Help is what “Taller Than a Dwarf” needs, and lots of it. On its pre-Broadway opening night in Boston, following a week of previews, this farcical new situation comedy by Elaine May was still in an embryonic stage. Both May’s writing and the staging by director Alan Arkin cry out for major work, and even the clumsy set could be improved. Professing to have some millennial significance, “Taller Than a Dwarf” is instead a poor relative of Neil Simon’s 1963 “Barefoot in the Park,” and is currently more an elongated sketch than a real play.
When the curtain rises on Tony Walton’s skewed, fractured set of a Queens apartment, May introduces her cute major characters. The youngish couple at the play’s core, Howard and Selma Miller (Matthew Broderick and Parker Posey), are in bed, having slept late. He introduces himself as an “urban Jewish, almost generic white male.” His mother (Joyce Van Patten) later introduces herself as a “generic Jewish mother.” May seems to be trying to forestall criticism for having written generic Jewish characters.
Howard, pushing 40, soon embarks upon a day of chaotic mayhem, during which he undergoes a total midlife crisis. The shower handle comes off in his hand, leaving the water to run nonstop for the remainder of the day, flooding the apartment below and ruining the ceiling. A cop on the make (Greg Stuhr) apprehends him for littering when he drops his lunch bag.
As the disasters mount, Howard finally opts to go back to bed. There he reverts to childhood, doing a jigsaw puzzle and playing with a child’s paintbook.
Howard is far from admirable. Apart from being a nerdy milquetoast yes-man, he admits to stealing money from his wife and to badmouthing her regularly in order to gain his workmates’ sympathy. For reasons beyond belief, when he stands up against his angry superintendent (Micheal McShane) and refuses to apologize for insulting the super’s slatternly wife (Cynthia Darlow), Selma, his parents and his mother-in-law (Marcia Jean Kurtz) hail him as a hero.
At the end of the play May brings Jesus into the picture, equating Howard with Christ on the cross — not exactly the epitome of intelligent taste.
May’s script doesn’t make a lot of sense, and even the zaniest of comedies and farces have to have a solid grounding in probability. There’s little of her trademark character-revealing comedic dizziness, and far too many standard sitcom shenanigans. The play’s main point seems to be to satirize a litigation-happy society, but this is hardly millennial news — Americans have been renowned for some time for suing at the drop of a hat. May can and must do better than this.
Director Arkin and his cast don’t yet have the skill and panache to pull off the play’s generous helpings of slapstick. Although he clearly works hard to project nerdiness, Broderick isn’t the comic genius the role needs to make the play work. Posey brings little to her role, but she is given little to work with.
As the Jewish mothers, Van Patten and Kurtz push a bit too hard. It doesn’t help that they play similar characters. Jerry Adler, as Howard’s long-suffering father, gives a believable performance. Stuhr is OK as both the cop and a fireman, Sam Groom is ditto as Howard’s boss, and McShane brings amusing, shambling obesity to the super.
Early on a small black boy (Marc John Jefferies or Dajon Matthews) is introduced. Seems that Howard always escorts him across Queens Boulevard on his way to school. But May does virtually nothing with this extraneous character.
Walton’s set presents several rooms in the apartment and a multiplicity of doors, as befits a farce. But it’s pushed aside from time to time in order for the building’s front stoop to be slid on from the wings. The effect is technically clumsy and also clutters the stage, limiting the playing area.
With its first Broadway preview at the Longacre Theater set for March 24, “Taller Than a Dwarf” is facing an enormous amount of hard work.