New Yorkers often swap stories about how the search for the perfect upstate haven breeds exasperating encounters with renovators, landscapers, organic coop farmers and local hippies, all deeply suspicious of weekend countrysiders but eager enough to accept their money. If Julia Greenberg and Robin Goldwasser had stuck to that scenario, they might have tapped a winning vein of satirical comedy in “People Are Wrong!” Instead, their overburdened, shapeless musical veers off onto less engaging turf, focusing on a green-thumbed, allegedly alien leader of a healing-through-vegetation cult who not only sports an offensive ponytail but actually sings about it.
Gratifying as it would be, in a season with few new musicals, to report that the Vineyard had hatched another offbeat discovery with the potential to follow “Avenue Q,” this desperate-to-please rock tuner feels like it was prematurely unveiled in mid-workshop.
First-time playwrights Greenberg and Goldwasser, whose background is in the Gotham downtown alternative music scene, have a certain facility with wryly humorous lyrics. Their eclectic, genre-hopping musical style incorporates pop, punk, country, gospel and funk, and they make no secret of their inspirational debt to “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” among others.
But like the elementary school-style arts-and-crafts collage wall that illustrates the action and functions as the play’s jokey, miniaturist set, “People” and its overstuffed roster of 30 songs have a cut-and-paste feel that lacks fluidity or focus. The show needs fewer, more fully developed songs like its two closing numbers.
Among the production’s chief points of interest is the casting of Goldwasser’s husband, John Flansburgh, one of two frontmen of Brooklyn-based art-rock band They Might Be Giants. But the extroverted, brainy comic personality that emerges in Flansburgh’s perfs with the seminal indie outfit gets lost here, as does his character.
Flansburgh and Erin Hill play Russ and Terri, New Yorkers looking for a green reprieve from city life by purchasing a weekend home in the Catskills. In preparation for an outdoor wedding, they enlist the services of local gardening firm Agway, staffed by disciples of landscape artist Xanthus (David Driver). Found by a local lumberjack (Chris Anderson) under a maple tree as a baby, Xanthus is believed to have been left behind by a UFO.
Anxious to explore his intergalactic roots, Xanthus pumps Russ and Terri’s savings not into flower beds and a lawn but into the construction of a spaceship, to the increasing dismay of Agway manager Joyce (Goldwasser), who eventually steps forward to expose hidden truths.
There’s an appealingly eccentric spirit to the early action, which nudges disarming comedy from the detox-seeking urbanites (“We can’t hear your car alarms from our renovated barn”) and from its skewering of New Age sects via the landscaping cult, with its assorted freaks and dropouts. Best of these is Tricia Scotti, whose daffy account of her character’s obsessive-compulsive disorder is one of the show’s funniest songs.
But when Xanthus enters, proudly swinging his extra-long ponytail like Axl Rose-meets-Barbara Eden, the narrative momentum sputters and dies. With at least three signature songs too many, the cult leader basically takes over, turning Russ and Terri into marginalized figures. And despite Driver’s best efforts to make him a charismatic, sexualized prophet, Xanthus and his quest for growth and knowledge remain more abstruse than interestingly enigmatic.
Director David Herskovits assembles the cast onstage for some pointless preshow milling about, and has stagehands interacting with the actors throughout, all of which adds to the goofy, freewheeling community-theater feel of the enterprise but also to its overriding lack of cohesion.
The uniformly strong-voiced cast deserve credit for the unwavering commitment and energy they bring to the uneven material, as does the hardworking band. But it will take a lot more radical pruning and reshaping before this untidy shrubbery flowers and grows.