At the start of the second act of Mr. & Mrs. Fitch, Douglas Carter Beane’s new comedy about a married pair of wittier-than-thou New York City gossip columnists, it occurs one to thank God that these two ended up with each other. Because, surely, no one else could tolerate either of their overbearing company for much longer than the two hours audience members must spend at the Second Stage Theatre, where this at first very funny but soon very exhausting cavalcade of quips, references and meaningless verbal pyrotechnics opened Monday night.
Mr. Fitch is a veteran gossip columnist with an overeducated wit and a self-mockingly patrician manner; John Lithgow, energetic and glib, seems to relish the role but of course he does, as it’s that familiar John Lithgow role (we’re now up to a Fourth or Fifth Rock). Jennifer Ehle, as his wife, tries gamely to match his enthusiasm, milking each line and vamping her way around the stage. (The high-energy, in-your-face direction is by Scott Ellis.) Mr. Fitch occasionally despairs of his vapid work and hungers to write a novel; his wife considers the column just as noble. “Gossip,” she says, “is just news that’s interesting.”
But it’s Mr. Beane, the author, trying hardest of all. As he has proved repeatedly—most notably in the Little Dog Laughed, which debuted at Second Stage three seasons ago before moving to Broadway and earning a Tony nomination for Best Play—he’s a brilliantly funny writer, capable of stylized, smart dialogue that’s witty, insightful and hilarious. He’s still got it, but here he can’t stop showing it off. It’s a harbinger of what’s to come that the first 10 minutes of Mr. & Mrs. Fitch bring passing references to both Sontag and Proust, and the first act contains two separate Mamet jokes.
The whole thing, really, is a reference. “Mister and Missus Fitch” is the title of a Cole Porter song that first appeared in the 1932 musical Gay Divorce. The song tells of a pair of rubes who struck oil and moved to New York with their new wealth, where they became the toast of the town. “When they called for champagne, champagne arrived,” the song explains. “An aeroplane, a plane arrived.” But when the crash, too, arrived, they lost their money and, suddenly, their social standing.
As the play opens, Mr. Beane’s pair of Fitches are fearing a similar fate, though their currency is their column, not their cash. After committing a small boo-boo—a celebrity they’d reported attended a party, not because they’d seen her but because a pre-party press release said she planned to attend, had in fact spent the evening across the country, committing suicide in Los Angeles—the Fitches’ editor tells them they must deliver a “humdinger” item or be fired.
Porter, before debuting “Mister and Missus Fitch,” had invented Mr. and Mrs. S. Beech Fitch, social climbers from Tulsa, Okla., about whom he fed items to newspaper society pages, turning them into well-known globetrotters. When Gay Divorce was set to open, he revealed the hoax, gathering some nice publicity for the show and some nice publicity for himself. The current Mr. and Mrs. Fitch do the same—they invent Jamie Glenn, a handsome young so-and-so—and with the same result: Glenn becomes famous, and the Fitches find themselves once again in with the in crowd. “Life is a banquet,” they crow Mame-ily on their way out the door to a party, “and most poor sons of bitches aren’t invited.” End of Act I.
As Act II begins, the Fitches are riding high—Jamie Glenn is popular; they are popular. Their creation was immediately named to a list of Ten Sexy New Yorkers to Watch Out For by Gothamonline.com. (“I like the sound of that,” Mr. Fitch says. “Rather like one must keep an eye peeled or an impromptu sexy New Yorker gangbang might lunge upon one. ‘I just looked down to break the crust of my crème brûlée, and when I looked up—ten sexy New Yorkers I wasn’t watching out for were cluster-fucking me.’”)
But the story does not go on to particularly ratchet up the tension, or the farce, nor does it expose much in an interesting way about the current media climate. It’s also clear where this is going: Their creation will turn on them, their scheme won’t work, they’ll end up working on that novel. (A playwright does not introduce a long-abandoned novel in the first act unless a protagonist will sit down to write it in the second.) Allen Moyer’s set is gorgeous, if a bit much so for working journalists—a duplex loft with a wall of windows, a Steinway in one corner and a Giacometti in another—and Jeff Mahshie dresses the pair in very soignée evening wear and even more soignée pajamas.
But Mr. Beane’s book, with its nonstop, if often brilliant, one-liners, is nevertheless only one-liners: There is, you might say, no there there.
Playwrights Horizons produced the two best Off Broadway plays of the fall: Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation and Melissa James Gibson’s This. With Claybourne Park, the thoughtful, affecting and well-made dark comedy by Bruce Norris that opened there Sunday night, the company has now brought us a leading contender for best Off Broadway play of the spring.
Claybourne Park transpires in the living room of a comfortable middle-class house in the eponymous suburb of an unnamed city. In the first act, it’s 1959, and the home’s owners are moving out, selling to a black family—the neighborhood’s first—and their white neighbors are unhappy. In Act II, it’s 2009, the living room is graffiti-covered, the neighborhood has gone through hard times and a white couple is negotiating over renovations to the house, which they’ve just purchased in what’s now a rapidly gentrifying area.
The excellent ensemble cast plays different, if thematically similar, characters in the two halves, and each of the seven actors, under the direction of Pam McKinnon, effectively gives his or her two roles their own distinct characterizations. Most memorable, and very funny, is Christina Kirk, who in 1959 plays a happy homemaker with a certain undercurrent of rage, and in 2009 plays a seemingly ditzy lawyer with a certain undercurrent of steel.
The first act explores the behaviors and relationships in a well-meaning but frequently tone-deaf community of Rotary types as they confront the front end of the racial changes that will jolt the country in the next decade. It’s also, perhaps, somewhat pat, a new dramatization of things we already know. The second act is a tour de force, a powerful deconstruction of the racial issues “good” people today—white and black, again well meaning but tone deaf—don’t discuss. The high point comes in an angry exchange of insensitive jokes it’s allegedly O.K. to tell, because everyone involved understands they’re just jokes. Mr. Norris manages to point out that that defense doesn’t work—that “just jokes” still hurt—even while getting us to laugh at the jokes. It’s a little bit shocking, a lot funny and a brilliant bit of playwriting jujitsu.