Fans of comic actor, playwright, and humorist Steve Martin will no doubt find something to like in his latest play, now at the Long Wharf after a successful run at the Old Globe in San Diego. Meteor Shower, directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, bases its appeal on Martin’s celebrated gift for the non sequitur. There are jibes at the pretensions and insecurities of married couples, moments of uncanny or absurdist humor, ironically erotic scenes, actual pyrotechnics, and gestures toward an all’s-well-that-ends-well faith in normalcy.
Martin’s approach works when it works, but viewers might find themselves wondering what purpose this walk on the mild side serves, beyond fitful amusement.
The play runs through Oct. 23.
It’s 1993, and Corky (Arden Myrin) and Norm (Patrick Breen) are a couple in Ojai, CA, which is a great location to view the Perseid meteor shower. So a tennis partner of Norm’s, Gerald (Josh Stamberg), is coming over with his wife Laura (Sophina Brown) to see the celestial spectacle. The play is best at its start, before the guests arrive, when we get to observe the quirky chemistry between Corky and Norm, which includes funny little formal acknowledgements of each other’s feelings. We sense that Martin could have a lot of fun with the banalities of marriage and the kind of suppressed feelings that come up in company.
Hopes for that kind of comedy are soon dashed by the arrival of boorish Gerald and so-hot-I-can’t-stand-it Laura. At this point it’s difficult to keep from second-guessing Martin, as he tries to invent a more interesting visiting couple and complicate the situation. He rewinds to give us the arrival twice (a third version occurs in Act 2) and throws in flashbacks or fantasy moments, including a conversation that might make us think Gerald and Laura are a goofy version of Edward Albee’s George and Martha (from the famous Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), out to play a game of “get the hosts.” But any suggestion of more going on below the surface fizzles; instead we get jokes about cannibalism, LA-NY confusion, and the usual comeuppances between men about manliness and women about attractiveness. And, in Act 2, a fun turn-the-tables sequence that lets Corky and Norm get back their spines. There are also, here and there, Martin’s trademark corny jokes, very well set-up. Mostly, it’s relentlessly droll.
If you’re looking for details to give you a sense of what differentiates 1993, when Bill Clinton took office, from 2016, when his wife is running for the same office, you won’t find much. Maybe couples therapy and boutique wines were new then? In any case, the best moments come from heterosexual boundary crossing, with Laura coming on to Corky, and a funny and well-choreographed cuddle scene between Gerald and Norm. Perhaps these moments are meant to be revelatory. Maybe they’re just supposed to be funny.
And if, as a theater-goer, your mind runs to some great two-couple plays — like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses (at the Yale Rep a few years ago), or Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced (the blistering opening to the Long Wharf season last year), don’t go there. Those plays have something at stake. Compared to them, Meteor Shower is a pilot for a sitcom that won’t get picked up.
Michael Yeargan’s set is very tasteful, with a backdrop that creates a certain modern-art detachment and also doubles as a screen for meteor effects. The use of a rotating stage adds interest and makes our view into the characters’ lives well-rounded. The special effects — for that perhaps tragically accurate meteorite — are impressive, and the actors up to the notch. Stamberg and Brown don’t have a lot to do but look good, and they do. Breen has a certain sad-sack doggedness that suits the part well, and Myrin shines as a wacky wife who has to bounce from overt lamentation to calculated satisfaction in an eyeblink.
For Edelstein’s third entry in a series of the playwright’s works at Long Wharf — following the much more successful productions of The Underpants and Picasso at the Lapin Agile — the director keeps his game cast on point, as the script veers about from vapid to vicious and from silly to sexy. What it all adds up to, however, is at best a mildly diverting evening with characters that seem lampoons of settled couples, and at worst, a stoic effort to keep chuckling at a flailing host’s jokes.
Meteor Shower runs at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., through Oct. 23. Click here for tickets and more information.