'Caroline in Jersey'

Jokey and hokey; despite late-play efforts at seriousness, it feels like a failed sitcom pilot.

Things are going down the tubes for Caroline: She’s playing a dog in a way Off Broadway musical called “Petz.” Her actor-husband knocked up a young babe in the cast. And she’s now reduced to renting a crummy apartment in Jersey to which she is strangely drawn. But things aren’t much better for the audience, either, in this jokey, hokey work, which has the feel of a failed sitcom pilot despite late-play efforts at seriousness centering on grief issues.

That snappy-at-any-cost sitcom style is underscored by the casting of film and TV thesp Lea Thompson as the 40ish actress looking for an across-the-river escape from her problems. (Call it “Caroline in Another City.”)

This world preem of a play by Melinda Lopez, helmed by Amanda Charlton at the Williamstown Theater Festival in the Berkshires, never overcomes an incompatible mix of styles, significant plot problems and a main character as unbelievable as the ghost with whom she shares the apartment.

Oh, yes: There’s a ghost named Will (Will LeBow) whom only she can see. At first, Will’s presence freaks her out, and she calls for middle-of-the-night support from her gay best pal David (Matt McGrath), a writer who has cast her in his pet project. Whether we’re meant to think David’s theatrical talents are real or imagined is unclear — but judging from the excerpts shown, he shouldn’t be readying his Pulitzer speech just yet. McGrath’s wonderfully dry style makes the most of his lines, but it’s a stereotypical character we’ve seen before. He does, however, give Caroline some sensible advice that, if taken, would kill the need for the play: “Get some therapy.”

The crusty landlady, Mimi (Brenda Wehle), scoffs at Caroline’s claims that the apartment is possessed, but there’s something about this Mary Wickes-type character that suggests she knows more than she’s letting on. When Caroline learns that Will is Mimi’s late father, the mystery widens, though it hardly deepens. Wehle nails this comic foil of a role and performs a nice transformation in the second act that allows Mimi to show the most shading of any of the characters onstage.

LeBow’s deadpan delivery, as well as his matter-of-fact descriptions of the afterlife, make him an amusing roommate you could live with. (“I’m dead but I’m not idle,” he quips as he tries to master the piano.) But why he is stranded in the dismal apartment where he once lived with his wife, and how it fits in with Caroline’s meltdown, adds up to strained logic and sentimental hooey that would be difficult for any actress to rise above. Thompson does her plucky best, but the all-too-annoying character is as preposterous as that ghost who enters her life through the refrigerator.

Caroline in Jersey

Nikos Stage, Williamstown, Mass.; 172 seats; $37 top

Production

A Williamstown Theater Festival presentation of a play by Melinda Lopez. Directed by Amanda Charlton.

Creative

Sets, Andrew Boyce; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Jake DeGroot; sound, Bart Fasbender; original music, Kyle, Jarrow; production stage manager, Libby Unsworth. Opened Aug. 6, 2009. Reviewed Aug. 7. Runs through Aug. 16. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Caroline - Lea Thompson Mimi - Brenda Wehle Will - Will LeBow David - Matt McGrath
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