Let’s get this out of the way: I saw the Walnut’s production of Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower on Friday evening. Early on Tuesday morning, my neck was still hurting.
Set up more like a runway than a tennis court, Roman Tatarowicz’s set is aesthetically pleasing until you realize that you’re going to spend almost an hour of the 75-minute run-time craning your neck around your fellow theatergoers to see the action at the ends of the stage. I sat at the extreme downstage left end of the set’s pleasantly midcentury living room, and the right side of my neck still hasn’t recovered.
From a comedy hero
I was excited to see this play, written by one of my all-time comedy heroes. The original Broadway run featured Keegan-Michael Key and Amy Schumer (who garnered a Tony nomination for her performance). And the Walnut’s cast of four features some of Philly’s brightest—Jessica Bedford, Jake Blouch, Susan Riley Stevens, and Greg Wood. This was a recipe for success.
And it did, at many points, succeed. Stevens and Wood, a real-life couple, are charmingly quirky as Corky and Norm, the Ojai homeowners hosting an intimate meteor-shower viewing and dinner party during the 1993 Perseid meteor shower. Stevens and Wood fully embrace Corky and Norm’s early-90s, new-age conflict resolution strategies in some of the show’s funniest early moments.
As the amorously hostile Gerald and Laura, Blouch and Bedford also embrace the script. The couple are loud and showy and sexy and repulsive, and they chew the scenery in a way that’s far more engaging than annoying. Gerald and Laura are either chaotic neutral or chaotic evil, depending on what version of the night’s events we’re experiencing—oh, did I not mention that part?
Unstuck in time
At first, it seems as if the timeline of Meteor Shower is merely going to bounce around, ending somewhere near the middle. The aural cue of “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads, played variously sped up and slowed down, forward and backward, implies that while the narrative will not be linear, it will still be comprised of parts from the same whole.
But it slowly becomes clear that in those moments where the scenes veer toward the familiar, something is different. A line of dialogue might be close to, but not exactly the same as, what we heard before, or the blocking may change. We aren’t seeing the evening’s events out of order—we’re seeing different ways the evening might have gone.
It’s not confusing so much as it is distracting. Would it have made more sense if different songs, or at least different versions of the same song, were used? (When Angelique Kidjo’s cover of “Once in a Lifetime” does arrive, it feels like too little, too late.) I don’t know whether this musical construct is baked into Martin’s script or if it’s the invention of director Debi Marcucci and sound designer Damien Figueras. What I do know is that I spent more time pondering this than I did paying attention to the performance.
In spite of the play
Which isn’t to say there’s a lot to pay attention to. Sure, the performers are great, but it often felt like that was in spite of the play and the direction, not because of it. What starts out as a very funny (if not particularly artful) script loses steam toward the end, wrapping up so neatly that it feels as if Martin might have gotten bored writing it.
And Marcucci’s direction feels overeager, with the actors serving up every line to maximum comedic effect—but then also plowing through the audience’s laughter so that more than a few lines of dialogue get lost.
The production isn’t bad. It’s just not especially riveting—like TV you’d play in the background for some laughs while you do your chores.
Ice and rest
And then there’s that set.
It was admittedly fun to walk into the Independence Studio on 3 and see a swath of AstroTurf running down the center of the room, patio furniture near the entrance and a living room on the far side. The action is clearly meant to bounce between the patio and the house, with the audience following it like a tennis match. But the seating’s risers are neither deep enough nor tall enough to allow viewers to comfortably see any action that isn’t right in front of them.
And ultimately, as much as I wanted to like the play, there was nothing in it that made up for the way my neck still feels because of it. If you have a good chiropractor and an affinity for easy laughs, go see Meteor Shower. Otherwise, catch its fabulous cast in their next shows.
What, When, Where
Meteor Shower. By Steve Martin. Through October 27, 2019, at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia. 215-574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
Walnut Street Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons wishing to purchase wheelchair seating should call (215) 574-3550, ext. 6, rather than ordering online.