Savvy stage comediennes like Doris Roberts, Holland Taylor, and Bea Arthur successfully extended their careers by playing funny older ladies on TV sitcoms. So why shouldn’t Betty Buckley go for it? Ah, but Ben Andron’s “White’s Lies,” in which the stage diva plays an overbearing mother bent on curbing her womanizing son’s cowardly habit of lying, happens not to be a TV sitcom. Call it, rather, a blatant and altogether clumsy audition piece, pitched to whatever TV producers might be desperate enough to find some dribbles of humor in this stale and shallow material.
It can’t be said that Buckley looks entirely comfortable playing the kind of tough old broad that everyone hates on sight. But, being a trooper, she puts her back into the role of Mrs. White, a domineering mother with a scheme to make her lawyer son give up his philandering and make her a grandmother before she dies.
Like everyone else in this frantically paced production helmed by Bob Cline, Buckley gets a good cardio workout running on and off Robert Andrew Kovach’s expansive set for the sleek, soulless law office where Mrs. White’s only son, Joe (Tuc Watkins), beds down his one-night stands. With its sliding-panel walls and versatile furniture pieces, set also accommodates the many martini bars and theme bistros — each presided over by a universal bartender played with a universal sneer by Jimmy Ray Bennett — where Joe makes his conquests.
Play’s references to classic TV sitcoms from “Newhart” to “Growing
Pains” needn’t be so heavy-handed, since the stock characters (and the TV-trained thesps who play them) efficiently indicate the kind of shows they escaped from.
Playing Joe, the heartless skirt-chaser, Watkins (currently on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives”) gives a respectable impersonation of Charlie Sheen without tapping into his bad-boy appeal. As Joe’s envious law partner and best friend, Peter Scolari is cute enough to pass for one of the regulars on “Newhart” — which Scolari was. Christy Carlson Romano (a youthful talent from the Disney Channel) and Andrea Grano (who can act, despite being shy of TV credits) also hold up their professional ends.
But if there’s a TV role out there for Betty Buckley, it won’t come out of this hopeless piece of work. Scribe Andron may have latched onto superficial sitcom formulas about slacker heroes and the women who love them, hate them, nag them, indulge them, try to change them, but ultimately forgive them and keep on enabling them. But he really hasn’t the heart make comedy out of the sad and messy lives of people in sitcoms.