An important tagline in Tom Dudzick’s 2007 comedy Don’t Talk to the Actors is “just a routine day in the theater.” Without spoiling when that line is uttered, just know that by the time it happens, the audience might be thinking that even by crazy theater-world standards, a routine day is not so interesting.
Nor is it very funny. That’s not the fault of director Harry Parker’s production at Circle Theatre, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary with playwrights it often produces. This is their fifth full production of a Dudzick title, all directed by Parker (there was also a staged reading).
Dudzick isn’t a terribly sophisticated writer, but he does deliver enjoyable plays with likeable, relatable and often funny characters — many of them autobiographical. The semi-autobiographical Don’t Talk to the Actors is about a playwright from Buffalo whose new play, Tuning Pianos, is going to be produced on Broadway.
Don’t Talk is set in a Manhattan rehearsal studio (set by Clare Floyd DeVries) over three days as the playwright Jerry (Curtis Raymond Shideler) and his mousy, cross-stitching girlfriend Arlene (Meg Shideler) have just moved to New York City and meet the creative team for a first table read.
Louis Shaw (Jerry Downey) is the gay, quirky, OCD stage manager; Mike (Ben Phillips) is the director whose cred is probably a result of the brilliant people he works with; and the two actors are TV names who once starred in a sitcom together, Curt Logan (Bob Hess) and Beatrice Pomeroy (Wendy Welch). Curt has his own agenda with the script.
You’ve probably seen enough backstage love letters to the theater to know that things don’t go the way the one seemingly sane person, the playwright, expects. Here, they turn him into a disheveled man who questions everything he thought defined him.
There are some funny, inside-baseball jokes that land, such as when stage manager Jerry says that he turned down three musicals for this chance, but one doesn’t count because it was a vampire musical (“When will they ever learn?”).
But the rhythm of this play isn’t found — because there isn’t one. It’s not madcap enough to be farce, and the characters are too one-note (and they’re played that way here) to be the kind of comedy that’s funny because it’s uncomfortably close to being recognizable to anyone who’s been surrounded by outrageous types in the workplace.
Both Shidelers charmingly give us naive characters who are chewed up and spit out — enough for them to retreat to their comfort zones, probably. Everyone else lives up to their caricatures, but that’s all they are.
The funniest segment is the first one, as Jerry is readying the room for the table read. Everything from the precise placement of bottled water, pencils and sharpeners to how the blinds let light in the room must be perfect. The actor commands that scene while barely saying anything.
Too bad there’s not much else to laugh at in the following two hours.