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A CurtainUp Review
Show People

By Elyse Sommer

Being on the stage with him was like good sex. . .and after two hours you were applauded. --- Marnie, reminiscing about the good old days with Jerry.

Debra Monk
Debra Monk as Marnie in Show People
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The title and the specially constructed proscenium topped with a tragedy/comedy mask broadly proclaim the nature of what you're about to see. No sooner is the silvery sheer curtain pulled back than the hints of theatrical artifice to come prove to be correct.

Even the drop-dead, ultra-modern Long Island house (bravo to set designer Heidi Ettinger) where the Paul Weitz's comedy unfolds has stage-y features. The ocean view is obviously painted. The fireplace is a large screen television that crackles at the flick of a remote button. And then there are the first players on this stage, the invited weekend guests. They're two has-been Broadway actors, Marnie (Debra Monk) and Jerry (Lawrence Pressman in a double breasted blazer right out of Anything Goes). Seems that the couple, who are married and devoted to each other, have been hired by Tom (Ty Burrell), the owner of this dream house, to be stand-in parents to present to his violinist girl friend Natalie (Judy Greer).

Tom is handsome and rich and apparently about to become even richer (Microsoft wants to buy the banking software developed by him and his partner for a cool $175million). Yet he feels the need to produce a family to match her physicist dad and ex-diplomat mother. And so Marnie and Jerry have been cast as his loving mom and dad in on a flying visit to Montauk from their retirement home in Switzerland.

As it turns out, the elaborate deception is just step one in Weitz's all the world's a stage theatrical bon bon. I wouldn't be spoiling too many surprises if detailed why and how none of these people are quite what they seem because the reason to see Show People is less for its surprising twists than for the way the actors grab hold of those twists and the whole artificial set-up. They commit themselves to what is essentially the sort of light divertissement that was standard Broadway fare before television as if it were a play for the ages. All of Weitz's many sharply amusing lines land with marksman-like precision. While all four actors are good, listening to Monk's wry delivery and watching her facial expressions is a special treat -- as when she bites into one of Natalie's inedible muffins (it's made with horse radish!) and, in a private moment, tells her that she's no Mrs. Fields but "more like a prison cook."

As he did with Weitz's last Second Stage play, Privilege, Peter Askin keeps things moving along at an invigorating pace. However, like that play, Show People has second act problems. The final and only surprise twist that you might not have guessed right, isn't as convincing or organic as what preceded it. The scene, in which the meta-theatrical conceit briefly shifts to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory and jabs at the pain of Marnie and Jerry's childlessness, is too heavy-handed. Troupers that they are, Monk and Pressman handle this with genuine feeling. If Tom's revelation about the details of his carefully planned deception were a more successfully poignant theater homage, perhaps it would have added enough emotional depth to this comedy to live up the promise of the comedy and tragedy mask at the top of that proscenium.

Until Weitz, a successful filmmaker and director, writes his perfect play, this one will do nicely. And you don't have to like backstage comedies, for this one to tickle your funny bone.

Playwright: Paul Weitz.
Directed by Peter Askin
Cast: Ty Burrell (Tom), Judy Greer (Natalie), Debra Monk (Marnie) and Lawrence Pressman (Jerry).
Set Design: Heidi Ettinger
Costume Design: Jeff Mahshie
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Lewis Flinn
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
Second Stage, 307 W. 43rd St. (8th/9th Avs) 212-246-4422
From 3/16/06 to 4/30/06; opening 4/06/06
Tues at 7pm; Wed to Sat at 8pm; Wed & Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm.
Tickets: $42 to $65; $10 rush (25 and younger)
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 9th performance
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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