So, what if Steve Martin put down his banjo, removed the arrow gag from his temples and treated his restless intelligence to a production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
“I can do that!” he might have exclaimed. And Meteor Shower, now premiering at the Old Globe Theatre, might have been the result.
Did this actually happen? Probably not. But it’s as likely as most of the stuff in this new play. And it gives you an idea of what the play is all about.
Instead of Albee’s musty, backwater academic hell, Martin’s pair of couples meet in a stylish California country home near Ojai. The guys must be quite well off – upscale neighborhood! – while the women seem mostly housebound. But it’s hard to accept as truth anything that’s said.
Does Martin hang out with people this goofy? Or is it just him? Probably the latter, since his comedy sensibility is a national treasure, to be savored in concert, on stage, via the printed page and all over screens of whatever size.
And none of these characters, for all their urgent energy, are jokers. Competitive, striving for cool points, quick to lust but too tight to be funny. Except to an audience.
The occasion is an evening of celestial wonders, best seen in the clear air of the mountains instead of the think coastal glow of Santa Barbara, where the visitors live. The two guys play tennis now and then; the invitation was an impulse. As the wives circle each other, probing for cracks, the guys retire to the patio and watch the show.
There are put-downs – “You have a way of making a cliché new again.” But little in the way of actual jokes. Unless you count the surreal, such as “Is that a non sequitur or a sequitur?”
Ah yes, the surrealism. Plenty of that here. Where Albee lowered his head like an oxen and just burrowed on through that long, drunken evening, Martin tap dances with time, veering back unexpectedly, swerving forward, contradicting reported data, redoing scenes with new keys added, shuffling the dominant and the submissive without warning.
A bottle of wine has been brought – costing $80 or $4.50 depending on who’s talking – and a gift-basket of three eggplants, delivered earlier, may or may not have something to do with the visit. As time lurches on, dope is ingested, language is brutalized, trysts are consummated and those meteors provide a considerable impact. Or maybe not. Just another day in some peculiar universe.
Some other author might turn all this into a gray paste but Martin makes it tinkle and amaze. The collective impact of all this bold larking about is oddly gentle: These are people who make sense to themselves, if not to the rest of us.
Though it’s Martin doing the words, the four characters in the play are solid sitcom stereotypes and the polished actors, all working at peak efficiency, dutifully deliver those goods while awaiting the next flight of fancy. It must be fun, stomping on so much standard-issue material with such loopy variations.
Possibly, each character could be connected with some existing TV favorite but I haven’t the catalogue to do so. Jenna Fischer is the house wren, preoccupied with pondering advice on care and feeding a relationship but open for startling swerves. Alexandra Henrikson plays the visiting feme fatale with a conviction that keeps slipping gears, leaving her in perplexed smoldering mode. As the host, Greg Germann is the nice guy who seeks only peace and good fellowship with the world while Josh Stamberg, a legend in his own mind, probably practices crinkling his eyes in the mirror. But beware of the twists that lurk.
The evening, bordering on incoherence and reeking of sly in-jokes, nevertheless must be designated a hoot.
Gordon Edelstein has directed with a straight face and an easy way with the genre. Michael Yeargan’s set and Donald Holder’s lighting are acceptable even if a vast night sky is hard to achieve in the arena of the White Theatre. Other than Henrikson’s radioactive magenta sheath I don’t remember much about Jess Goldstein’s costumes except that they helped.
It’s been a stimulating couple of years for the Globe with Martin bringing us Bright Star and now this. One can only hope fervently that the partnership continues. Maybe we should think of something else to toss into his raw material banks? No, that’s not how it works. We can but wait.
(Continues in the White Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 18, 2016.)