Less of a potshot at George W. Bush than a backhanded benediction for him, A. R. Gurney’s jokey new play, “A Light Lunch,” is refreshingly unlike most contempo American political theater. Sadly, that’s more or less all it has going for it — Flea Theater a.d. Jim Simpson’s production OD’s on wackiness, overplaying Gurney’s featherweight humor and shticky characters without pausing to let some of the writer’s wiser notions sink in. Still, it’s a “Lunch” worth chewing over, if only to hear the venerable lefty writer struggling against the naked loathing that has swallowed so many other Bush-centric plays.
Set in a restaurant that, for copyright reasons, is not Sardi’s, “A Light Lunch” tracks the disagreements of two legal pros: Beth (Beth Hoyt), a conservative Texas lawyer trying to secure rights to a new play by some guy named Gurney, and Gary (Tom Lipinski), a hipstery agent who reps both the playwright and the playwright’s politics.
Gurney, according to Gary, is teetering on the edge of obsolescence and possibly death — but he’s written a new play, and his agent has praised it so loudly that rumors have filtered all the way from the Gotham headquarters of William Morris (where Gary works) to Beth’s Houston law firm. “Gurney is no spring chicken,” observes a wary Gary. “This play may be his last gasp.”
This supposedly astonishing play, mercifully, is not the play we’re watching. Rather, it’s a sort of theatrical version of “W.” without the vitriol, recasting the prez as a tragic hero.
Gurney, Gary informs Beth, comes not to bury Bush, but to praise him — something that has kept the writer almost totally mum about his masterwork. “He’s worried he’ll lose his many liberal friends,” Gary explains. One problem: The unproduced play doesn’t yet have an ending.
Over the course of the meal, Beth coaxes Gary into synopsizing and partially performing the unfinished play for her, while pesky waitress/actress Viola (Havilah Brewster, overdoing it) offers feedback.
She also continually reminds Beth and Gary that they are in a play, that the play contract is a prop, etc., until one wonders whether it’s Gurney or director Simpson who mistakenly thinks these little cracks in the fourth wall are funny enough to be emphasized every single time they appear.
So we have a play within a play, and we have actors, a producer’s representative and a much-referenced writer — just enough people for a little ad hoc workshop; maybe even enough to find a climax for the writer’s brainchild. Eventually, too, we have an academic (Viola’s boyfriend Marshall, played by John Russo).
The characters put so much effort into finding for the president that the desire becomes contagious. The upshot is a longing, if not for that sympathy, then for the capacity to feel it.
But Simpson doesn’t keep all the actors on the same page here. Some of the play’s perceived slightness may be because the entire cast is in a default comedy mode, looking for laughs in many of the wrong places. Hoyt delivers the most controlled performance, and, when Lipinski takes his cues from her, the play runs more smoothly.
Gurney’s self-deprecation gets plenty of laughs (Gary lives in a sublet because his commissions are so small), and there’s no shortage of fun moments between the performers. The play’s flaws are easily fixable — plot twists you can see coming (guess who Beth’s employer is?), inscrutable blocking. The worst thing about it is that it’s not nearly as good as it could have been.
Ultimately, “A Light Lunch” feels less like a play within a play than a workshop within a workshop.