It takes either audacity or lunacy to bill your work “about life in the new millennium” when your comic engine appears to have stalled in the 1970s. A lesbian who can only lead on the dance floor? A divorcee waiting for a man to call? A gay man sobbing through “The Wizard of Oz”? A swingers party with an aerobics instructor? Elaine May may not be resorting to mother-in-law jokes in her trio of new one-act plays, “After the Night and the Music,” but her terrain is almost as far from the cutting edge.
Despite its fitful laughs and occasional reminders of the humorist’s facility with a neurotica-fueled zinger, this slight offering of second-rate comic sketches looks like a fraudulent tenant in a Broadway house, perhaps even more so given the polished staging of Daniel Sullivan. While the cast is agreeable enough, the production’s chief salvation comes via the staccato timing of J. Smith-Cameron, an always incisive actress deserving of better material.
First up is “Curtain Raiser,” a gossamer vignette given a fragile charm and sweetness thanks to Eddie Korbich’s funny turn as Keith, a paunchy, middle-aged schlub with a combover who unleashes the nimbleness and grace of Fred Astaire on the floor.
Keith’s a former Akron chorus boy and dance instructor, and his persistence earns him a dance with reluctant Gloria (Smith-Cameron), a mannish gal whose lipstick-lesbian partner Brittany (Deirdre Madigan) has dragged them away from Djuna’s Barn for some real retro dancing with guys. Accustomed only to leading, Gloria gets left out until Keith’s impromptu lesson in dipping and twirling makes her the envy of Brittany and him the most desired man in the room.
Second item is “Giving Up Smoking,” which serves mainly as a vehicle for May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin. The piece is most effective as a kvetchfest for Joanne (Berlin), sitting by the phone, obsessing about aging, addiction, rejection and solitude: “The other great thing about getting older is that you finally know that life has no meaning. And I don’t say that in a depressed way.”
The scenario becomes over-extended and tediously whiny when three other characters are introduced also sitting by their phones: Joanne’s needy gay friend Sherman (Jere Burns); his mother (Smith-Cameron), who has cancer; and Mel (Brian Kerwin), the not especially promising date from whom Joanne is awaiting a call.
There are some touchingly droll observations about hunger for companionship and how readily friendship is passed over for even the most feeble glimmer of romance. And Berlin is a capable conduit for May’s deadpan wit, mixing barbs with weary self-deprecation: “Vodka — less fattening than wine because you need less. So don’t think I’m not watching my diet.” But the one-note one-act feels like a monologue in four-character disguise.
Final entry, “Swing Time,” perks up the tone, albeit in a dated, sitcom manner. (Aside from a 1985 Dionne Warwick hit and a reference to mad cow disease, the comedy could take place 30 years ago.) Tetchy married couple Mitzi (Smith-Cameron) and Darryl (Burns) prepare for a casual dinner at home with old friends Gail (Berlin) and Ron (Kerwin). Mitzi’s anxiety over her mismatched underwear and about fitness queen Gail’s slender hips is the first clue that wife-swapping is on the agenda. But the plan gets derailed when Gail and Ron learn they are fine to have sex with, but are otherwise outside Mitzi and Darryl’s inner circle.
While the scene runs out of steam around the same time the quartet’s libidinal drives kick in, Smith-Cameron’s desperate housewife is the show’s high point. Her character sets off sparks as a brittle, simmering pot of resentment, rivalry, irritation and self-preservation but is let down by poor writing when she fancifully spins the disastrous evening into a triumphant elevation from the invisible margins of middle age.
With his fourth Broadway staging in less than a year (after “Sight Unseen,” “Brooklyn Boy” and “Julius Caesar”), industrious director Sullivan does the most efficient job imaginable with such lackluster material, and John Lee Beatty’s distinct designs for each playlet provide a hint of style. But as the only bona fide new comedy on Broadway all season, this is a forgettable night of tired music.