I think it’s such a shame that the audience wasn’t more full on Saturday night, when I went to see White’s Lies at the New World Stages. True, the show is by a first-time playwright (albeit with a fair number of Hollywood and TV credits to his name), and is playing in the far-reaches of off-Broadway (heaven forbid we travel west of 8th Avenue unless it’s to see Hair); however, by the standards of the recent trends in New York theatre—star-power, light entertainment, a straight play under two hours—White’s Lies should be playing to full houses every night.
In the words of playwright Ben Andron, this show is meant to be “ a wild and outrageous comedy” inspired by “the pain of others.” Sounds like a promising start, no? Knowing next to nothing about the play (except that the inimitable Betty Buckley of Cats fame would be making her return to the New York stage) I dragged a former student of mine from the days when I taught high school drama to the theatre on 50th street. Turns out, Andron was true to his word. The play is about a confirmed bachelor named Joe White (Tuc Watkins of “Desperate Housewives”), whose sexual exploits seem like the very model for all tall-tales told in the locker room since the evolution of testosterone, and whose mother (Buckley) informs him that a) she is dying of cancer, and b) her only regret is that she won’t live to see a grandchild. Luckily for White, who is also a divorce lawyer by profession, a woman (Andrea Grano) appears that afternoon to file for divorce, and it turns out that a) she and Joe dated in college 25 years ago, and b) she has a 25-year-old illegitimate daughter (Christy Carlson Romano of “Kim Possible”—and “Even Stevens”…anyone?). No, the daughter isn’t his—but Joe realizes that there’s no harm in telling his mother that she is—not since his mother only has a few more months to live. Complications, of course, ensue—aided by the slapstick silliness of his business partner and best friend Alan (Peter Scolari of “Newhart,” and “Bosom Buddies”) and the fabulous quick-changing, accent-affecting, stereotype-slinging duo of Rena Strober and Jimmy Ray Bennett—and tragedy quickly becomes farce.
The premise may be absurd (and perhaps a bit too easy—after all, who brings her 25-year-old illegitimate daughter to a meeting with the divorce lawyer who also happens to be the man who ruined her life—and, for that matter, who actively seeks out the help of a man whom she has purportedly been hating with such bilious anger that it has consumed her every waking thought and caused her emotional damage to the point of physical pain until now?); however, the impulse behind the premise isn’t wrong. Comedy and tragedy are strange bedfellows, and are so closely related that one can easily be mistaken for the other. Schaudenfraude is the stuff of farce. (Wasn’t it Mel Brooks who famously said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die”?) So, while the ghastly news of the cancer hovers over the events of the first act (all the way until the 15 minute “Remission”) and the potentially life-ruining consequences of the lies pervade the second, you have permission to laugh.
Sure, the play isn’t going down in the annals of theatre—it’s hokey, the jokes are sometimes repetitive and forced (okay, more than sometimes), and the stereotypical stock characters verge on the offensive; however the actors mug to the audience enough to acknowledge that they know how silly the play is, and that seems to make it all right. In all, it’s a fun little show that seems fueled by the stars who set it on its feet.
And if it’s star-sightings you’re after, then this show is worth the trip to Hell’s Kitchen. It almost seems as if the play was written with its specific stars in mind—with little in-jokes written for the audience. For example, anyone who has even heard the word “Memory” knows that Betty Buckley can sing the stuffing out of a song. So when she opens her mouth to sing “Michelle, my Belle,” the audience is meant to chuckle when Joe admonishes her, “Mom, just stop. You know you can’t sing.” (Don’t worry, Betty, we know better.) And it’s only too fitting that Peter Scolari’s character would be obsessed with the television shows of the 80’s, since Scolari himself starred on a few. And when his character, Alan, gets up in arms because they canceled “Newhart,” Scolari’s wink to the audience couldn’t be more exaggerated. And I guess there were more than a few “Newhart” fans in the audience, because he got some cheers and applause as he shook his fist at the television-programming heavens. (My student, one of the”Millennials” we hear so much about these days, didn’t know who Betty Buckley was or why people were laughing at jokes Paul Fusco, but she was impressed by Christy Carlson Romano’s stage presence, and she seemed more enamored of the sleek, video- and light-box-integrated set than by the past stage and screen history of the actors.)
Okay, so it’s fluff—but what farce isn’t? This isn’t a lasting piece of theatrical greatness; this is a play that is meant to be enjoyed in the moment for whatever it’s worth. And judging by the laughter in the audience—and my student’s guffaws—it’s worth it.
(Students, there are $30 $20 rush tickets available on the day of the performance.* And you know you’re going to spend that much on a movie ticket and some popcorn—you might as well go see a really enjoyable show and support the people who are making live theatre happen without Broadway budgets. AND if you’re a lawyer, you’re in luck–the producers have offered a 2-for-1 “Lawyer’s Night” on Thursdays. Just bring your business card and get a second ticket free.)
PS If you’re on Twitter (and if you’re not, you should rectify that), you should give @bettybuckley a shout out. Seriously, how many chances are you going to get to share 140 characters with a member of the theatrical pantheon? That’s what I thought.
PPS In addition to the Playbill, every audience member gets a small pad on which they can (I guess?) write down the white lies they’ve told (or, you know, use it for grocery lists), and is invited to share their white lies with the world on Facebook and Twitter.
*add on a $1.50 “facility fee,” of course…
Also, Columbia Alumni Arts League (CAAL) members receive up to $20 off tickets with the discount code listed in the 06/11 newsletter!
Kay Prins SoA ’12