The production, directed with oddly erratic pacing by the experienced Jerry Zaks, stars the imperious Patti LuPone as the acidly ambitious Irene, the doyenne of a theatrical troupe in Reading, Pennsylvania, in the early Seventies. Wide-eyed, always ebullient Michael Urie, as Car, Beane’s stand-in, becomes her acolyte/scene painter/receptionist/new playwright in the process of discovering a world his suburban existence never hinted at. He is the author’s glib stand-in who keeps the audience in the loop with apt descriptions, editorial comments and sexual confessions.
As Car learns the jargon of his new calling—google “to dutchman the flats”—he discovers a latent writing talent and finds love for the first time. The plot uncomfortably veers between bogging down in chaotic preparations for plays and the ennui of long runs, making odd leaps in time.
Shows for Days becomes an uneasy mix of moist nostalgia and acid reality, reducing the running of this complex entity to a series of shenanigans and sexual liaisons. Beane can’t quite settle on a tone. He clearly wants us to share the wonder and excitement he experienced as a youngster discovering the oddball world of theater and the pain of young lust.
Somehow, though, it’s difficult to empathize with these characters. They are all, including his mouthpiece, Car, insufferable in their own ways. They come across as caricatures: the queenie, large Black man, Clive (a wonderfully over-the-top Lance Coadie Williams); the ditzy ingénue, Maria, who is easily placated with a new part (Zoë Winters, a tad one-note); the closeted caddish handsome leading man, Damien (a perfectly cast Jordan Dean) who can’t seem to decide whether he’s gay or straight ; the good-with-tools lesbian, Sid (an absolutely fabulous Dale Soules); and the dragon lady artistic director/actress who has no qualms about blackmailing her company members or feigning major illnesses to get what she wants. Ms. LuPone knows this character from top to bottom and inside out and mercifully just avoids chewing the scenery. Mr. Urie’s natural appeal keeps his annoying adolescent emotions from being cloying. Although lip service is given to the wonders of being part of this colorful tribe, the Prometheus Theater comes across as a troublesome place to be rather than a wonderland.
At the end of the show the Car character actually becomes Douglas Carter Beane as he substitutes the actual names of the members of this acting troupe for the fictional ones. The effect is jarring.
John Lee Beatty’s set, complete with colored tapes on the floor indicating scenery and William Ivey Long’s period-perfect costumes help the play immeasurably.
Shows for Days (through August 23, 2015)
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center Theater, in Manhattan
Running time: two hours and five minutes including one intermission