Crunch the numbers in “The Audience” — 46 actors and 28 playwrights, composers and lyricists — and what you get is one giddy, good-time night in the theater. It was clever of Jack Cummings III, the Transport Group’s creative a.d., to write a show about the audience attending the final performance of a flop Broadway musical. Cleverer still was his notion to divide that amorphous mob into 18 core groups, each with its own story. But it was altogether inspired of Cummings to assign the creative chores to teams of writers, lyricists and composers who each chose a group of theatergoers and wrote a mini-musical to order.
The collaborative process on this show must have been something to see. (“You take the Four Old Jews.” “No way — I’ve got the three Staten Island Secretaries.”) What’s surprising is that what has come out of the seemingly chaotic group effort is a smoothly oiled piece about a single, 45-headed character. Real-life auds will be mortified — and touched — to see their own faces in this crowd.
The total of 45 is not counting the playwright (Jack Donahue) of the turkey we keep hearing about but never see. Sitting by himself in the middle of the house at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater (“Never heard of anything so idiotic in my life,” snorts one of the Four Old Jews. “He’s not even dead”), poor guy is having fits as the audience around him talks, coughs, naps, fidgets, walks out, makes out, switches seats, unwraps candy, uses cell phones and loudly criticizes his maimed masterpiece.
“See all that stuff/Happening up there,” scribe pleads with this collective beast in his plaintive Jenny Giering-Mark Campbell solo “A Show Going On.” “Can’t you at least/Act as if you care.”
But this is not an easy beast to tame, and in the intricately detailed opening number, “Why Do I Go to the Theater?” musical collabs Steve Marzullo and Mark Campbell mercilessly nail the sad, sweet, sometimes stupid reasons that compel people to sit in the dark with strangers and stare up at someone’s fantasy about other people’s lives.
Not that anyone is thinking long thoughts in the amusing early sketches about familiar faces like the out-of-town family, the couple on their first date, the two ladies from Westchester, the younger and older gay couples, the assorted parents and their grown offspring and the African-American yuppies deliciously satirized by Keith Byron-Kirk. (“Yes, we are black people/And yes, we are late/We are late … black … people.”)
In helmer Cummings’ smoothly integrated design, the audience retains its collective identity while individual members slowly gather definition as sketches are developed. Deftly supported by Duke LaFoon, the divine Dee Hoty takes the cake, in “The Older Woman and the Younger Guy” (penned by Matt Hoverman) as a Gotham sophisticate who celebrates her 50th birthday by seducing the innocent stranger in the next seat. The cackling Marta Curro hilariously eggs on the pack of know-it-alls in Lee Tannen’s “Four Old Jews.” Let loose to misbehave, the gay couples and would-be actresses couldn’t be bitchier or the teenagers sillier.
But as the unseen show (which sounds like something William Finn might have wrought in one of his more neurotic phases) works its emotional magic on fans and foes alike, characters jump out of their thin skins to reveal themselves in more depth.
Rita Gardner injects an honest note of pathos into her comic turn with Sondra Lee as one of the two “Ladies From Westchester” (James Hindman’s contribution). Gerry McIntyre, the preening male member of Keith Byron Kirk’s overbearing “African-American Yuppies,” breaks into an exuberant song-and-dance number by Lewis Flinn and Brian Crawley. Rosemary Loar and Robyn Hussa stand out with soul-baring solos in separate mini-domestic dramas.
When it’s time for the bows, Michael John LaChiusa gathers the entire ensemble together again in an 11 o’clock number, “Two Joins Three,” that movingly captures the community of the group before it splits and atomizes (“shooting off like sparks”), heading off into the night.
Okay, so it’s corny. But it works like a charm.