Steve Martin’s plays – Picasso at the Lapin Agile and, with Edie Brickell, the musical Bright Star – don’t deep dive into character or message. (Bright Star appeared to try.) His work will never be compared to Neil Simon who has natural facility for making comedy and pathos go hand in hand. Martin’s original screenplays fare better on this front- remember Roxanne?
Meteor Shower is a diverting piece about the vulnerability of marriage. The clever, timely, gimlet-eyed satire evokes broad smiles and moderate laughs. Its author embraces ba-dump-dump vaudeville humor as much as social comment. Being analytical, he underpins the plot with a psychological device of which we’re mercifully unaware till nearly the end.
It’s August 1993 in Ojai, California. The Perseid Meteor Shower is about to blaze across the sky like cannon fire. Corky (Amy Schumer, audience applause) in a perky Debbie Reynolds ponytail and her sweet husband Norm (Jeremy Shamos) are preparing to entertain sexpot Laura (Laura Benanti) and grandstanding husband Gerald (Keegan-Michael Key- audience applause) for the first time. Only Norm has briefly met the pair.
When amiable chat veers to conceivably hurt feelings, Corky and Norm break action to hold hands, look into each other’s eyes and intone psychobabble learned in therapy. “I really appreciate your attitude on this…I respect what you’re saying…” Everything is upfront with these two. The methodology works for them.
Laura and Gerald, on the other hand, are not what they seem. We glean early on that the couple’s recreation is upending their hosts’ marriage – sexually and sentimentally, apparently for sheer entertainment. They withhold basic information, insult with incisive abandon, and set out to seduce Corky and Norm.
Like many plays in current vogue, this one juggles chronology. Scenes are played out of order, so we often observe what happened and then what preceded. An alternative ending may or may not be true. Parts seem more important than the whole.
Honesty is as virulent as falsehood. Martin works in cannibalism, kleptomania, hard drug use, ignominious near-death, very funny seduction, vulgarity, and a couple of memorable, loosey goosey solo dances. Don’t even ask me about the eggplants. (I don’t have a clue.) You’ll have a good time but may be hungry again after an hour.
Amy Schumer plays a character with which she’s highly familiar, breaking out of the generic, through no fault of her own, only in the second part. Her timing is impeccable.
Laura Benanti effectively showcases both more unabashed allure and wacky physicality that we’ve seen from the actress.
Keegan-Michael Key aptly sucks the air out of the room with over the top cockiness that will keep your brows in constant parachute position. His determined focus just barely keeps Gerald from becoming a sitcom character, but he’s funny.
Jeremy Shamos is darling. The actor inhabits everyman innocence as skillfully as he navigates deadpan, heat-seeking-missile attack. At one point he breaks up another cast member with audacious silliness. A pleasure to watch.
Director Jerry Zaks creates infectious fun with this one. Recent commissions haven’t offered nearly this kind of opportunity for off the wall visuals and spot-on timing. Bravo.
Natasha Katz’s Lighting Design conjures marvelous meteors and explosions.
Costumes by Ann Roth are wonderfully specific to character.
Beowulf Boritt’s modrin Set Design moves fluidly between living room and patio.
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Keegan-Michael Key, Jeremy Stamos, Amy Schumer, Laura Benanti
Meteor Shower by Steve Martin
Directed by Jerry Zaks
222 West 45th Street
Through January 21, 2018
It takes a special kind of person to stand before a crowd of strangers, risking emotional immolation and the searing pain of a silent room, and just…be. Let yourself be known. And among those people it’s an even odder type who lays it all out for laughs, a prize as ephemeral and fleeting — and addictive — as anything you’d find on a dodgy street corner in the bad part of town. Producer Ira Glass (the creator of essential NPR listening, “This American Life”) and writer/director Mike Birbiglia (Sleepwalk with Me) have created with Don’t Think Twice, a smart, heart-felt tale about that breed apart. It’s a look at how hard it is to “make it look easy.” It speaks with begrudging acknowledgement that sometimes what it takes hard work, sometimes it’s charisma and selfish grandstanding, but sometimes it’s good old-fashioned luck.
Improv 101 teaches the concept of “Yes, and…,” which means that whenever someone presents an idea, everyone else takes the ball and runs with it. The group has to accept a premise and be willing to make a leap with it even if they don’t know where their feet will land. It’s a leap of faith, which may also be why improv done well is so exhilarating — for the performers as well as the audience. In Don’t Think Twice, the players, The Commune, step toward the wings, literally touching one another, connecting physically as a sign of connecting emotionally, and say, “I got your back.” Don’t Think Twice is about what happens when these people who have spent years together all of a sudden stop having each other’s backs?
Kate Micucci (Allison), Tami Sagher (Lindsay)
The thing about improvisational comedy is that it works best when performed by people who know each other well. Really, really well. History isn’t essential, but it is important to hook into what they refer to in the film as the group mind. The reason improv performers don’t think twice is because they’ve become so comfortable with each other that they know how to create sparks in one another’s minds — or at least have an idea of what can grow out of the seed of an idea. And when someone knows you that well, they know what makes you great as much as what makes you vulnerable.
In this case the vulnerabilities, put into basic terms, include hubris (self-aggrandizing Miles, played by Birbiglia), greed (showboating Jack, played by Keegan-Michael Key), sloth (ever-procrastinating Allison, played by Kate Micucci), gluttony (pot-smoking, still-living-at-home Lindsay, played by Tami Sagher), envy (sad-sack Bill, played by Chris Getherd), and the outlier, Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), who lets fear of an uncertain future keep her from taking any steps forward. Don’t think these aren’t wonderful, delightful characters. They’re all people you’d want to hang out with on a Saturday night. They’re funny and insightful and genuinely good people. But they’re also flawed, and no one reaches the end without having a light shone on the things that make them so sadly human.
The film is predicated on the premise that The Commune’s beloved home, Improv America, a Second City–style theater known for developing the best and brightest comedy minds in the country — the kind who get picked up by SNL knock-off Weekend Live — is shuttering after long years of well-respected but financially modest success. Change is thrust upon them, and they are surprisingly ill equipped to deal with it. Things get even trickier when one of their number, Jack, makes it to the big show. The others are struck by the seeming unfairness of it all. They’re a group; their success has always been mutual and dependent on each other. At this crossroads they have come to the point of realizing that oftentimes talent just isn’t enough. When the unified front falters, however, it’s enough to shift the dynamic from mostly good-natured rivalry to a full-on battle of wills and words.
Mike Birbiglia (Miles), Kate Micucci (Allison)
This cast is a modern comedy mega-band. Every single one of them has contributed something significant to the genre over the last several years to varying degrees of recognition, both critical and as in “hey, it’s that guy!” status. They’re a more disparate group in the real world than they are in the film, but they are all astonishingly good at what they do. As actors, which some of them are more than others, they’re so smart and look so comfortable in front of the camera that it feels like the entire film could have been improvised. When the audience doesn’t play nicely, you can feel the air go out of their sails. When they’re all tuned in, it’s a thing of beauty.
Birbiglia is known for delivering laid-back, sometimes meandering monologues that begin with an idea and follow it through step by awkward step until it reaches its simple but unexpected conclusion. (The thing is, like the best standup routines, these stories have been carefully fine-tuned in order to sound so off the cuff. It’s said that George Carlin went to far as to write when he could take a breath into his performances.) Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice script is another creature entirely. It’s punchy and painfully honest about the various categories of creative types. It also has a level of heart and vulnerability that his standup fans could have suspected possible but might not have seen in full bloom.
The comedic/dramatic tension balance is so good, the characters so believable, that it’s almost possible to feel them holding their breath to see if their lines will land in friendly territory. Perhaps that’s why it feels so terrible when it’s made clear that success and friendship may have to remain mutually exclusive. It’s a hard lesson told with care and honesty. You don’t have to be a comedy buff to appreciate what this very creative team has accomplished. If you have the opportunity to see it, don’t think twice.
Top photo: Counter Clockwise: Keegan-Michael Key (Jack), Gillian Jacobs (Samantha), Chris Gethard (Bill), Kate Micucci (Allison), Mike Birbiglia (Miles), Tami Sagher (Lindsay).
Photos from EPK.TV, courtesy of Jon Pack