is very welcome away from her exciting career in musical theater and beautifully underplays Laura as she peels away at the character so that we come to know her slowly and with some surprises. At first, they appeared to be a jolly couple you’d want to know better. Later, when they had turned crude, rude, and arrogant, you realize you’d forgotten that you’d been taught never to judge a book by its cover.
Steve Martin’s method is to avoid any semblance of the linear in structuring his play, and there are breaks in the timeline which expose various ways in which some key scenes are played out in the imaginations of Corky and Norm. Martin displays the same airy and surprising sense of humor he displayed in Picasso at the Lapin Agile and The Underpants, as well as the singular voice he brought to his novel Shopgirl. He’s starred in and written some fine films as well, and I enjoyed much of Meteor Shower, but it’s a clever trifle and easily dismissible. It’s sort of a shrunken version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and I found it more an extended sketch than a full-length play. I would have preferred more of an emotional investment in Corky and Norm because with what little we knew of them I was left hungry still at play’s end. I’d call Meteor Shower an appealing almost.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.