While there’s a kernel of a good comedy idea in Douglas Carter Beane’s “Mr. & Mrs. Fitch,” there’s not a lot of charm or conviction to back it up. Director Scott Ellis has recruited an accomplished duo in John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle to play husband-and-wife gossip columnists, but the playwright doesn’t allow them the breathing room to create characters. Instead, they’re just vessels for verbiage in a show-offy play that, though not short on wit, rams its erudition down your throat with a wearing rat-tat-tat of pop-cultural and literary references.
The title comes from “Mister and Missus Fitch,” a characteristically droll Cole Porter number about an Oklahoma farm couple who strike oil and become the toast of the town. (The song first appeared in the 1932 Fred Astaire Broadway musical, “Gay Divorce” — filmed as “The Gay Divorcee.”) According to his biography, Porter and friends planted newspaper items about the fictitious nouveau riche social-climbers in a prank that the composer eventually confessed to Walter Winchell and society columnist Cholly Knickerbocker.
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Beane acknowledges his inspiration by having Lithgow’s Mr. Fitch croon the Porter ditty at the grand piano in the garishly swank duplex designed by Allen Moyer. And while the play’s setting and themes are contemporary, its eponymous spouses are self-styled Jazz Age throwbacks, with their effortless cosmopolitan glamour, studied sophistication, intellectual dexterity and sparkling repartee. Too bad it all feels so strained.
Via personal history pieced together throughout the play, we learn that Mr. Fitch, a tabloid columnist covering the Manhattan high life, succumbed to the tsunami of the future Mrs. Fitch’s affections sometime in the heady 1990s. Gasping for air in the wilds of New Jersey, she espied him as her ticket to the glitterati, despite the minor obstacle of his apparent same-sex preference. “They laugh, it’s a shared moment. It’s clear they’ve learned to love one another,” says Ehle’s Mrs. Fitch in a typically knowing aside that sums up their relationship well enough.
Beane’s target is the plummeting integrity of the fourth estate, the fatuousness of celebrity culture, the minimal importance placed on talent with regard to fame, and the appetite of the masses for every inane tidbit — a hunger so voracious the notion of truth becomes irrelevant.
There are wry digs at blogs (or “blahhhhgs” as the Fitches call them), Twitter, chatrooms and how every New York Post headline can be sung to the tune of “Camptown Races,” simply by adding “Doo-dah” at the end. But there’s little of substance here that hasn’t been said many times over about the death of journalism and the ongoing rape of information culture.
The play’s core conflict arises because all the accelerated dissemination of “news” in the Internet age has made the Fitch column a little toothless. When they slip up and include an actress among the boldface names at a Gotham party at the same time she was committing suicide in L.A., their editor (an uncredited Philip Bosco on voicemail) demands a juicy scoop or threatens to ax the column.
On a drunken whim, they invent Jamie Glenn, a fabulously enigmatic celebrity who swiftly lands a spot on the “10 Sexy New Yorkers to Watch Out For” list, based entirely on fictitious sightings. But the plan backfires when some of the Fitches’ most scorned blind-item regulars step forward to put a face (and a string of Sarah Palin-esque talking points) to the fabricated identity.
While both actors are consummate pros, all their command can’t make these characters any less phony or their dialogue any less self-congratulatory about its very mannered cleverness. Ehle has the toughest time of it; her natural sincerity as an actor clashes stridently with the artificiality of Mrs. Fitch’s prosy chatter.
There are smirks to be had as Beane slathers on nods to everything from “Auntie Mame” to “Sweeney Todd” to “The Music Man,” Beckett to Mamet to Neil Simon, Edith Wharton to Ayn Rand to Maya Angelou, “Moby Dick” to “The Valley of the Dolls” to “The Brady Bunch.” But the suspicion arises that the play might be more fun to read than watch; in performance, its cultural name-dropping quickly starts to feel less amusing than assaultive.
Having directed Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” at Second Stage and on Broadway (together with the earlier “As Bees in Honey Drown,” the new play might be considered the completion of a fame trilogy), Ellis hustles the talkathon along as best he can. However, the air is already fast escaping the balloon in act one, and the fatal choice to include an intermission leaves everything that follows sadly limp.
The playwright might be half-heartedly aiming for poignancy in Mr. Fitch’s squandered gifts, the Great American Novel he has put on hold, or the compromises of his marriage. Ditto in Mrs. Fitch’s yearning for real love and physical pleasure from her reluctant husband. Each is given a lumpy monologue in case anyone missed the bulletin that they both run deeper than their soulless chosen field might suggest. But Beane can’t resist undercutting himself anytime a whisper of emotional truth intrudes. At least not while there’s still a Viagra joke to be made.