David Greenspan’s “She Stoops to Comedy,” receiving its West Coast premiere at the Evidence Room, winks at you a whole lot. It’s not just about an actress, but about a male playwright, Alexander Page, writing a play about, and portraying, an actress, Alexandra Page. Wink wink. The play’s setting remains fluid — it’s the ’50s; no the ’90s; no today — as does one character’s occupation: archeologist? lighting designer? Wink wink. It’s all about illusion, how it’s fake and yet also real, and how there are always layers and layers of it. The play is unendingly clever, and it tries really hard to be really fun. But it’s so busy winking it somehow forgets to engage.
What would such a post-postmodern beast be without its predecessors to reference, poke fun at and twist? Greenspan makes an encyclopedic array of references, some overt, some only for the English professors in the audience to catch. The main plot arrives courtesy of Hungarian scribe Ferenc Molnar’s comedy “The Guardsmen,” a famous vehicle for the Lunts, about an actress and the actor-husband who tests her fidelity in disguise.
In “She Stoops to Comedy,” diva Alexandra (performance artist John Fleck) pursues her lover-on-the-lam Alison Rose (Dorie Barton) by pretending to be a man. She’s cast as Orlando opposite Alison’s Rosalind in a regional production of “As You Like It.” Rosalind, of course, pretends to be a man. Amid the gender-bending, we must wonder: Is Alison really taken in by Alexandra’s disguise, or does she just pretend to fall for the pretense? Isn’t the audience for any illusion a necessary conspirator?
Feel free to add your own related philosophical contemplations here. After all, there are plenty of epistemological possibilities to proffer. On the other hand, this is also just one big sex comedy, sans the sex, and the bed never leaves center stage on Lap-Chi Chiu’s bare set.
The spirit of the late Ridiculous Theater maestro Charles Ludlam looms large over “She Stoops to Comedy” (and, of course, he gets a reference!). But Ludlam had a light touch that was easy-going and always unpretentious — the ridiculous took prominence over the intellectual. That just isn’t the case here, at least not in director Bart DeLorenzo’s production. The cast seems to be working just a bit too hard, and a month into the run, which has been extended after positive notices, a general monotony has set in.
With all the winks, we know when we’re supposed to laugh, or be moved, or be impressed by actorly feats, but that doesn’t mean the actual effect is accomplished. As gay sidekick Simon Languish, Tony Abatemarco delivers an ironic, edgy monologue about lonely gay sidekick characters. It’s emotional, but not sharp. And Shannon Holt gets a dramatic scene all to herself, as she plays two characters, former lovers, who never appear onstage together … until they do. The scene is sharp, but not emotional.
For a play that’s operating on so many levels at once, it all feels strangely flat, like a funhouse with only one mirror.