Wasp and Other Plays

GUILLOTINE

With:
Cast: Nesbitt Blaisdell (Salesman), Don McManus (Customer), Carol Kane (Maid).

GUILLOTINE

THE ZIG-ZAG WOMAN

Cast: Amelia Campbell (Woman), Peggy Pope (Toni), Nesbitt Blaisdell (Sammy Boy), Don McManus (Jimmy Boy), Kevin Isola (Billy Boy).

PATTER FOR THE FLOATING LADY

Don McManus (Magician), Amelia Campbell (Angie), Carol Kane (Assistant).

WASP

Don McManus (Dad), Carol Kane (Mom), Amelia Campbell (Sis), Kevin Isola (Son) , Peggy Pope (Female Voice), Nesbitt Blaisdell (Premier, Choirmaster, Roger).

Steve Martin has been given deluxe treatment, New York style, twice this season. First came the generally splendid production Randall Arney gave Martin’s art-meets-science hoedown, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” at the Promenade, where it has settled in for what appears to be a long-term residency. Now comes Barry Edelstein’s often giddy staging of four very black one-acts at the New York Shakespeare Festival. In this case, the production has everything going for it but a script — or a collection of scripts — worth producing.

That’s not to say Martin can’t write; he’s a gifted screenplay writer, and, as “Picasso” demonstrated, a smart, facile thinker with a serious reach. Some ofthose elements peek through the present bill, if all too infrequently. What prevails, however, is the moody bitterness of an artist who hasn’t yet been able to transcend the spirit-breaking experience of love gone sour. The evening begins with a punch line and is followed by a setup that lasts 65 minutes more, including intermission, but which feels like a week in February.

Though the first piece, “Guillotine,” is the briefest and funniest — it’s a blackout sketch at best — it’s also an indication of the bleakness that will follow. A man casually purchases a full-size guillotine and has it delivered to his home. He forgets to tell the maid how sensitive the lever is, and most of our delight comes in seeing Carol Kane dizzily flitting around a pink living room, feather duster in one hand, flask in the other, cleaning away, “Going Out of My Head” playing on the pink radio as we think, this won’t really happen — until it does.

In “The Zig-Zag Woman,” Amelia Campbell plays a woman intent on attracting a man by putting herself into one of those boxes magicians use to bisect an assistant. Two good ol’ boys warn her it’s not worth it, with lines –“Love is a promise delivered, already broken”– more suitable for a country song, though in this case, given the lout she’s pursuing, at least the caution is merited.

Campbell returns in “Patter for the Floating Lady” as the estranged wife of a magician (Don McManus), who levitates her (the illusions are nifty, even if the allusions aren’t); what ensues can only be described as a morose requiem for their union (“With the exception of a few profound moments, everything we say in our lives is a lie”).

There’s something funereal, too, about “WASP,” the main event, a play that’s unbearable virtually from start to finish. If “Picasso” owed a debt to the early Tom Stoppard of “Travesties,””WASP” betrays influences as disparate as John Guare’s “House of Blue Leaves” and Alan Ayckbourn’s “Woman in Mind.” To be sure, these aren’t bad influences to have, conscious or not, but the emotional stakes are much higher here than in “Picasso,” and Martin can’t deliver the goods.

“WASP” is a requiem for the white-bread nuclear family of the ’50s. (The entire production is infused with a mock-cheery, ’50s Formica sensibility, from Thomas Lynch’s colorful decor and Laura Cunningham’s amusing costumes to the bright lighting Donald Holder thankfully provides to work against the gloom.) As the mother (Kane) quietly goes bonkers from neglect, the father (Don McManus) goes golfing; daughter (Campbell) spins off into her own reveries at choir practice and son (Kevin Isola) asks questions his parents would prefer not to deal with (“If Adam and Eve had two sons, where’d everyone else come from?”).

Mother hears voices. “Is there a heaven?” she asks. “No.””Is there a hell?””No.””Will things work out in the end?””No.” You get the picture.

If the writing stirs memories of better plays by Guare and Ayckbourn, Edelstein’s production recalls the work going on at the Public and San Francisco’s Magic Theater 20 years ago, in plays like “Leave It to Beaver Is Dead” and “The Polar Bear.” The presentation is deliberately over-the-top, cartoonish, the actors speaking as if their words were contained in balloons over their heads. Every attempt has been made to remove the works from a realistic context.

The approach helps, but it doesn’t mask the fact that the plays are unworkable. It’s hard to imagine them winning such an elaborate production were it not for the name attached to the work.

Wasp and Other Plays

Production: NEW YORK A New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of four one-act plays (one intermission) by Steve Martin. Directed by Barry Edelstein.

Crew: Sets, Thomas Lynch; lighting, Donald Holder; costumes, Laura Cunningham; sound, Red Ramona; production stage manager, James Latus; press, Carol R. Fineman; casting, Jordan Thaler/Heidi Griffiths; production manager, Rik Kaye. Producer, George C. Wolfe. Opened Dec. 17, 1995, at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/Martinson Hall. Reviewed Dec. 14; 135 seats; $ 30. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

With: Cast: Nesbitt Blaisdell (Salesman), Don McManus (Customer), Carol Kane (Maid).

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