A top-drawer cast expertly catches the existential angst behind the droll satirical pieces Roger Rosenblatt has knocked together and designated “almost a play” in “Ashley Montana Goes Ashore in the Caicos.” A play? No way — but depressingly funny nonetheless in a loose revue format that feels a lot like those after-hours political cabaret shows that once flourished in Gotham. Overall tone of show is smart and sophisticated. But after opening strong, individual sketches become raggedly uneven and need a whip-hand to get them in shape for a future venue.
The despairing wit and left-wing wisdom of Rosenblatt (familiar in essay form from Time magazine and PBS’ “News Hour”) are served up in urbane style by helmer Jim Simpson’s shrewdly cast ensemble: Bebe Neuwirth (“Chicago”), Jeffrey DeMunn (“Our Town”), Jenn Harris (“Modern Orthodox”) and James Waterston (“As You Like It”). Costumed in mournful black and looking as if they just got word that Homeland Security has put the city on red alert, these comedic savants don long faces to convey scribe’s anxiety about life in these tense times.
Neuwirth intones the show’s definitive opening line: “Something’s wrong.” Batting the theme around, iconic characters brood about their personal fears and pervasive sense of loss, until someone decides that maybe the country itself is lost. “It must be around here somewhere,” DeMunn says, striking a note of panic.
So long as they maintain that undertone of dread, the skits deliver the uneasy laughter appropriate to Rosenblatt’s bleak comic vision of a world gone mad.
Contempt and anger also play well. An extended sketch satirizing airhead TV anchors and their brainless TV newscasts has the earmarks of a classic. Especially when the promised guest on “Good Morning Sunshine” turns out to be Adolf Hitler, “the controversial German leader,” plugging a book about his years of exile in the Argentine Andes. And a “Meet the Press” mock-up — featuring a guest appearance from the president of the United States explaining, “The correct pronunciation of terrist is terrist” — is such a hoot that it deserves more extensive treatment.
Show falls down in that soft middle ground of political issues like Social Security and Medicare that fail to whip the scribe into a genuine fit of passionate fury.
And while Neuwirth was born to crawl the walls and hump the piano as a moody blues singer, the musical number in which she plays a woman pining for John Ashcroft is pretty deadly.
Despite the loose format of its individual sketches, show does try to wrap itself up in a theme by allowing the forlorn characters to identify the treasures they have lost and now want back. At this point, it finally dawns on them that the all-American way of life they now mourn was pretty shallow, selfish and insignificant — and that they themselves have contributed to the corrupt national values that now oppress them.
It’s a nice coda, full of bittersweet yearning for simpler, stupider days, but not entirely earned.