The latest from "Peter and the Starcatcher" collaborators Rick Elice and Roger Rees, with songwriter Michael Patrick Walker, shows promise but needs a bit more work to be truly boffo.
Crack scribes Betty Comden and Adolph Green were “work-spouses” for 64 years while married to others. Speculation on how such unconventional relationships can play out feeds into the new Old Globe tuner, “Dog and Pony.” Funny lines from Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”) and sprightly Michael Patrick Walker songs (“Altar Boyz”), all under the director of Roger Rees (“Peter and the Starcatcher”), offer real promise once they dig a little deeper into how boyz and girlz actually do co-create. At one point, a character claims Variety throws around the adjective “boffo” indiscriminately. Not this time; not yet, anyway.
Elice’s premise hews so closely to Neil Simon’s 1979 tuner “They’re Playing Our Song,” it feels like a reboot. Instead of Simon’s burgeoning songwriting team, Andy (Jon Patrick Walker) and Mags (Nicole Parker) are established screenwriters boasting 13 years of hits. Recently splitsville, they trade memories and wisecracks, and revisit the past in flashbacks, at a comedy fest Q&A where they’re honorees.
He’s a vain, self-absorbed stiff; she’s a klutzy but verbally sharp kook. The central question is framed as: What exactly do they mean to each other? Or more bluntly: Should they or shouldn’t they go from collaborators to lovers?
Obstacles to clarity include Andy’s gun-loving wife (Heidi Blickenstaff, butchy and bold) and mom (Beth Leavel, with curiously undermotivated malice), but most of all Andy and Mags’s ambivalence. The scribes evidently understand human beings a lot better in their writing lives than in their real ones.
That we have to take that last point on faith is the principal weakness of “Dog and Pony,” which never bothers to show Andy and Mags at their trade. No sequence has one pitching a thought, the other expanding it in the give-and-take that goes into making a creative baby, or as Sondheim once put it, finshing a hat.
To be sure, we see them not-working, in a frenetic, dispensable number about writer’s block. The running time is also padded with numerous irrelevant farcical situations, often involving family pets (cf. the title) and many of which wouldn’t be out of place in “I Love Lucy.”
But when Andy, in a rare honest moment, sings “She made me better….We were connected in the most important way,” it rings hollow because we’ve never seen it. Not once do Andy and Mags speak or behave like a working professional team. They might as well own a travel agency or cleaning service, so thin and unconvincing is the treatment of that part of their lives where, allegedly, both are at their best.
Even in its current. patchy state, helmer Roger Rees has blessed “Dog and Pony” with a dream cast, each member of whom gets a memorable turn. For Blickenstaff it’s the most mature song, a wry description of how her family would benefit from “One Less Pony.” She doubles effectively as Bonnie, Andy’s post-divorce, granola-spirited g.f., though her self-conscious malapropisms grow wearisome (and Elice could more strongly link Andy’s attraction to Bonnie’s ineptitude with words, in contrast to the quick wit of you-know-who).
Leavel stops the show as both leads’ mothers simultaneously in a fix-the-kids’-problems number, and Eric William Morris shines as a CNN fact-checker (do they have those?, Mags wonders), serving up a taste of what romance sans Andy might portend.
Walker’s Andy is an energetic foil, but in the end, Parker is far and away the “Dog and Pony” MVP. A spectacular singer and gifted comedienne, she charts a manifest emotional progression to fill in any and all textual gaps. Investing even throwaway gags with meaning and pathos, the lady is indisputably — dare it be said? — boffo.