Garry Marshall and Lowell Ganz’s “Wrong Turn at Lungfish” is sitcom trash of such a low order that it seems destined to repeat the surprise, long-run success of the Promenade Theater’s recent tenant, “Breaking Legs.” Both shows are theater of the TV set, by the TV set and for the TV set.
“Lungfish” isn’t even an original sitcom, though that phrase is admittedly an oxymoron. The play is set in a hospital room, where Peter Ravenswaal (George C. Scott), an aging ex-dean at Hofstra U., is coping with his newly won blindness by being cranky, mean and condescending to the good people around him, represented in all their multitude by a nurse (Kelli Williams).
Enter Anita Merendino (Jami Gertz), a pretty, slangy illiterate who has unaccountably come to read to him. They bond, she stirring a little porn into the mix of Baudelaire and T.S. Eliot, he prattling on about Beethoven and the nature of the universe.
So here is last season’s “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard,” transplanted a few hundred miles south from New England (that play featured Jason Robards and Judith Ivey lending their good names to lifeless writing in precisely the same vein).
A given in these sitcoms is the relentless and, in this case, unashamed humiliation of both the female character and the actress playing her. Anita must not only suffer Peter’s psychological abuse and pander to his intellectualized lechery, but she tries to seduce him, outfitted in red minidress and spike heels; she fellates her boss for protection and is ultimately revealed as a hustler who suffers grave abuse from boyfriend Dominic (Tony Danza), an extremely low-rent goon.
Although Dominic appears in the second act to take his beloved away, “Lungfish” is about what happens between Peter and Anita, and you may be sure it isn’t much.
Scott played this role with far more grace and humor in last season’s Circle-in-the-Square revival of Paul Osborne’s “On Borrowed Time.” Here, he’s so obviously slumming that there’s no evidence of any effort to make the part real; the physical comedy, especially, lacks spontaneity and danger.
But Gertz has a wonderfully animated mouth, and even when she’s prowling David Jenkins’ pedestrian hospital room set, oddly hunched, she’s head and shoulders above the material, milking the comedy and going easy on the straight lines — in heaven, she says, “Your parents are there and they’re not mad at you anymore.”
Williams is only OK as the nurse. Danza, for his part, plays the same role he’s always played, here with a somewhat more menacing tinge. It’s not what you’d call a stretch, though stretching isn’t what any of this exercise is about.
“Wrong Turn at Lungfish” is a TV show created by and for people with a shared goal: To make a connection with the theater that is no more demanding than the Thursday lineup from 8-10 p.m. that made NBC invincible until last season. As “Breaking Legs” demonstrated, the world is so upside down that there are hordes undoubtedly lining up to pay nearly $ 40 for what they can have any night for free, because they will think they have gone to the theater.