When the area debut of Anne Meara’s comedy After-Play coincided last Friday with the arrival of an even windier summer distraction named Fran, the latter won. Before the curtain could open, the heavens did, knocking out Olney Theatre’s electricity and ensuring that, for the first time in the memory of anyone associated with the decades-old playhouse, the show would not go on.
Next night wasn’t as lucky.
After-Play, which recently concluded a yearlong run off-Broadway, is comedian Meara’s first stab at theatrical writing, so no one should be surprised that its skit-com roots are showing. But who could have predicted that a comic who built her career around sardonic portraits of everyday people dealing with everyday situations would prove so fond of sophomoric symbolism and freshmanic philosophizing? A goopy, otherworldly, dinner-and-white-whine reunion for a pair of middle-aged couples, the evening tries to tackle questions of life, death, and spirituality while cracking wise about penis envy and menopause. A writer of, say, Tom Stoppard’s sensibility might be able to make that mix gel; Meara just ends up with snigger-provoking sentimental mush. “I had my last Tampax bronzed ages ago” simply isn’t the sort of remark that sits easily in a discussion of mortality, even when the folks having that discussion are wisecracking vulgarians.
As an actress and comedienne, Meara can be winningly direct. Turning bitchy jabs into haymakers is her specialty, and it’s always the matter-of-factness of her delivery that does the trick. Whether playing a sharp-tongued bag lady in Broadway’s otherwise execrable Eastern Standard, or pitching Blue Nun with hubby Jerry Stiller on the radio, she has invariably projected a level-headed down-to-earthiness. But put her behind a word processor and she’s suddenly turning out dialogue that sounds at once airy, therapy-inspired, and hopelessly schematic.
She begins the evening with a car crash that deposits her central, entirely too diametrically opposed couples on the doorstep of what appears to be a trendy post-theater dining spot. Marty and Terry Guteman are emotional, vegetarian, guilt-ridden, Catholic New Yorkers who were moved to tears by the play they’ve just seen. Phil and Rene Shredman are caustic, flesh-eating, bitter, Jewish Californians who found the evening manipulative.
By the time their waiter, Raziel, gets them all seated, the evening’s thrust-and-parry conversational pattern has been established. Rene’s fur coat prompts a lecture from Terry (“each of those minks was killed with an electric prod up the rectum”), to which Rene counters with snide remarks about Terry’s smoking. Phil tells coarse jokes, so Marty must reveal himself to be a compulsive crier. Should Terry so much as hint that she’s on the wagon, count on Rene to order vodka gibsons by the gallon.
While the author might have justified this oppositionism dramatically, she chose instead to codify it in skit-ready character names. The Gutemans, see, are as gute as gold, while the Shredmans tend to tear at relationships and, in fact, anything that’s handy. Another couple—the Paines—exist only to suffer publicly over the death of their son. And if the waiter’s name is momentarily obscure, a peek at the program will reveal that the Encyclopedia Judaica calls Raziel “the Angel of the Unknown.”
Should you not get Meara’s afterworldly drift from that program note, rest assured that the director’s flashbacks to a still-smoking car wreck, and the cast’s frequent use of past tense when present seems more appropriate—to wit, “being with friends was what it was all about”—will soon clue you in. (Unless, that is, you’re writing a blitheringly obtuse review for the Washington Post, in which case you’ll dismiss the car wreck as “whimsy” and miss the subtext entirely. They really take that “if you don’t get it, you don’t get it” thing seriously over there.) Meara, following in the footsteps of many inexperienced playwrights, has headed bravely off for limbo without dropping nearly enough crumbs (of character, say, or plot development) to find her way back.
Her decades of skit-writing have not gone to waste, however. After-Play is peppered with cryptic one-liners and sharp retorts, most of which, when properly inflected, have at least the semblance of wit. Take Rene’s reply to a patronizing remark by her husband: “There are no girls here, Phil. Girls do not have wrinkles and mastectomies and children who hate them.” If an actress pours acid on that rebuke, it won’t amount to much more than hectoring. Delivered by Lauren Klein with a world-weary shrug, it earns a big laugh.
Klein plays Rene much as Meara must have in New York, and while she comes across as a bit of a pill, she makes the character reasonably plausible. The other principals have less to work with and, at least last weekend—when, to be fair, storm-related delays may have thrown them off-stride—weren’t doing much with what they had. Barbara Andres, a usually poised and elegant actress, makes Terry’s early broadsides so harsh and unsympathetic that the character never recovers. As Phil and Marty, John LaGioia and Robert Levine each hammer away at the one note Meara’s given them, the former cracking jokes, the latter complaining about back pain, until they become actively annoying. Brigid Cleary and Harry Winter suffer bravely as the Paines, but to no particular effect. Almost by default, the most engaging performance ends up being Peter Mendez’s as the waiter, and he’s playing a metaphor.
Staged briskly and without noticeable feeling by John Going, the evening isn’t as strikingly designed as is customary at Olney. James Kronzer’s functional but uninspired setting allows snow to fall inside the restaurant (yeah, yeah, anything’s possible in limbo) and Tom Sturge’s lighting barely registers except when he’s illuminating the car wreck. Other credits are competent, but with less to the script than meets the ear—especially when Meara is issuing authorial bulletins like “laughter is healing”—it would have been nice to have more to look at.CP