All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women most definitely players in Paul Weitz’s collision of theater and life, “Show People.” Peter Askin’s polished production and a talented cast highlighted by the ever-reliable Debra Monk in a droll turn bolster a play that’s probably a draft or two away from its ideal incarnation. While the fleet-footed first act is buoyed by its crisp setup, entertaining banter and the first of the play’s revelations, act two struggles with the conflict between sophisticated comedy and overreaching meta-theatricality, wearing out its welcome by striving too hard for cleverness.
Designer Heidi Ettinger has wrapped the stage in an old-fashioned fake proscenium topped by the comedy and tragedy masks. The butterfly-action curtains open to reveal the swanky split-level living room of a beach house in Montauk, N.Y., its expansive glass rear wall looking out on a painted seascape. The deliberately non-naturalistic presentation positions the play squarely in a tongue-in-cheek Brechtian realm, while a video fireplace is just one indication that artifice is a factor for the characters as well as the audience.
Married Broadway actors Marnie (Monk) and Jerry (Lawrence Pressman) have been hired for three days to impersonate the parents of Tom (Ty Burrell), a successful young developer of banking software. Tom is out to impress his girlfriend and intended fiancee, Natalie (Judy Greer), while at the same time negotiating a $175 million acquisition of his company by Microsoft.
Frustrated by long years of little or no work, Jerry relishes the thespian opportunity, delving deep to create a character and add improvisational flourishes. Jaded boozehound Marnie views their weekend employer as a potential psycho, urging Jerry to push for a higher fee.
Much of the humor is fueled by glimmers of the couple’s greasepaint background and of their more humble roots (she’s from farming stock, he’s from Lower East Side Jews) as they play at being well-heeled sophisticates jetting in for the weekend from Switzerland.
After initially presenting herself as the perfect companion — an accomplished violinist, sweet and demure — Natalie crumbles in the face of Marnie and Jerry’s kindness toward her. Unaware that her prospective parents-in-law are playing a part, she reveals that she, too, is not what she seems.
So far, so good. Where Weitz falters is in teasing out the mystery surrounding Tom’s motivations for fabricating a loving family unit. Burrell is an appealing presence, playing Tom as eager and ingratiating with just a suggestion of something unhinged lurking beneath the classically handsome surface. But as Tom determinedly maintains the ruse while his co-conspirators slip in and out of character, and the scenario alternately develops and then veers out of control, the play becomes increasingly strained.
As seen last season in his previous Second Stage entry, “Privilege,” and more notably in his features “About a Boy” and “In Good Company,” Weitz has a light touch and a good ear for fluid, witty dialogue. But while that earlier play and the movies shared poignant observations of human complexity, “Show People” never goes far enough beyond theatrical contrivance. Despite the frustrations and complicated history that prompted his elaborate deception, Tom, especially, has no dimension as a character.
The playwright’s aim appears to be a comic reflection on the actor’s all-consuming need to create and to fill a void. But there’s no convincing depiction of the desperation and drive that fuel that urge. There are glancing points made about the use of phony facades in relationships and some wry remarks on the nature of theater and its audiences. But these also fail to provide the play with a solid raison d’etre.
Keeping a judicious ceiling on the quirkiness, Greer deftly navigates the shift from touching openness to reveal a more brittle, self-serving nature. Pressman amusingly understates the resentful self-importance of an actor passed over before his time, and Jerry’s dogged attempts to continue exploring his character despite the reigning confusion provide steady laughs.
Despite a somewhat heavy-handed nod to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” when a nerve is touched concerning Marnie and Jerry’s childlessness, the couple’s warm bond gives the comedy a hint of emotional depth.
But it’s Monk’s world-weary, wise-ass reactions, her bone-dry delivery and the character’s barely contained disdain that keep the play from collapsing through its somewhat wobbly later developments.
Whether she’s groaning at the prospect of a monologue from “Hamlet” or viewing her husband’s actorly pretensions with an arched eyebrow, shrinking away from a maternal hug or becoming instantly animated at the pop of a champagne cork, her Marnie is an irresistibly acerbic comic creation. And Monk is such an accomplished pro she can give even a semi-successful play some sparkle.