Douglas Carter Beane sure knows how to write for his stars. In 1997, As Bees in Honey Drown perfectly showcased the talents of J. Smith-Cameron, just as, more recently, The Little Dog Laughed did for Julie White and The Nance did for Nathan Lane. Now, in Shows for Days, a kind of companion piece to The Nance and likewise produced by Lincoln Center Theater, he’s written not merely a vehicle for Patti LuPone but a glossy and curve-hugging Ferrari of a comedy, built as if to the star’s spec sheet. LuPone plays Irene Sampson Keller, the theatrical empress of Reading, Pennsylvania, circa 1973: “stuck here among the Amish trying to put on Ionesco.” She is sarcastic, idealistic, overdramatic, and aphoristic, the kind of small-town diva prone to wearing Pucci caftans, giving multiple curtain speeches, and faking strokes to drum up excitement. “Sometimes when Irene looks really far down she can see over the top,” Beane writes. But LuPone does more with the character than offer an encyclopedia of mid-century stage mannerisms; she burrows deep into the neurotic and even political circumstances that make such a creature so awesome and necessary. Irene’s hysteria paradoxically brings out the discipline in LuPone, who gives a precisely detailed and never less than hilarious triumph of a performance.
So yes, a star vehicle. But whether it can be steered is a different matter; neither Beane, nor the director, Jerry Zaks, nor anyone else seems to have found a way to keep it from veering all over the place. Broadly, it’s an autobiographical memory play, aiming perhaps for Tennessee Williams (and beautifully lit as such by Natasha Katz) but mostly hitting A.R. Gurney. Beane’s stand-in is Car, as in “Carter,” a 14-year-old suburban boy who drops in on the tiny storefront Prometheus Theater at a crucial moment in its history, and almost by accident winds up finding his vocation (playwright) and confirming his sexuality (gay) under the influence of its motley and close-knit crew. The same is basically true of Beane himself: He, too, grew up in the Reading suburbs and wrote his first play for the Prometheus, although the Prometheus was actually called the Genesius, and that maiden effort, The Superheroes Save Christmas, is here improved to The Rumspringa of Jacob Yoder. Economically but disappointingly, Beane has also composited and reduced to a representative sampling the troupe members themselves. We only get four: Sid, the “bull dyke” stage manager; Clive, the “black pansy” leading man; Maria, “the neediest actress in the world and that’s saying something”; and Damien, a hunky local waiter conscripted to play Peter Pan and stoke the romantic subplots. Beane wants it both ways with them: They are laughable in their inadequacy but also fondly recalled, in the present-tense direct-address monologues that frame every scene, as a nurturing substitute family crucial to the author’s development.
For this is not, after all, Irene’s play; it’s Car’s. As in The Nance, which portrayed the emergence of gay identity against the backdrop of the collapse of vaudeville, Shows for Days makes connections between personal growth and theatrical death. The two plays even end with a similar ominous image. But The Nance was not autobiographical, so its plot could be jiggered more or less to match its metaphors. Shows for Days is trapped by its givens, which despite the light fictionalization are not flexible enough to encompass both the theatrical valentine and the coming-of-age tale. As the focus gradually shifts from the theater’s need to relocate or die to Car’s rather similar dilemma, the wheels come off and we land in a confusing heap of melodrama and farce. This is not just the result of Beane’s unsuccessful attempt to interweave the two stories but also the result of his writing a far better part for LuPone than for himself — that is, for Michael Urie, who plays Car. Urie, though exceedingly appealing, cannot find much character to fill out the charm. In the memory scenes, his behavior is often inexplicable, and the interstitial material comes off as patter from an imaginary Beane Vegas act. (The night I saw it, the relentless quippiness wasn’t always landing.) It is not a good sign that, near the beginning, the playwright has Car tell the audience, “Stick with me, I think there’s stuff here,” which can only suggest that he hasn’t found it.
If the autobiographical elements never coalesce in a meaningful way, and the plotting of the theatrical elements eventually goes haywire — multiple betrayals and blackmails are involved — Beane is too smart to strand his star with nothing serious to chew on. Oddly, the best part of Shows for Days (besides LuPone’s line-readings) is the way it dramatizes connections between the health of cities and the health of culture. Both are tied up in questions of real estate, here represented by the former hat store the Prometheus has outgrown and the former Young Republicans Club (“Young Republicans! What will they think of next?”) they hope to take over like hermit crabs. After all, community theater needs both a community and a theater, and the wrecking ball of urban renewal swings both ways. (Lincoln Center itself was built on acreage made available by slum clearing.) Beane, at his best, asks us to consider what is lost in the upgrades. “According to the last census,” he has Car tell us, “Reading is now the poorest city in America.” This is a bit Wikiturgical, but the point is well taken. The site of the Prometheus, or rather the Genesius, has remained vacant for more than 40 years. It’s now a parking lot.
On the other hand, the building that the real Irene (named Jane Simmon Miller) managed to obtain in 1974 is still standing, and Genesius still puts on shows there. The troupe’s most recent production, which closed the other night, was Rent.
Shows for Days is at the Mitzi E. Newhouse through August 23.