NEW YORK (AP) — Community theater gets a lot of knocks for being amateurish, but Douglas Carter Beane may have elevated it to sympathetic comedic heights with his new play "Shows For Days."
The quirky coming-of-age comedy, which opened Monday night at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater, is a fictionalized, fondly autobiographical look at Beane's induction to life in the theater, courtesy of an endangered local community troupe in 1973 Reading, Pennsylvania.
The improbable plot is amusingly narrated by Michael Urie, who energetically portrays Car, Beane's counterpart both at age 15 and in the present. Beane, the Tony-nominated author of "The Nance," ''The Little Dog Laughed" and "Sister Act," has provided a litany of in-jokes about what goes on behind the scenes in a small-town theater. He also takes comical aim at long-forgotten 1970s popular culture, and glances wistfully back at a once-thriving manufacturing town that adult Car notes is now "the poorest city in America."
Director Jerry Zaks keeps the whirlwind production running smoothly, as Urie effectively navigates between teenage wonderment and adult self-awareness.
Both Car and the Newhouse audience can't help falling under the considerable spell of Patti Lupone, in her element as self-obsessed diva Irene, brash founder of the doughty little Prometheus Theatre.
Lupone grandly tosses off one-liners as she sweeps on and off stage, draped in elegant costumes by William Ivey Long that glow with '70s sparkle. Irene holds off various types of wrecking balls while navigating choppy local political waters to save her beloved theater, yet takes time to nurture the promise she sees in Car.
Young Car finds a family with Irene and the ragtag assortment of Prometheus players, admirably performed by Jordan Dean (handsome, bisexual leading man Damien); Lance Coadie Williams ("black pansy" Clive); and Zoe Winters (ditzy ingenue Maria). Dale Soules is hilarious as Sid, a self-described "bull dyke" who's the one-woman Prometheus crew. Sid stomps around holding everything together while trying to keep her old friend Irene from doing anything too crazy.
The political machinations get as intricate as the rainbow patchwork of masking tape marking the stage, which Car uses to set scenes in different locations. Meanwhile, Irene blasts along with her own agenda, unafraid to bully and blackmail everyone, even her own friends, if it will keep her beloved theater going.
She'll even snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, in order to fulfill her mission to keep producing unpopular theater that "may scare the hell out of people, but at least they'll remember it for the rest of their lives."