Let's clarify: [title of show] is the actual title of the play that Arizona Theatre Company opened last week at the Temple of Music and Art.
The title is not the only quirky thing about this one-trick-pony of a play. Oh, [title of show] is youthful, energetic, good-natured, high-spirited and often very clever; it also screams its limitations.
Jeff (Sal Sabella) and Hunter (Stanley Bahorek) are early 30-somethings trying to negotiate the maze of the New York City theater scene. Hunter is a writer/actor/singer, and Jeff is a composer/lyricist/actor/singer. They want to write a musical to submit to a new-play festival—but the deadline is 3 1/2 weeks away. And they've got nothing.
They cast about desperately for inspiration. They engage a couple of gal pals, Susan (Lauren Lebowitz) and Heidi (Kelly McCormick), to assist in their quest—but the best idea they come up with is to write a musical about themselves writing a musical. (Don't ask how potentially narcissistic, empty and pitiful this is. Yet.)
Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell actually did this exact thing in 2004; their show made it into the festival, and [title of show] was how they filled in the title on the festival's application. They workshopped the play elsewhere after the festival, and their story and songs continued to evolve to reflect their experiences in this lengthy development process. They performed the play in a few lower-level venues in New York, and in 2006, it was produced off-Broadway, winning a couple of The Village Voice's Off-Broadway Theater Awards, aka Obies. It headed to the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway in July 2008.
What we see onstage is Bell and Bowen's musical about themselves creating a musical, as well as the process of their creating this musical. It's a fun twist offering plenty of opportunity for wink-wink humor, which the talented cast unfailingly finds.
But something gnaws while the audience sits there, enjoying all this energetic, good-natured fun: Jeff, Hunter and friends are singing about wanting to be heard, and we're right with them. But what the heck do they have to say? And it's here that you identify what is gnawing at you: This train ain't going anywhere. (Now would be the time to ask that question about how narcissistic, empty and pitiful this whole thing might be.)
It doesn't help matters that director David Ira Goldstein almost ridiculously overproduces the piece. The charm of this show—and it does have charm—is its lust for creating something out of nothing. If it does anything, [title of show] celebrates simplicity and transparency. The set for Jeff and Hunter's show, they tell us, consists of "four chairs and a keyboard." Bare bones. Their show's delicate ingenuity is held together with spit and string.
But here, the bones are draped with all manner of useless—even distracting—design elements, including a series of dizzying projections which steal the focus and suck the life out of one of the best songs of the evening.
ATC certainly has the best design and production machine in town; the set and lighting for [title of show] are lovely and impressive—but all of that does not serve the play. Maybe producers hoped that the elaborate production elements would distract us from the thin gruel of the show's substance.
There is a really cool effect near the end of the production, but it would be even more spectacular if it stood alone as the wow factor of a restrained design—and this is a play that needs a restrained design.
If you go see [title of show]—and I'm certainly not saying you shouldn't—you'll have a good time and enjoy the energy, the cleverness and the fine performances, all accompanied by skillful keyboardist Christopher McGovern.
But one problem with this piece is that the production is now several degrees of separation from the original. The original was novel, spunky and full of inside theater jokes; [title of show] both celebrated and made fun of the whole New York theater thing. Now, [title of show] is like the production of any other play; we're not in some dinky little theater being surprised and captivated by something fresh and fun. We're watching a respected regional theater perform a musical with contracted actors.
It's just not the same. Ironically—and sadly—the success of [title of show] reveals its weakness.