Luck, Pluck & Virtue

Pluck this play has. Luck it will need badly, because it's mighty short on virtue.

Pluck this play has. Luck it will need badly, because it’s mighty short on virtue.

It’s billed as a comedy, but it provokes only scattered laughs, and those mainly of the nervous type — periodic reminders that comedy is often defined as tragedy that happens to the other guy.

The fall guy — and he frequently falls — is Lester Price (Neil Patrick Harris), a bouncy, gee-whiz type from Springfield, Ohio, whose life seems rosy.

But there’s a thorn or two. His widowed, lumpish mother tells him they’re facing eviction and urges him to work in the Pennsylvania mines. Lester, being frail and non-physical, decides he’ll go instead to New York City and make money.

This Horatio Alger beginning, however, soon darkens into writer-director James Lapine’s version of “A Cool Million,” Nathanael West’s cynical novel parodying Alger. Nice, naive Lester embarks on a Candide-like, disillusioning odyssey that takes him to New York, then to California. And all along the way, he’s victimized and humiliated.

Wrongfully jailed, he’s forced to have his teeth extracted because the state won’t pay for dental care. Suffering from a freakish eye injury, he goes to a clinic where the doctor says his only course is removal. Helping a woman with a baby carriage avoid a drunk driver, he’s struck by the car and sacrifices his thumb.

Later, at a commune led by a David Koresh-type wacko, Lester loses his leg and — thanks to a betrayed American Indian — his scalp. Inevitably, he winds up in a park confrontation with two muggers.

For most adventures, Lester is accompanied by cute classmate Betty (Ming-Na Wen), who fled molestation by her adoptive father to become a New York hooker, and Mr. Whipple, a hometown politician and banker who repeatedly advises Lester with pious, go-get-’em platitudes while dreaming up scams to bilk the public.

OK, we get it. The problem is that it’s less satire than cartoon, a relentless, nearly two-hour litany of our nation’s difficulties. Name a problem — crime, violence, racism, sexism, health care, bureaucracy — chances are Lapine has worked it in.

Even with all the issues, however, there’s little involvement. Lester starts out as a bit of a dork and never develops into someone real enough to care about , and Lapine’s script provides sparse ingenuity and no particular insights.

Lapine’s non-subtlety extends to the imagery. Gross depictions of Lester’s physical traumas push to the edge of nausea, causing laughs to be outnumbered by groans.

A few lines do have sting — Whipple: “All men are created equal until proven otherwise”– but these aren’t enough to relieve the general dreariness.

There are no problems with the cast and tech work. Harris utilizes his youthful “Doogie Howser” look to good effect as the innocent Lester, and he’s deft at pratfalls. Notably good in support are Ming-Na Wen as the sweet-sexy Betty, George Coe as the pompous Whipple, Marge Redmond as mother and several other characters, and Dan Moran as an assortment of villains.

Adrianne Lobel’s sets are dazzlingly bright, bold and colorful. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes span several eras, carrying through the play’s theme of U.S. evolution from opportunism to depression.

Luck, Pluck & Virtue

(Mandell Weiss Theater, La Jolla; 492 seats; $ 30 top)

  • Production: The La Jolla Playhouse presents the world premiere of a dark comedy in one act by James Lapine, based on Nathanael West's novel "A Cool Million." Director, Lapine.
  • Crew: Set design, Adrianne Lobel; costume design, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Chris Parry; sound, Michael Roth; music, Allen Shawn. Opened Aug. 1, 1993; reviewed Aug. 5; runs through Aug. 29.
  • Cast: Cast: David Barrera, P.J. Brown, George Coe, Neil Patrick Harris, Adrianne Krstansky, Meg MacCary, Dan Moran, Marge Redmond, Ming-Na Wen.