It would appear that David Hirson has a particular affinity for humbuggers. Coming after “La Bete,” his critically lauded, commercially failed (on Broadway) spin on Moliere’s “The Misanthrope,” “Wrong Mountain” offers another protagonist who’s as self-righteous, vain and generally disagreeable as possible. Like its predecessor, the new play muses on art-making and theater itself in alternately quippy, absurdist and thoughtful fashion. It’s often terribly clever, always diverting, sometimes hilarious. But it’s also a curious beast that on occasion seems to suffer from the central figure’s own acidic excess, and in current form fails to connect various shiny individual parts into any cogent overall statement or emotionally satisfying whole. Commercially speaking, this expedition — currently getting a world premiere “workshop” production at ACT — looks like a long-shot for survival in Broadway’s thin air; it’s skedded to open at the O’Neill on Dec. 17.
Protag Henry Dennett (Ron Rifkin) is first glimpsed writhing in pain on the office floor of his inappropriately merry doctor (an over-the-top Tom Riis Farrell, channeling Dom Deluise). X-rays reveal the queer cause of trouble: There’s a 40-pound parasite worm lodged in his intestines. The prognosis: Not life-threatening, but incurable.
Which might well describe Henry’s personality, which is poisonous. A middle-aged poet of moderate reputation and infinite self-regard, he endlessly quotes writing greats (Auden, Strindberg) as if they were kin, when not quoting himself; he browbeats his two cowed, overeducated adult offspring (Ilana Levine, Bruce Norris) and ignores ex-wife Claire’s (Beth Dixon) muttered put-downs.
Henry copes with the admitted “not-so-stellar trajectory of my literary career” by heaping disdain upon any rival, living or dead, who doesn’t meet his consummately elitist standards. An easy target is Guy Halperin (Larry Pine), Claire’s current fiance, a genially self-deprecating popular/critical kingpin of the Broadway stage — that “mountain of toxic kitsch … for suburban know-nothings,” as Henry rants during a most unpleasant family Christmas dinner. Determined to one-up Guy, Henry brags he can churn out some dramatic “crap” and get it produced within six months; a $ 100,000 bet rides on his success or failure.
The setting moves to the heartland Shakespeare Festival presided over by one Maurice Montesor (Daniel Davis), a grotesquely ginger-haired, fake-British-accented stereotype of old school theatrical ham. Henry’s completed manuscript has been selected as one of three finalists in a new play competition , alongside contribs from the much younger likes of toothy Winifred Hill (Mary Schmidtberger) and nerdy Clifford Peak (Daniel Jenkins).
They, and a motley troupe of actors, seem immune to Henry’s barbs — and genuinely enthused about his “genius” script, that alleged hunk of intentional “crap.” As rehearsals progress, our antihero finds himself starting to believe the hype. Perhaps theater, not to mention the glow of popular success, isn’t so bad after all. Soon he’s even being willingly dragged into — horrors! — a group hug.
“Wrong Mountain’s” ample wit peaks during a giddy, fast-paced sequence leaping between Maurice’s introductions to the three competing plays and the quarrelsome reactions from Henry’s “loved ones” at each intermission. A full-circle ending finds him purged of prior wormy affliction, albeit troubled by a new “disease” — roaring success as just the sort of populist-art “pornographer” he’d hitherto pilloried.
The ironies, as well as the metaphors, fly every which way in “Mountain’s” contradictory construct. Hirson gets often hysterical mileage out of satirizing Henry’s ivory-tower snobbism, as well as the warmer/fuzzier pretensions of Montesor’s gushing thespian tribe. But with such a misanthropic pill at its center, and so many sarcasms aimed at numerous targets, just what “Mountain” might leave standing as artistic “truth” never emerges — not even in a series of earnest late confrontations between Henry and his no-longer-tolerant flunkys. Perhaps, given the fate that greeted “La Bete” (controversial New York Times brickbats killed its B.O. amid protests from other critics), Hirson means to air his own very mixed emotions re: personal standards vs. popular acclaim. But the sum effect is simply confused.
Adding to a sense of clever but semi-incoherent overload are several underdeveloped plot motifs — a mysterious hot-spring “healing elixir” called Lithia Water, Henry’s attraction to no-nonsense acting student Ariel (Anne Dudek), etc. — as well as the pileup of amusing but sometimes gratuitous stage tricks in Richard Jones’ production.
Giles Cadle’s set designs accommodate numerous scene changes while providing more than a few jokes of their own. But the visual fillips (including a motorized model train that toppled over on the night reviewed) often seem to further clutter an evening that needs more focus.
Nonetheless, there’s no denying “Wrong Mountain” has its moments of rarefied, antic fun. Jones has buffeted individual scenes’ pacing and tone to a droll high polish, with the cast perfectly attuned to each perverse shift. Rifkin underplays Henry’s self-loathing biliousness, creating an effective black-hole center amid clownishly “nice” peripheral figures. But the show is often stolen outright by Davis’ memorable regional-theater impresario, who’s equal parts late-period John Barrymore and effete Christopher Guest in “Waiting for Guffman.”