Shows for Days
Newhouse Theater, W. 65th Street
Douglas Carter Beane’s Shows for Days is an admirably crafted valentine to his own beginnings in community theater. This is a comedy with the sort of laughs that land big and then build into second, smaller laughs, and it cleverly masquerades as light fare in its first act before grounding its humor in a more painful reality in the second act. The laughs are tough to get on the very large thrust stage at the Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center, particularly with a playing area that reaches so far back from the audience, and the play will likely get even more laughs if and when it is done in a more intimate space.
Shows for Days is narrated from start to finish by a stand-in for the playwright named Car, who is performed with enviable physical wit and authority by Michael Urie, an actor who has that rarest and least describable of stage qualities: genuine charm. Urie’s Car, who is speaking from an adult point of view, takes us back to his high school days when he got his first job in the theater, working with ambitious small-time theatrical grande dame Irene (Patti LuPone), lesbian stagehand Sid (Dale Soules), needy ingénue Maria (Zoe Winters), flamboyant ham Clive (Lance Coadie Williams), and bisexual leading man Damien (Jordan Dean), with whom Irene is carrying on an extramarital affair.
Remarkably enough, Irene is never presented as a deluded theater diva-type for laughs but always as a tough, smart, and faintly unknowable person. As played by the fierce and exacting LuPone, who sometimes evokes the spirit of that unforgettable theater creature Marian Seldes, Irene is a woman blessed with a surprising amount of self-knowledge, and most of the laughs in the play come from her somehow warm-heartedly ruthless exploitation of those around her. There is competition with other theater troupes to contend with, mayoral ass to kiss, and many personal problems to deal with within her troupe, but Irene handles all of these things with aplomb.
Urie’s Car worships George S. Kaufman (one of the best jokes in the play is about the title of You Can’t Take It With You), and Shows for Days is a comedy that is worthy of that lineage; old-fashioned in its well-made play structure but modern in its content. It is Beane’s achievement here that even though the second act introduces some extremely traumatic material (Car becomes involved with Damien and has to hear a particularly brutal line of rejection from him), the play never veers off its elevated, sophisticated course. Shows for Days is in love with theater and theater-makers but clear-eyed about their lives and their struggles. This is a personal play that is wedded to early suffering but basically light-hearted, like a liqueur with a strong aftertaste. The ending gets rather heavy and even a little sentimental, but it is honest sentiment, and it has been earned.