If Meteor Shower has an astronomy lesson to teach us, it’s that lightning doesn’t strike twice. Honestly, though, I’m not sure it actually struck once.
In 2017, Steve Martin’s wan, pretentious comedy had a modest success on Broadway, due in large part to a couldn’t-fail box office power team led by director Jerry Zaks, with a sparkling cast including Amy Schumer and Keegan-Michael Key. Seen at the Walnut Studio under far more modest circumstances, the show is a near-total write-off.
Certainly, Martin’s name also sells tickets. He too, of course, is a comic powerhouse, but as he insists on reminding us regularly, his aims are loftier than that.
So, Meteor Shower, while certainly a comedy, has a lot of smug high-brow touches, beginning with a structure meant to recall Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with two married couples at rather different life stages mirroring one another. Are they, in fact, metaphoric doppelgangers rather than flesh-and-blood characters? (Spoiler alert: I don’t care.)
But Martin is no second coming of Buster Keaton; he’s more like a latter-day Shecky Greene, as the relentlessly jokey Meteor Shower script demonstrates almost minute-to-minute.
To be fair, some of it is quite funny. Martin makes particular fodder of a certain very West Coast, harmonic convergence-y kind of twaddle—the play is set in Ojai, which for a native Californian (guilty!) is an instant eye-roller. That world is very precious, affluent, white, post-hippie-ish… and massively deserves puncturing.
Indeed, I giggled as the older pair, Norm (Greg Wood) and Corky (Susan Riley Stevens) go to great pains to respect each others’ boundaries; also, when their gauche, annoying dinner guests, Laura (Jessica Bedford) and Gerald (Jake Blouch), arrive with a host-gift of small-batch boutique wine. “It cost $80,” says Laura, looking very pleased with herself.
But at the Walnut Studio, the tone is off. There’s nothing that looks or sounds at all like the archetypal crunchy-with-money California it’s meant to suggest. Instead, all four actors, who have been effective elsewhere, deliver Brand-X boulevard farce performances with little flavor or sense of specificity. Every joke is hit dead center, which only makes us more aware of how few of the punchlines are genuinely first-rate.
If the script is responsible for many of the problems, director Debi Marcucci, a Walnut Street veteran, bears nearly as much blame. In addition to misreading the tone, Marcucci loads on a lot of physical shtick and even a few special effects that distract, rather than enhance.
But the death blow is an impossibly awkward physical production that places two playing areas at opposite end of a long narrow space. The audience, seated on both sides of a largely unused in middle-distance in-between, spend most of the time staring at each other. In the rare moments where a scene actually seemed to find some humor and pulse, it was undercut by voices coming from behind me: “What’s happening? I can’t see or hear…”
Take my advice: when you see Meteor Shower coming, duck and cover.
Meteor Shower plays through October 27th at Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio For more information, visit the Walnut Street Theatre.
Categories: Criticism, Philadelphia, Theater
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