Another play about the coming of age of an artistically inclined boy? Bor-ring. Douglas Carter Beane tries to minimize the ho-hum factor in “Shows for Days,” his own entry into that overworked sub-genre, by setting this nostalgic play in a 1970s community theater troupe ruled by a tyrannical but venerated diva played (to the hilt) by Patti Lupone. Shrewd move, but the scribe neglects to fortify his spirited star and the boychick apprentice played (sweetly) by Michael Urie with a lucid plot, a coherent structure or even believable supporting roles.
Veteran director Jerry Zaks (“Guys and Dolls,” “Six Degrees of Separation”) picked the cream of the creative crop to design this show. As always, quality shows.
To set the scene of Beane’s quasi-autobiographical memory play, set designer John Lee Beatty harks back to the seedy but alluring backstage world he designed for “The Nance,” the playwright’s previous show at Lincoln Center. The playing space consists of a bare stage, dripping with “antique” chandeliers of dubious provenance and backed by floor-to-ceiling storage compartments crammed with costumes, set pieces and intriguing theatrical props.
These are the shabby quarters of the Prometheus Theater, an amateur company in Reading, Penn., based on a real amateur company in Reading, Penn., where the playwright got his start. As lighted by Natasha Katz, it’s a place promising warmth and welcome.
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Costumer William Ivey Long, another top-drawer designer, created the wondrous outfits that capture the colorful bravado of the 1970s period in which the play is set. The leading lady’s street clothes, worn with grand panache by Lupone, are even flashier than the theatrical costumes. Not even a floor-length, gold lame number (from a Noel Coward comedy, perhaps?) can stand up to a violent red-plaid suit with matching stole.
Narrating the events of that life-changing year when he apprenticed with the Prometheus players and discovered both his theatrical calling and his sexual identity, the adult Car (played by Urie of “Ugly Betty” and “Buyer & Cellar”) looks back on his younger self with rueful affection. And lo! That younger self (also played by Urie) appears as a stagestruck high-school boy eager to soak up whatever experience might come his way.
That includes his falling in love with Damien (Jordan Dean), a strapping, presumably straight 19-year-old youth and, as such, a rare and valuable commodity in Reading, where “ladies and queens” tend to dominate the stages of the amateur theater community. As one actor observes, “Whenever you see a photo from a past play, you wonder: Was there a war on during this show’s run?”
Snappy lines like that are Beane’s stock in comic trade, and “Shows for Days” has plenty of zingers, including jokes that undermine the purpose of a scene. Even at the climax of the show, when all seems lost and “townspeople are gathering with pitchforks,” Beane can’t resist reminding us that, “This is Pennsylvania. They literally have pitchforks.”
The point of the play is elusive. Beane edges toward a theme when he quotes Tennessee Williams’ fond tribute to community theaters that function as constant irritants to the social order of their complacent communities. “Eliminate them — or bully them into conformity — and nobody in America will ever be really young anymore.”
The political role of a community theater in the life of its community is an extremely promising subject. But it gets lost in a rambling plot about the dubious role of the Prometheus in real-estate schemes that will destroy the life of the inner city by displacing small downtown businesses. The company’s grandiose impresario, who is called Irene and performed with great swagger by Lupone, plays a rough game of down-and-dirty politics to survive the wrecking ball. (“I am not selling out,” she insists. “I am putting aside previously held beliefs in order to adapt for success.”) And since all the wheeling and dealing takes place offstage, it’s hard to follow the action or judge Irene’s role in it.
Aside from a coherent plot and a sturdy structure to give it focus, what’s really missing from this show is — a show! It doesn’t have to be “Waiting for Guffman” (although that would be lovely) or even take place onstage. But even a few rehearsal scenes of some work in progress — perhaps one of the plays that young Car is writing for the company — would give us a taste of the amateur theatricals that Beane found so captivating.
Without a cohesive narrative to keep the comedy focused, we’re left with the characters. Young Car is the most carefully drawn and Urie handles the boy with kid gloves. And Lupone is in her element as the duplicitous diva in her floppy red wig and garish outfits, living her dream on her own little stage and grinding everybody else’s dreams under her heel.
But the other characters are stereotypes — the sassy drama queen, the needy ingenue, the company pretty boy — and the acting styles are all over the map, from high camp (Lance Codie Williams’ flamboyant show queen) to clueless (Zoe Winters’ pallid ingenue). Only Dale Soules (“Orange Is the New Black,” “Hands on a Hard Body”) has made something both hilarious and touching of her role as loyal Sid, the company’s tough-as-old-boots lesbian stage manager.
In the end we’re left with the only subject that Beane pursues with genuine commitment — the coming of age of the sensitive boy he once was.