Shows for Days, starring Patti LuPone as a ruthless regional diva and Michael Urie as a sweet stand-in for playwright Douglas Carter Beane, dramatizes Beane’s memories of his introduction to the world of the theatre, which he tells us changed his life. The play is unlikely to change anybody else’s.
Urie serves as both present-day narrator (the adult playwright ) and as 14-year-old Car, who in 1973 stumbles into the run-down building that houses a community theatre in Reading, Pa. It is run by Irene (LuPone), a Yiddish-spouting artistic director with rat-like resourcefulness and a penchant for (a bourgeois housewife’s misconception of) bohemian attire – all flowing gold lamé and colorful ponchos. William Ivey Long’s costumes, not just for Irene but the plays-within-the-play costumes for the rest of the six-member cast, are a great running gag.
Car is immediately lured into the Prometheus theatre company, to paint scenery, play parts and even write a play – wherever Irene needs him – and he witnesses how Irene overcomes the long odds against her company, which include machinations by a rival theatre and by the short-sighted city fathers of Reading, who plan to demolish the entire block. Our glimpse into the local politics includes Irene’s efforts to get a new building for the theater, which involves several examples of quite ugly blackmail and more comical manipulation and outright stealing.
Car’s experience is not just an education about theatre, but marks his sexual awakening – with 18-year-old Damien, who is having an affair with the married Irene. That’s show biz!
The sexual entanglements lead to a climax that feels implausible, and an ending that is a mess of melodrama, sentiment and mush – which perhaps describes your typical community theater production; who am I to say?
The main problem with Shows for Days is not the ending, nor the acting – the mighty LuPone and the magical Urie make up for uneven performances from the rest of the cast. It is not the observations about theatre, which are a mix of insight, bon mots and platitudes. Nor is it the humor, which sometimes works, and sometimes lands with a thud. If the depiction of the misfits and outcasts attracted to the stage is clearly affectionate, the jokes at their expense are old-fashioned and unfunny, especially those given to Sid (Dale Soules), the co-founder of Prometheus, who’s a lesbian:
“Sid, get the sledgehammer,” Irene says at one point.
“You don’t have to say that sentence twice to a bull dyke,” Sid replies. (Huh?)
No, the main problem with Shows for Days is that it is a late and not particularly fresh entry in a genre that ranges from A Chorus Line to Gypsy to Six Characters in Search of an Author – theatre about theatre, much of it funny, poignant, insightful…and much of it not. Some backstage plays and musicals make everybody’s list of the best theatre of the past 100 years. Others, especially lately, feel almost like a declaration of surrender, as if created in the belief that the only theatergoers left are theatre insiders.
Sometimes, in short, even Patti LuPone is not enough.
Shows for Days is on stage at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (150 West 65th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam) New York, NY, through August 23, 2015. Tickets and details