That’s His Story, and He’s Sticking to It: Long Story Short, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Middletown

The short take on Long Story Short: It’s fine.

Longer: The Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central veteran Colin Quinn opened his one-man show at the Helen Hayes Theatre last night, delivering a 75-minute stand-up routine. Presented as a retelling of world history, focusing on various failed empires–including America’s–it’s often very funny and occasionally hilarious. But while Mr. Quinn gives an aggressively fast-paced and confident performance of his carefully structured script–the man is a pro, after all–there’s also relatively little here that’s bracingly new or insightful, or that raises the performance to more than just another night at a comedy club.

The director is Jerry Seinfeld, and the sitcom legend’s main contribution, as described in a recent Times profile, seems to have been in honing Mr. Quinn’s material. Indeed, a lot of the comedy is of the observational sort familiar from Mr. Seinfeld’s show: “How can it be that we live in a time where nanotechnology can isolate a single strand of DNA and stop a global plague, but we still need to put up signs in sandwich-place restrooms saying ‘Employees Must Wash Hands’?” is the opening joke.

Mr. Quinn is funniest when he’s finding unexpected connections. Economists missed the impending collapse, he suggests, because they hold their annual conference in Davos, Switzerland: “It’s Plato’s cave theory, which was basically if you live in a cave and all you see are shadows outside, you think that shadows are what’s real. So if they hold the economic summit in Switzerland, you walk out of the hotel, ‘Hey, things look pretty good. I’ll see you next year.'”

And he’s smart in analyzing the failure of American efforts at democracy promotion: “We just assume everyone wants our way of life. But they want American-style democracy the way it looked in 1960, when it was the Beach Boys and The Mickey Mouse Club. Now, it’s Lil Wayne and Girls Gone Wild.” (This leads to his most discordantly funny line, on today’s musicians: “You never saw Tony Bennett in 1960 get onstage and go, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this next song goes out to that snitch-ass bitch Mel Tormé.'”)

The closing routine stems from the observation that today’s world is like the atmosphere in a bar at 3:30 a.m.: The United States thinking it’s the good guy and picking a fight with Iraq, alliances forming, antagonists arguing, old friends disappearing. Like a lot of this show, it’s a collection of well-worn tropes, and it’s funny.

 

THE FIRST ACT of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the star-packed Lincoln Center Theater musical that opened last week at the Belasco Theatre, ends with a frenetic and brightly colored production number titled “On the Verge” that places most of its divas onstage and several of them suspended above it, hanging from coiled telephone cords. It’s an appropriate set piece for the show, directed but not tamed by LCT star Bartlett Sher: The entire enterprise, while tuneful, engaging and sporadically excellent, is also overstuffed, sometimes incoherent and consistently over-explicated.

The charm of the 1988 Pedro Almodóvar dark farce from which the musical is drawn, a Technicolor glance at an angsty day in the intertwined lives of otherwise happily hedonistic Madrileños, lies in its lightness. Three of the women are romantically involved with the same man; another is distraught after an affair with a Shiite terrorist; gazpacho and Valium are consumed in large doses–but there’s an easy serendipity to these developments and revelations.

In transferring Women on the Verge to the stage, Jeffrey Lane (book) and David Yazbek (music and lyrics)–they did the same, more successfully, for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels five seasons ago–have instead underlined every point. (It’s no longer enough to dramatize everyone’s shitty day; we now need a song and acrobatics to tell us they’re on the verge.) The authors also make minor roles more major, introduce characters only to abandon them and fill the show with too many character-defining solos and duets.

But, of course, when you’ve got a show with four major Broadway stars, three Tony-nominated supporting players and a former American Idol (even if just a runner-up), you’ve got to give them all something to do. That doesn’t always work: Brian Stokes Mitchell and Justin Guarini’s first-act duet is lovely but unnecessary; the wonderful Sherie Rene Scott, in the lead role of Pepa, looks great and has two solos but never gets a chance to shine.

But sometimes it does work: Patti LuPone is fantastic in her two songs, especially her second-act number, “Invisible,” in which Lucia, her abandoned and crazed first wife, finally gets to tell her delusional tale. (After all these years, she’s ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille.) And Laura Benanti is spectacularly winning as Candela, the ditzy and casually suicidal terrorist-lover.

Mr. Yazbek’s Spanish-inflected music is upbeat and catchy, and his smart lyrics are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. The costumes (by Catherine Zuber) are awesomely bright and zany (her leopard-print Spy-vs.-Spy ensemble for Ms. LuPone’s entrance deserves its own Tony), and the sets (by Michael Yeargan) are similarly spectacular.

Women on the Verge is a complicated new work, making its debut in New York without a previous out-of-town tryout. LCT twice delayed the start to give the creative team more time to work on the show, and Mr. Sher was very open about aggressively tweaking the production as it moved toward opening. As is, it’s perfectly good. But you can’t shake the disappointing feeling that with more time–and with such a supremely talented cast–it could have been on the verge of great.

 

WILL ENO’S MIDDLETOWN—which opened in an excellent and affecting production at the Vineyard Theatre a week ago—was awarded the inaugural Horton Foote Prize for a Promising New American Play last summer, and it’s easy to see something Footian in the work, a low-key examination of interconnected lives in smalltown America.   

But in Mr. Eno’s small town—“ordinary place, ordinary time,” one character, a cop, explains—everyone is an existentialist. They’re all self-aware, they’re all analytical, and they’re all happy, even eager, to discuss the problems of existence. “It’s weird to be alive,” says a local misfit, a charmingly ne’er-do-well mechanic. (“If I had more self-esteem, more stick-to-itiveness, I might have been a murderer,” he’d mused earlier.)  

James McMenamin, who played George in David Cromer’s recent and deeply moving reinterpretation of Our Town—another connection to a great dramatist of small-town America!—is the mechanic, and he does an amazing job with the profound melancholy of a smart man who knows he’s a failure. His is the most compelling character in a play full of them. Nearly as good: Law & Order’s Linus Roache as a lonely out-of-work plumber; Bored to Death’s Heather Burns an equally lonely expectant mother, new to Middletown, whose husband is always away on business; and The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Georgia Engel, charmingly daffy as ever, as a kindly town librarian.  

Middletown is deeply intelligent and beautifully written. It’s obsessed not only with connection and isolation within communities but also connection across years and eras. And it’s worth seeing before its time runs out.

 

editorial@observer.com

That’s His Story, and He’s Sticking to It: Long Story Short, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Middletown