Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” meets “Jerry Springer Show” in “Fuddy Meers,” an antically zany new play by David Lindsay-Abaire that tries energetically to freshen a tale of family abuse by drawing it in the bright, crude colors of a child’s crayon box. A fairly juvenile play that relies on an aggressive and often coarse silliness to earn its laughs, “Fuddy Meers” — the title is a mispronunciation of “funny mirrors” — grows increasingly strained as it progresses through farcical violence to a warmly optimistic conclusion.
The play’s whimsical conceit — recalling the popular movie “Groundhog Day” — has the game J. Smith-Cameron playing a woman who wakes up every day with no recollection of the prior one. She’s an amnesiac, a chronically blank slate who finds herself in the middle of a tug of war between a pair of troubled men with pasts they’d be more than happy to erase.
Although she’s learning the rules as she goes along, Cameron’s Claire is a buoyantly willing player of the novel game of life. “This is like a scavenger hunt!” she enthuses as she tries to put together the pieces of her past in a manner that will explain the increasingly strange present.
The men vying for control of her future are Richard (Robert Stanton), the cheery Mr. Rogers type she wakes up to as the play begins, and a more obviously disturbed figure calling himself Zack (Patrick Breen), who emerges from under her bed moments later, and whisks Claire away claiming to be her brother.
Somewhat implausibly, given the play’s eventual revelations, they head to the home of Claire’s mother, Gertie (Marylouise Burke), a victim of a stroke who now struggles to be understood: She scrambles words in loopy ways that only occasionally make sense (though she’s always comprehensible enough when the playwright wants her to land a laugh).
Here they are pursued by Richard, accompanied by Claire’s snarky, disaffected son, Kenny (Keith Nobbs), and a female cop named Heidi (Lisa Gorlitsky), whose lame attempt to arrest the pair on the road suggests limited experience in blue. But before the arrival of this trio, Claire is surprised by a visit from a foul-mouthed hand puppet attached to the body of a mousy man named Millet (Mark McKinney). When the puppet is removed, Millet’s wrist reveals a manacle that matches one on Zack’s.
The key to this circus of oddballs lies in a past that Claire can’t remember and her companions either can’t — or won’t — communicate to her. All is eventually clarified after a comically violent fracas, as the characters reveal histories variously abused or abusive behind their manias, quirks and afflictions.
Also revealed, however, is the author’s dependence on contrivance and coincidence for the jack-in-the-box surprises of his plot. And what is missing in action throughout is an authorial voice that has reached maturity. Lindsay-Abaire is a recent graduate of Juilliard’s playwrights program, where “Fuddy Meers” was written and workshopped, and it doubtless had a brash, kooky charm in that environment. Fully — and excellently — staged at one of the city’s premier nonprofit theaters, it too often seems tiresomely sophomoric, heavily dependent on sitcomic insults, vulgarity and pointless inanity for its humor.
David Petrarca’s slingshot staging keeps the play moving at a brisk clip on Santo Loquasto’s theme-park ride set, and the performers mostly play their roles with determined conviction. Smith-Cameron’s warm, wide-eyed wonder at the twists the plot takes goes a distance toward making them equally palatable to the audience. As her speech-impaired mother, Marylouise Burke is quite wonderfully touching, miraculously communicating the emotional sense behind the nonsense and the desperate frustration of being misunderstood. Stanton and Nobbs are both well-cast and on target in their more broadly sketched roles.
The play concludes on a sentimental note as Claire and her family hope that by accepting the darkness of her past she can escape from being caged in an eternal present — the past can’t be erased, but must be come to terms with before real healing can begin. But like the exposed history of dysfunction that gives rise to it, this epiphany feels a little shopworn, and ultimately no more illuminating than the circus of silliness that precedes it.