‘Waitress’ Is a Blue Plate Disaster

While 'In the Secret Sea' is a careful, vital play worth thinking about

Jessie Mueller as Jenna in Waitress.

Jessie Mueller as Jenna in Waitress. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

They saved the worst for last. As the season prior to Tony nominations just ended, so did my patience. I hated Shuffle Along, the big, bloated, mind-numbing musical fraud directed by George C. Wolfe that comes close to wrecking Audra McDonald’s great career, but after suffering through the deadly greasy-food disaster Waitress, the failures of Shuffle Along start to look like a blue plate special.

This bankrupt musical, poorly conceived and badly directed by Diane Paulus, has two good things going for it—a fabulous set by Scott Pask that brings to life a shiny fast-food emporium in the South called Joe’s Pie Diner and a terrific, show-stopping supporting performance by Christopher Fitzgerald as a singing, dancing traveling salesman named Ogie that so strongly overwhelms everyone onstage that when it mercifully ends, he’s all you remember about what you just saw. Unfortunately, Waitress also has the dullest, most stagnant and forgettable country-western jukebox score of the year, if not the decade. It is attributed to a no-talent pop singer-songwriter named Sara Bareilles, who fails to display even the slightest ability to honor the demands of musical theater, i.e., songs that reflect and enhance a character’s inner emotions while moving or rocking the audience’s need to be entertained. You won’t take home any tunes from this dreary pastiche. They are all tangential to the story, they all sound alike, and they signify nothing. Instead of real feelings, everyone sings about pies, flour, butter, shortening, peanut butter and meringue. There’s one called “I Love You Like a Table.” I mean, you had to be there to believe it—a fate I do not recommend.

Sadly, there isn’t much of a story in Jessie Nelson’s shallow book for the dopey lyrics to lift or magnify, even if there was a real songwriter on the premises who knew how to write them. Based on the sweet but one-dimensional 2007 movie with Keri Russell, it’s all about a waitress named Jenna, played by the talented but wasted Jessie Mueller, who won a Tony for singing her heart out in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Unhappily married to a villainous lout who steals her tips, dashes her dreams and slaps her around in the bargain, Jenna works too hard, finds herself pregnant by a man she can’t even afford to leave and drowns her sorrows baking and serving 27 flaky, lattice-crust flavors a day, including humble crumble, couch potato and kick-in-the-pants peppermint. Eventually, she finds brief happiness with a married gynecologist but ends up alone with her baby and her recipes. When the future looks grim and painful, Jenna rolls out another piecrust and sings about it. The message in Waitress is that if you can’t find anything else to do with life, you can always depend on Crisco.

Instead of an orchestra, the awful score is twanged away by a small ensemble dressed like customers, sometimes by a sole guitarist. Alas, it’s a score without a single memorable song, except when Christopher Fitzgerald tears the joint apart with “Never Ever Getting Rid Of Me,” an 11 o’clock number that comes out at nine. He’s a star in the making—a cross between Robert Morse and Bert Lahr, and the only one I could understand in a cast of mumblers and garglers. Much was expected of Jessie Mueller, but she has nothing to do in a role so weakly written it never comes alive. Kimiko Glenn and Keala Settle, as her two best friends, exist solely to provide comic relief. There’s nothing new, original or sit-up-and-take-notice groundbreaking about Lorin Latarro’s choreography or anything else, which would be perfectly forgivable if only the show was even a wee bit enthralling in concept. It’s not Alice, and Ms. Mueller is no Valerie Harper. And it must be a nightmare for the prop master. It’s got endless bowls of flour, melted butter, powdered sugar, rolling pins, mixing bowls, measuring cups, spice racks and cake stands on rolling glass trays, but you won’t be asking for any second helpings at Waitress.

***

Highly recommended in a limited run that ends May 21, In the Secret Sea is a new play on 42nd Street’s overcrowded Theatre Row by a gifted new playwright named Cate Ryan that stands out from the rest of the paralyzing pretentiousness that affects off-Broadway these days. The setting is Easter Sunday of this year; the subject is the harrowing dilemma faced by a well-heeled, highly educated Connecticut family when a young couple facing parenthood discovers the fetus of their unborn child is deformed and the people who love them must face a future of challenge, sacrifice and devastation.

In an impeccable cast directed with grace by Martin Charnin, the remarkable veteran actors Glynnis O’Connor and Paul Carlin play Joyce and Gil, a seasoned couple married for years, eagerly expecting their first grandchild from their only son Kenny and his wife Gail and preparing to welcome everyone for dinner. Joyce hates cooking, but she’s promised to host the traditional Easter dinner for Kenny (Adam Petherbridge), Gail (who stays home in grief, unable to face two families of parents) and Gail’s parents, Jack (Malachy Cleary) and Audrey (a tart, impressive Shelly Burch). When a depressed and clearly distraught Kenny arrives alone without his wife and finally, after much probing, reluctantly levels with all four of them about what is troubling him, dinner is ruined, the focus shifts to new priorities, and in the rest of a taut, restrained, intelligent and deeply insightful play uninterrupted by a mood-jarring intermission, serious issues are revealed and examined that change their lives irrevocably.

Joyce, at a seasoned stage in life, goes to law school and craves her space, breathing the liberating air of freedom for the first time. Gil wants to sleep in their old double bed again and recapture the intimacy they once had. With Kenny’s baby developing abnormally in his wife’s body, their son is unsure of the future his marriage holds. Important decisions must be made, but by whom? In their anguish, secrets filter out. The two mothers disagree about who knows more about such matters. The men want to take the male prerogative and run things their way. The title refers to what Joyce called her own womb from which she produced only one child—a secret sea from which only the strong and the brave will survive. They try to be civilized about the crisis and keep their emotions in check, but they all assume their share of blame in leaving the choice of whether or not to terminate the pregnancy up to their children. Gil is too self-righteous to trust anyone else’s decisions. Audrey and Jack reveal they once had another child whose death was their fault. When they look up on the internet photos of a fetus with congenital brain damage brought to full term, the effect is chilling.

For a director whose career has centered on musicals, Mr. Charnin shows a lovely restrained quality. The writing is strong, sensitive and tender without the usual self-serving histrionics. It’s thrilling to hear honest dialogue and the sound of good people in trouble, saying real things to each other. This is a careful, vital play worth visiting and thinking about. Don’t hesitate. See it this week before it moves on, and savor its light before it fades. ‘Waitress’ Is a Blue Plate Disaster