Humor Regresses 20 Years in Oliver Parker!

05/26/2010 4:00 AM |

Oliver Parker!
Written by Elizabeth Meriwether
Directed by Evan Cabnet

Elizabeth Meriwether has written the screenplay for an upcoming Ivan Reitman movie in which Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman try to maintain a sex-without-strings relationship. I don’t know about you, but I can practically see and hear that movie already: it will be slickly contemporary, it will have a “smart mouth” and make lots of “scathing” references to pop culture, and it will eventually wind up with its heart on its sleeve and brazenly ask us to care. Judging solely by her new play, Oliver Parker!, which should have a bunch of commas after its title rather than an excited exclamation mark, Meriwether sets up a few characters, very sketchily, then has all of them make mention of any would-be funny thought she or her friends have ever had, so that her people seem to be doing a dreary, run-on stand-up routine. Worse than this, she then introduces a “serious” side to these pent-up joke machines, so that we’re supposed to see how their humor is actually just a mask for their broken hearts. In this play, at least, she seems like Diablo Cody’s less focused younger sister; having one Cody is bad enough, but having to deal with her imitators is going to get really obnoxious.

When I was still in grade school, desperate for something to see at the mall, I actually paid to watch Second Sight (1989) and Madhouse (1990), two John Larroquette movies; yes, there actually was such a thing as a “John Larroquette movie” at that cultural low-water mark time. Perhaps needless to say, they are two of the worst comedies ever, and a lot of that had to do with Larroquette’s twinkly-eyed, remorseless sitcom timing. At the beginning of Oliver Parker!, Larroquette’s character Jasper is introduced as a twitching drunk living a barren life in a room filled with empty pizza boxes and drained bottles of vodka. When his young pal Oliver (Michael Zegen) shows up, Larroquette lays on the TV shtick so heavily yet so absently that it was like watching an episode of Two and a Half Men played without a laugh track. Every now and then, there would be audience laughter at Larroquette’s tricks and grumblings, but it was some of the weirdest, most disconnected audience laughter I’ve ever experienced: there would be a patch of laughter in the front of the house, then a chuckle in the back, then two people in the middle rows would giggle, while on and on this show sputtered.

Jasper, like many alcoholics, has a tendency to tell long-winded stories with no point, but Meriwether obviously wants us to be interested in what he’s saying; her own writing is too garrulous and too amateurish, though, to make us care about either of these guys, even when, or especially when, she reveals The Secret of their relationship, which brings this play to a whole other level of icky overreaching. All is not totally lost, however, for Johanna Day has a role here as an uptight politician, and she offers a master class in transcending bad material. In her first scene, she does an expert Madeline Kahn-type priss, and in her second scene, the climax of the play, Day takes one of Meriwether’s groping-around-for-a-point monologues and invests it with Kim Stanley-style emotional fireworks. I never cease to be surprised and amazed by the resourcefulness and the sheer raw talent of Johanna Day; she belongs to that small group of theater actors that I would see in anything, and Oliver Parker!, alas, certainly qualifies as “anything.”