I’m not sure what to make of Douglas Carter Beane’s new comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Fitch, currently at the 2nd Stage Theatre. I fully accept that dramatists—even if they set their plays in eras other than their own—are, one way or another, writing about their times and the issues resonant with those times; but I do ascribe to this—however quaint, unreasonable and historically debatable—conviction that somehow a play should seek to transcend its period of authorship too. This arises not out of some rarefied notion of theatre as a nobler art form than film or television, which have more of a need to be populist and trendy, but the fact that plays often go through a longer gestation…and then, when they debut, must be performed in front of such a relatively small number of people, one performance at a time, in only one locale—and still hold onto their resonance through the course of a run and beyond, as they’re mounted and remounted in road tours, regional productions, stock and amateur, hopefully for years to come. I always wonder at the point of anything that isn’t conceived to bear up for the long haul—why work so hard for something that will evanesce almost as soon as it crosses the proscenium arch?
Yet Mr. and Mrs. Fitch seems just that ultimately disposable, and even gleeful about it.
Its only characters are the married couple of the title. He (the redoubtable John Lithgow) is a very successful gossip columnist who wishes he were a novelist. She (the playfully elegant and much younger Jennifer Ehle) is vaguely defined as a celebrity journalist, though she seems mostly unemployed save as his co-author in all but the actual writing. As best as I can determine, he is also naturally predisposed toward homosexuality—but they are so taken with each other’s companionship that she revels in his other attributes during the lulls; and he gamely performs his husbandly duties with the aid of Viagra. (Aside from finding him attractive, she wants a baby.)
All of this seems like rich fodder for some kind of dramatization—even comic dramatization—but most of it whizzes by in passing, with the only stuff given emphasis being the most trivial: the gossip column and the Internet-savvy lengths to which they will go not to lose it when their hot-tempered editor (heard via the answering machine, unmistakably the voice of Philip Bosco) threatens it with extinction should they fail to come up with a sizzling scoop. Now I suppose if one thought about it enough, one could find that the play is a giant metaphor about truth and belief and how we manipulate the first and cling to the second to keep our dreams alive—in marriage as well as gossip—but with the relentless barrage of epigrams and show business in-jokes, meaning is the last thing communicated. Add to this the high-cute factor: the Fitches have nicknames for all the celebrities they deal with—Himself-the-Elf, She-Who-Will-Not-Be-Ignored, Timmy-and-Tammy-Tampon—which relieves the playwright of creating an “alternate universe” of conspicuously made-up references…but costs him verisimilitude with its damned-if-you-name-‘em/damned-if-you-don’t self-consciousness.
On the plus side: The play whizzes by tolerably—it’s nobody’s disaster—and director Scott Ellis delivers it in as smoothly-paced and unforced a manner as possible, given the density of the quippery. And, to quote S.J. Perelman, that’s something, even if it’s nothing.
There is, conversely, all kinds of lasting theatrical resonance popping in Clybourne Park at Playwrights Horizons. Playwright Bruce Norris takes as his inspiration a reference from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, about an African-American family of the 1950s, preparing to move into a white neighborhood. Norris postulates what may be happening in the house the Youngers are moving to, before they get there; why the white family is moving out and the neighbors’ concerns over the “changing neighborhood.” But that’s only Act One. Norris sets Act Two fifty years later, in our new millennium, in which a white couple, seeking to renovate the house they’ve newly acquired, must petition the neighborhood zoning board, in which key decision makers are a black couple.
makes for comedy-drama in the best sense, biting social satire one moment,
moving domestic storytelling the next. A near-perfect multi-tasking ensemble (Crystal
A. Dickinson, Brendan Griffin, Damon Gupton, Christina Kirk, Annie
[Law & Order] Parisse, Jeremy Shamos and Frank [Side Man] Wood)
working under Pam MacKinnon’s
subtle, savvy direction, brings it on home—pun intentional—with the
stamp of the classic the play may well deserve to be.