We have apparently reached an age in the evolution of our postmodern world when deliberate stupidity is considered wit, and tongue-in-cheek cheesiness the chicest of styles. By both of those standards, “Duet! A Romantic Fable” is a veritable masterpiece. By any more rigorous artistic criteria, it’s plainly — and even proudly — lame. Happily for Dodger Endemol Theatricals, which is backing the Off Broadway run of the Adobe Theater Co.’s production, young audiences at the Actors’ Playhouse don’t seem to care.
Maybe the Nick at Nite generation has found its own Charles Ludlam/Charles Busch equivalent in Gregory Jackson, Erin Quinn Purcell and Jeremy Dobrish, with the first two writing, directing and starring here, and Dobrish listed as co-director. But it’s telling indeed that it took a trio to cook up a pop-culture spoof that in its entirety is far less witty than a single page from any of the aforementioned writer-performers’ works.
To be fair, the Adobe troupe here isn’t aiming for cleverness; the aesthetic principle is the bad gag celebrated for its badness, the tacky stage effect that draws attention to its flimsiness (Broadway flop “Jackie” traded in the same style last year). In Adobe’s brave new world, attempting humor that doesn’t insist on its own idiocy is unacceptably unhip.
The first few minutes are devoted to the smarmy patter and bad magic tricks of Noam Pearlstein (Henry Caplan), assisted by the tap-dancing goof Lydia Fishback (Kathryn Langwell). Such spoofery was done better decades ago by “Saturday Night Live” in its early years, but much of the audience at “Duet” is too young to have experienced those halcyon days.
The main course is the romantic foibles of nervous geek Mike (Jackson), who meets the bespectacled bleach blonde Marcia at Noam’s nitery, where she’s charmed by his winsome singing style (Jackson is indeed a lovely singer in a forgotten style and the show’s standout actor as well). Their romance includes pit stops at Marcia’s home, where she’s mortified by TV-catatonic dad, a lump with a Mr. Potatohead mustache, and blowzy mom (Derin Basden, doing what could be called post-drag, formerly known as bad drag); and a romp through a carnival that’s the show’s most inventive sequence — and, not coincidentally, a wordless one.
“Duet’s” subtitle comes into play when the too-perfect Mike shatters Marcia’s dreams of bliss by suddenly ingesting a dead frog as they stroll through the moonlight. Marcia flees in horror and is haunted by visions of a frog lover in a dream ballet spoof that’s the show’s one other inventive sequence, also wordless. By play’s end, Marcia has realized that no man is perfect, and the lovers are reunited.
While the performers acquit themselves well, the material here is of a thinness that strains patience from the outset. It may seem harsh to judge a young troupe’s scattershot whimsy so harshly, but the lack of ambition and willful stupidity on display — and the collusion it demands of an audience — is depressing (to say nothing of its warm reception by critics). It’s hard to understand why the knowingly dumb is being celebrated onstage when just plain old dumb is so readily available in any number of less embattled media.
Here’s a bad joke for you: What’s the difference between sophomoric, as in “Laverne and Shirley” reruns, and the knowingly sophomoric, as in “Duet”? About 45 bucks. Ba-dum-bum.