Veteran humorist Elaine May, a longshot candidate, has snuck in under the wire to claim the hotly contested prize for worst new play of the Broadway season with “Taller Than a Dwarf.” This urban-angst comedy’s sheer unpleasantness dwarfs the drawbacks of such viable candidates as “Epic Proportions,” “Voices in the Dark” and “Wrong Mountain.” (Contenders for best new play of the season are rather fewer.) The production is a very sorry vehicle indeed for the Broadway debut of the sly, charming indie film star Parker Posey, not to mention the usually delightful Matthew Broderick, whose admirable allegiance to the stage is cruelly abused here.
Broderick plays Howard Miller, a Queens everyman who turns a morning of mishaps into a protest against the tyranny of middle-class drudgery. Trouble begins when Howard wakes up late and the shower handle pops off in his hand, leaving the hot water running.
He dithers for a while about a solution, fearing to call the super because he lives in craven fear of possible recrimination. He dithers a little longer about being late for work, and dithers some more about not having time to walk the little black kid from upstairs across the street to school.
Still dithering, he urges his wife Selma (Posey) to make an excuse to the boss at hismarket research firm, and to go buy a wrench and fix the shower — a ludicrous suggestion. (And by the way, when was the last time you met a thirtysomething couple named Selma and Howard?) Racing off to work after more assorted dithering, Howard promptly spills his lunch in front of a cop. Now dithering to beat the band, Howard talks himself into a big ticket for littering.
At this point the hapless fellow slithers homeward once again, in anger and frustration, where he decides to retreat to the comfortable irresponsibility of bed. Howard spends the rest of the play protesting the daily grind by playing jigsaw puzzles and singing an odd assortment of tunes from the some strange inner hit parade, while his family urges him to get up and go to work.
Eventually — oh so very eventually — a violent confrontation with the slovenly super ensues, at which point Howard’s family stops railing at him for not getting out of bed and switches instantly, and preposterously, to lionizing him as a hero of the working class, a man who’s inspired them all by assaulting and insulting his superintendent.
As perhaps has been established, May has written a play about a dithering idiot, and why she thinks we’ll chortle and cheer sympathetically at such an irritating dimwit’s rebellion against the workaday world is anyone’s guess. A poor relative of Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” (hardly that playwright’s finest hour!), the play’s implausibilities and lapses in logic are too many to enumerate. Its dialogue is alternately aimless and inane, the jokes tired or crude, the slapstick strained and graceless. The whole play is so labored and awkward you begin to think the actors are making it up as they go along.
Broderick’s vaunted adorableness fails him here. Probably nobody could make the craven Howard appealing, but Broderick adds to his grating nature by affecting a variation on the coy, boyish and artificial voice he used far more appealingly in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
Posey, who made a bewitching stage debut in a Los Angeles production of John Patrick Shanley’s “Four Dogs and a Bone,” is miserably miscast and misdirected by Alan Arkin. As Howard’s overbearing, stereotypical Jewish mother, Joyce Van Patten is overbearing and stereotypically Jewish, while Jerry Adler walks through his role as Howard’s henpecked dad looking vaguely nauseated — and who can blame him?
Purporting to be a comic plea for the forgotten man of the urban middle class , the play is in fact an insult to him. The title derives from Howard’s contention that to be grateful for one’s small slice of the economic pie is like taking pleasure in being “taller than a dwarf.” May seems to share the sneering and patronizing attitude now abroad in the land that suggests that everyone who’s not a potential dot-com millionaire or CFO of a Fortune 500 company is a miserable, bitter loser. (The same snide tone marks those tasteless TV ads in which little kids stare mournfully at the camera and say things like, “When I grow up I wanna have a brown nose.”)
In any case, a plea for the common man rings rather hollow coming from May, who is noted for being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop to rewrite Hollywood movies. And indeed her distance from the milieu she’s trying to evoke is apparent throughout the play, perhaps most glaringly when Howard’s boss himself comes rushing over from Manhattan to bring him some work when he calls in sick. As if.
The play’s nasty coup de grace is a happy ending that suggests Howard and Selma will find happiness— i.e. big money — through litigation. Fade out on the couple in a clinch, visions of lawsuits swimming in their greedy heads. In fact, it’s Parker Posey and Matthew Broderick who may have grounds for legal action — they should sue for reckless endangerment of their careers.