Enough alcohol is imbibed over the course of Meteor Shower — Steve Martin’s blithely wackadoodle new comedy now at the Booth Theatre, under the brisk direction of Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks — that the play calls for its own cocktail recipe: a finger or two of any hard liquor of your choice, a jigger of Christopher Durang-ian satire, a tincture of marital farce, and a shot of Looney Tunes, shaken until extra-frothy, served over ice. (Oh, and while you’re mixing, take the advice of one of Martin’s characters and treat yourself to a glass of “pre-wine” — you know, the one you drink before the actual wine, the one that “doesn’t count.”)
With Jocelyn Bioh’s exuberant School Girls playing downtown, John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons inducing its fair share of belly laughs a few blocks away from the Booth, and the highly anticipated festival of silliness SpongeBob SquarePants about to open on Broadway, the New York boards seem to be lightening up a bit as 2017 draws to a close. I for one am okay with that. It’s been a year of real-life horrors, and there’s nothing like a world in chaos to spawn rampant self-seriousness among theater-makers. But a playful palate cleanser is a welcome thing, and that’s exactly what Martin has whipped up — a fizz of naughty, good-natured absurdity, complete with explosions and eggplants!
It’s a lovely summer night in Ojai, California, in 1993. (Why 1993? I suppose it’s because the Perseids did indeed rain down extra-gloriously that year, though in this breezy comic milieu historical accuracy hardly seems important. Anyway.) Corky and Norm are preparing to host another married couple, Gerald and Laura, for an evening of chat, alcohol, and astronomical observation. Beowulf Boritt’s set, which rotates to give us both indoor and outdoor views of Corky and Norm’s ultrabougie bungalow, provides seamless support for the domestic shenanigans that ensue, and Natasha Katz’s lighting — full of twinkling stars and blazing meteorites — buoys the atmosphere with finesse and charm.
Norm’s name says it all: He and Corky are the wholesome couple. They wear sensible clothes (though Corky eventually confesses that she’s worried her outfit features “too many bows”) and help each other with Jeopardy! questions. When one of them lets slip an insensitive remark, they hold hands, stare deeply into each other’s eyes, and say things like, “I honor your feelings” and “I hope that you understand that I did not intend to hurt you, and I will try to use that particular joking manner less often.” Martin doesn’t hammer away at this satire of New Agey, “10 Tips for a Healthy Marriage” behavior — he gives us just enough of the little Talks-with-a-capital-T that their practiced sincerity remains entertaining. And of course it helps that the actors involved are both bringing plenty of the funny themselves. Jeremy Shamos is effectively nebbishy as “Normal Norm” — and he especially shines as the play’s second half allows him to release the brazenly inappropriate weirdo within.
But it’s Amy Schumer who walks winsomely away with Meteor Shower. As Corky, the Emmy-winning comedian and icon of off-color feminist hilarity brings a confident, fully committed nuttiness to her Broadway debut. She’s the bubbly, blinking heart of the show — seemingly banal (“Oh, Corky, you have a way of making a cliché new again,” says Laura) but secretly indomitable. Corky suffers from “exploding head syndrome,” which sounds like something Steve Martin made up, but isn’t. (Though it’s not hard to imagine his glee upon discovering it.) By the time Schumer gets around to enacting the effects of this malady, she’s primed us to appreciate some pure cartoonish fun. She doesn’t overplay the show’s silliness to start — in fact, Schumer makes a charmingly credible straight woman right up until the moment she goes totally bent. As the evening grows late and the play ascends to new flights of ridiculousness, Corky gets to go full clown. Schumer guffaws bawdily, tap dances like a wacky grown-up Baby June, and tosses off punch lines as simple and effective as “Nooooo one caaaaares” — delivered with a wiggling of fingers and the unapologetic assurance that this baby-faced Ojai housewife, as the kids are abbreviating these days, DGAF.
You see, Norm and Corky are at war — though we don’t realize it at first — and their ultimate weapon is their own shared weirdness. The couple that’s coming to visit them is a sinister force. “Let’s go for total collapse,” says Gerald to Laura as they stand outside of their hosts’ house. They’re the sexy predators to Norm and Corky’s domesticated bunny rabbits (and it seems they’ve already left another couple — “The mighty Coopers, who thought they’d be so fragile?” — in their wake). They’re not here to watch meteors hurtle toward the Earth but to cause their own series of destructive explosions. Why? What’s their game? Did they send the mysterious trio of eggplants that arrived at Corky and Norm’s door earlier with “no note”? Who are they really? Martin does eventually offer a psychoanalysis-for-dummies answer to the final question, but it’s not all that necessary. They are the chaos to Norm and Corky’s order — they’re here because Comedy.
As Gerald, also making his Broadway debut, Keegan-Michael Key is as brazenly entertaining as you’d expect from one half of the (brilliant) sketch duo Key & Peele. Gerald is the kind of man who wears sandals and an ostentatious gold belt buckle, loudly quotes the price of the wine he brought to the party, and says things like, “Women have a right to the extreme defense of their vaginas” while staring unblinking and assuming that his female interlocutor will eventually succumb to his overpowering aura. “You should be aware that everything reminds him of him,” quips his wife Laura during one of Gerald’s sonnets of pontification.
But as with the hosts, so with the visitors — though Key is a hoot, Laura Benanti as Laura steals a bit of his thunder (not to mention Corky’s silverware while she’s at it). She simpers, seduces, and snaps with delightful shamelessness. Her Laura both satirizes the vampy vixen — “What? I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just here all shapely in your home.” — and breaks our expectations of that trope with her sporadic, often profane outbursts. When Gerald condescendingly refers to something as an old wives’ tale, Laura’s smooth-and-sexy façade shatters: “Oh, really, why is it a ‘wives’’ tale? Because we’re stupid?!” Benanti’s sudden fury and its equally sudden evaporation behind her vacuous smile leave the whole room listening for awkward crickets.
Meteor Shower may not be groundbreaking (few meteors are), but comedy doesn’t have to be revelatory to work. And Martin’s particular brand of humor is loopy enough to keep us interested. He’s also a master of the dad joke: The extended setup that builds to a wince-inducing punch line. (Re: Norm’s dick: “It’s been photographed by Mapplethorpe.” “How did he hear about it?” “Word of mouth.”) Yeah, yeah, groans all around — but you can’t help giggling, too. And you could do far worse than spend 80 minutes chuckling and groaning in the company of this game foursome of actors (there’s far worse out there right now). So grab a pre-wine or three and settle in for some puns and some Perseids on this lightest of all dark nights of the soul.
Meteor Shower is at the Booth Theatre.