Comedy pretends to have a tough hide, but it doesn’t take much to break its bones. Mary Willard’s “Elvis and Juliet” does the job with its hammy treatment of the cultural class war that breaks out between the vulgar Las Vegas family of an Elvis impersonator and a snooty clan of Connecticut academics when their children decide to marry. Show is so aggressively bad it leaves treadmarks all over a three-generational cast of savvy comic pros, including the scribe’s husband, Fred Willard, normally the funniest guy in the room.
To get a feud going between these modern-day Montagues and Capulets, playwright makes her Romeo and Juliet young mathematical geniuses who meet at Yale and want nothing more than to make beautiful numbers together. But nerdy Elvis (Haskell King) has been groomed to take his place as a junior Elvis impersonator in his dad’s Vegas act. Both he and his highbrow Juliet (Lori Gardner), whose parents brought her up speaking Latin, correctly anticipate trouble ahead when their families meet.
Not trusting the inherent humor of the situation as it stands, Willard pulls out the stops to present Arthur Lesley (Fred Willard) and his family in the most ludicrous light possible. And whatever piece of the kitchen sink she neglects to throw in is supplied by helmer Yvonne Conybeare.
The lifestyle of the Lesley household, circa 1989, is garish enough to inflict brain damage, with Arthur overpowering in full Elvis regalia, wife Becky (Pamela Paul) bulging out of her bustier, daughter Lisa Marie (Christy McIntosh) a trashy spectacle in Madonna gear and brother Joey (David Rasche) sloshing around in Rat Pack mode.
At the extreme other end of the cultural spectrum, life in the Jones household is just as bizarre, with Owen Jones (Warren Kelley), wife Nancy (Carole Monferdini) and their precocious children Roberto Clemente (Justin Schultz) and Clancy Austen (Bridget Clark) speaking Latin, composing poetry and compulsively dusting their books.
Bringing these two families together isn’t without a certain goofy humor. But having established the basic absurdity of the situation, writer Willard has no idea how to expand the situation into a workable plot. While she knocks herself out to make everyone look foolish, she neglects to give them any true character. Left on their own, the thesps naturally play their costumes.
Fred Willard doesn’t even manage that. Looking decidedly uncomfortable in his Elvis regalia, he seems to have no love for the buffoonish Arthur and less affection for his repellant views on women, children and other lower life forms. For all his glorification of the King, Arthur hasn’t even worked up a respectable act in his honor — not that the glum-looking Willard seems inclined to deliver one.
For some reason, Rasche escapes the double curse of the dubious material and bum direction. As the well-sloshed Uncle Joey, he adopts an authentically ’50s attitude and comes up with enough funny physical mannerisms to grin his way through the whole debacle. Schultz also hangs onto his professional smarts, playing young Roberto Clemente like a real teenager and cutting loose in a terrific rap number inspired by Edgar Allan Poe.
Just about everyone else is ground up for fertilizer.