The old song about the sidewalks of New York prompts the title of screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue’s first play, set in Los Angeles TV-movie hell. This is the last, and far and away the least, of the many American plays to reach London this year and it has exactly those qualities British critics, often mistakenly, rush to find in American works: sentimentality, spinelessness, a fondness for platitudes dressed up as “truth.” The two ill-used stars, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, have a sizable TV following in England, but their fans will be hard-pressed to respond to “Mamie” with anything besides bewilderment.
Most bewildering is the participation of such a high-powered creative team, including an American director, Robert Allan Ackerman, whose work with writers like Thomas Babe, Martin Sherman and Lanford Wilson can only have made the present assignment seem like so much slumming. Between the ugly set and the emotionally blank performances (Saunders’ in particular), Ackerman certainly doesn’t seem to have given “Mamie” his best shot, but perhaps even he was done in by the let’s-see-if-we’re-lesbians scene late in Act 1.
The moment comes well into the conversation between the two women. Bibi (French) has fallen for a man she met in a 20-minute encounter in a checkout line; Louise (Saunders) must endure her embittered, adulterous architect husband (Sean Chapman, London’s first Prior Walter in “Angels in America”). In frustration, the women knock back the booze and attempt a kiss — only to be interrupted by the fantasy figure of Louise’s previous boyfriend (Benedick Blythe), beating his bare chest Tarzan-style and crying, “Not my Louise!” (No kidding.)
As if such patronizing sniggering weren’t enough — it doesn’t occur to Donoghue that physical intimacy between close friends might operate on a level beyond sitcom salaciousness — the playwright occasionally cribs from past masters as if to prove that films like “Beaches” and “Paradise” are not the sum total of her experience.
Leaving audiences dizzy from the cumulative ineptitude, the play at least makes one thing clear: Donoghue may not know a thing about playwriting, but she can quote illustrious forbears with the best.