It’s not an auspicious sign when a comedy gets most of its laughs for its scenery, even if some of it is played by actors. Writer-director Gip Hoppe’s “Jackie: An American Life” is packed full of wacky stage gimmickry and tongue-in-cheek cheesiness, played amid delightful candy-colored sets, but it’s markedly deficient in a couple of key ingredients, namely wit and purpose. It’s an overextended goof on the life of the title character, for which audiences are expected to pay Broadway prices.
Story begins at the end, at the auction of Jackie’s effects, where a pile of kitchen accouterments — “The items under the sink,” the auctioneer grandly intones — are being breathlessly bid for by fawning fans. The obviousness of the humor comes through quickly, when the bidders are herded off the stage by a shepherd. They bay like sheep, in case we didn’t get the point of that hooked staff.
The highlights of the fabled femme’s life are then duly covered in chronological fashion, from horse-besotted youth to debutante to presidential accessory to grieving widow and consort of Olympian millionaire Aristotle Onassis. While the woman herself is generally treated with vague affection, Hoppe pokes fun throughout at the supporting players in her life, although poke may be too strong a verb; none of the show’s humor would tax the intelligence of a reasonably astute 12-year-old. (Campaigning with Jack, Jackie has to kiss a pig, then eat Wisconsin head cheese. Ick!)
There are no significant points to be made, and the targets are all familiar: Black Jack Bouvier’s womanizing, JFK’s womanizing, the Kennedy clan’s obsessive sportiness, Jackie’s acquisitiveness, the nasty depredations of the paparazzi, symbolized by a giant vulture puppet in press garb. There’s no dramatic shape to the material, an absence that owes a little to the naturally episodic nature of a life but a lot more to Hoppe’s lack of directorial point of view. The play doesn’t even have the courage of its meager convictions: All spoofery stops at JFK’s assassination, which is treated with treacly reverence.
“It’s not what you do but how you look,” Jackie is advised at one point, and it might be the show’s own motto. David Gallo’s set is fun: a series of Greek-columned prosceniums within prosceniums, lit in bright bursts of color by Peter Kaczorowski and augmented by intentionally cheesy cartoony cutouts that do most of the scene-setting.
In place of content, Hoppe and Gallo supply kooky stagecraft, with some genuinely amusing effects: a stage-filling puppet of Joe Kennedy booming his approval of Jackie as the clan cowers; the young Jackie whizzing back and forth on horse cutouts as in an arcade. Much is dumb and plainly meant to be: an actor holds up a miniature airplane and crosses the stage to signify a transcontinental journey. “Let me walk the door to you,” someone says to JFK, and rolls on a doorframe.
With no dramatic purposes being served, the thinness of the gags glares brightly. Watching an actress impersonate a water cooler may raise a chuckle, but you’re not likely to chuckle the next time, when someone plays a horse or a cafe table. Likewise, the puppet gimmick wears out its welcome long before the play’s end. Such devices are charming when they embellish a show; in “Jackie,” they are the show.
The nimble cast lends the scenery a helping hand by mugging and vamping as needed. Derek Smith is funny in a bit that has the JFK-Nixon debate centering exclusively on their physical attributes: JFK preens and describes his magnificent hair; Smith’s Nixon counters grimly, “I’m sweating even more than before.” And Gretchen Egolf is a hoot as Christina Onassis, played as a cross between Cassandra and the Bride of Frankenstein.
As Jackie, Margaret Colin deserves a medal of valor for her carefully styled non-performance. Speaking with a fair approximation of Jackie’s patrician, girly breathiness, she strides through the play with a pretty public grin that’s as fixed as Jackie’s hairstyles and ensembles are suitably various (Susan Santoian’s costumes are all snazzy and apt). Colin is smart enough to know better than to attempt to create a character when the playwright hasn’t, treading delicately on the thin attempts at seriousness before and after JFK’s death. But behind the placid smile you occasionally see intimations of something else: a lost look that may be the actress’ or the character’s. Either would be appropriate.