Losing Louie

As a character in "Losing Louie" observes in one of the play's many puerile jokes, "There should only be one stiff at a funeral." The corpse in this U.S. premiere of Simon Mendes da Costa's work is the embalmed Manhattan Theater Club production -- though whether it might have had more life in other hands is debatable.

With:
Bella Holland - Jama Williamson Louie Ellis - Scott Cohen Tony Ellis - Mark Linn-Baker Sheila Ellis - Michele Pawk Bobbie Ellis - Rebecca Creskoff Elizabeth Ellis - Patricia Kalember Reggie Ellis - Matthew Arkin

As a character in “Losing Louie” observes in one of the play’s many puerile jokes, “There should only be one stiff at a funeral.” The corpse in this U.S. premiere of Brit playwright Simon Mendes da Costa’s stunningly minor work is the embalmed Manhattan Theater Club production — though whether it might have had more life in other hands is debatable. Perhaps there are still audiences eager to laugh at jokes about masturbation and clitoral piercing wrapped in the palatably bourgeois packaging of a comedy about Jewish sibling rivalry, but that doesn’t mean they should be encouraged.

A hit early last year at London’s Hampstead Theater before transferring to the West End, the play has been adapted from its original English setting to Westchester County, N.Y., with cultural references suitably Americanized.

Robin Lefevre, who directed the U.K. production, presumably opted for the meatier challenge of Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” opening concurrently on Broadway, over this inconsequential piece. In any case, in Jerry Zaks’ uninterestingly cast production, it appears something vital was lost in translation — assuming something was there to begin with.

There’s a certain dramaturgical ingenuity in da Costa’s structure, which tips its hat to the dexterous maestro of interwoven single-setting stories, Alan Ayckbourn. But while the playwright ably lays the groundwork over two time frames for a consideration of how the sins and secrets of one generation spill over into the next — recalling Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain” — he seems less interested in exploring this theme than in occupying tired sitcom territory with the frictions between two brothers and their wives, thrown together for a family funeral.

Opening scene, set in the early ’60s, has handsome Louie (Scott Cohen) orally pleasuring his office assistant/mistress Bella (Jama Williamson) before a toy truck rolls out from under the bed, alerting them to the presence of Louie’s 5-year-old son Tony. Fast-forward to the present, where Tony (Mark Linn-Baker) is now a self-pitying 50-year-old, back in the same room with his brassy wife, Sheila (Michele Pawk), to prepare for Louie’s funeral.

Bickering mildly over his drinking and her smoking, they show warmth for each other only as they share a bitchy remark about relatives, “the Perfects.” A successful lawyer like the late Louie, Reggie (Matthew Arkin) and wife Elizabeth (Patricia Kalember) arrive in a Ferrari and a Jag, putting Tony’s Honda Civic to shame. It’s revealed that Reggie was raised by Louie and his wife, Bobbie (Rebecca Creskoff), but there are no prizes for guessing that details of his paternity will come into play.

While Zaks’ direction is drably workmanlike, he does a nimble job of choreographing the action in two distinct periods, with characters in the ’60s exiting one door of John Lee Beatty’s single set while others in the present day enter another.

But the comedy is hackneyed and toothless. A writer like, say, Donald Margulies might have breathed more heart and poignancy into similar material, but despite elements including infidelity, the loss of a child and a lifetime of fraternal envy and gnawing guilt, there’s no pathos to give texture to the humor. Every time da Costa starts to flirt with emotional depth, he undercuts it with a cheap line like, “What’s it like to have a foreskin?”

Much of the comedy rests on Linn-Baker’s shoulders, playing a whiny character in a singularly unappealing performance. He’s less awkward, however, than Arkin or Creskoff, whose work here is self-conscious and amateurish. Only Cohen and Kalember manage to remain aloof from the general staleness.

Losing Louie

Biltmore Theater; 650 seats; $86.25 top

Production: A Manhattan Theater Club presentation by special arrangement with James L. Nederlander and Michael Codron of a play in two acts by Simon Mendes da Costa. Directed by Jerry Zaks.

Creative: Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Paul Gallo; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; production stage manager, Barclay Stiff. Opened Oct. 12, 2006. Reviewed Oct. 8. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast: Bella Holland - Jama Williamson Louie Ellis - Scott Cohen Tony Ellis - Mark Linn-Baker Sheila Ellis - Michele Pawk Bobbie Ellis - Rebecca Creskoff Elizabeth Ellis - Patricia Kalember Reggie Ellis - Matthew Arkin

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