Remember how, in Edward Albee’s comedy-drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Martha and George play “Get the Guest” when Nick and Honey arrive? Steve Martin, jubilantly sly as ever, has written an 80-minute response: Meteor Shower.
It’s 1993. Corky (Amy Schumer) and Norm (Jeremy Shamos) have invited Laura (Laura Benanti) and Gerald (Keegan-Michael Key) to watch the titular shower. In a sneaky turnabout, Martin arranges for a nasty game of “Get the Host.”
But, before Martin gets to that prickly ploy, he begins this romp with Corky and Norm waiting for Laura and Gerald to arrive. As they wait, they go through a marital exercise in which they smooth over any minor disagreements they might have. Indeed, Corky and Norm relive their “waiting period” several times (Martin clearly likes the idea of presenting different “Get the Hosts” techniques). Corky and Norm go about their naughty practices as thrilling meteor showers trace the sky behind their sleek home in Ojai, CA. The many showers (once even happening in reverse) must be the work of lighting designer Natasha Katz and “Light Programmer” Alex Fogel. Spectacular are the showers as they streak downward at 45-degree angles.
Now to the party, where drinks and hors d’oeuvres are served but nothing more. Laura and Gerald increasingly intensify their host-getting so much that eventually they put the moves on Corky and Norm. It’s not really a mean spoiler to say those moves are reciprocated. As Jerry Zaks directs the sequences and as the cast plays them, they’re often genuinely funny — like the Corky-Laura byplay in which they snuggle up on a striped outdoor lounge chairs, earning delighted applause.
It’s also no spoiler to confide that Corky and Norm reach a boiling point, at which point they to retaliate by indulging in their own take on “Get the Guest.”
And so on this modern minuet goes, with a stray meteor at one point coming unexpectedly nearer to the Corky-Norm veranda than anyone thought possible. That’s when one of the four characters has a close encounter of a different — that is, third — kind. Let’s just say that costumer Ann Roth, always stylish in her designs, meets the challenge with sizzle.
Asked years ago by Jack Paar what constitutes good theater, Robert Morley responded that it involves four people coming out on a stage, sitting down and talking. If that is so, Meteor Shower qualifies. The play also fits a category in which two married or partnered couples confront something. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, of course, one example; Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage is another. So is Noel Coward’s Private Lives and J. B. Priestley’s When We Are Married, which includes three couples.
The aim of these enterprises, beyond being entertaining, is to juxtapose marriages to learn how they do or don’t work, how they do or don’t survive life’s various assaults. You might label them not “dysfunctional family plays” but “dysfunctional marriage plays.”
I believe that’s Martin’s goal. He’s particularly interested in the ways in which Corky and Norm, who have their process to smooth over temporary rough patches, will emerge from the Laura-Gerald siege. (Coward’s Amanda and Elyot have their “Solomon Isaacs” tactic.)
Towards the end of the play, Norm even suggests that Laura and Gerald aren’t truly real but rather are manifestations of his and Corky’s ids. Such as stab at psychological depth is sudden and suspiciously pretentious. The audience is unprepared to process it, and it is not the only wrinkle that keeps Meteor Shower from being a bull’s-eye. Remember, Martin’s shtick on Saturday Night Live framed him as a “wild and crazy guy.” Well, with Meteor Shower, he’s going for the bizarre. As the Laura-Gerald tactics and Corky-Norm retaliations accumulate, the playwright strains for mounting effects. Though its just 80 minutes long, the play’s comedic amusements become intermittent — even bordering on the unappealing. The audience might wince at some of the credulity-testing moments and events.
Credit the actors for never resisting Martin’s demands. In her Broadway debut, Schumer takes to the stage as adroitly as to the screen. For much of the play she’s some distance from her comic persona but, given the play’s constraints, she just as irresistible.
Key, also in his Broadway bow, already knows intuitively how to take the stage. His Gerald is something of a high-decibel blowhard, and he’s terrific at hard-blowing. He has a grand time impersonating a showoff, and we benefit from all his mock-grandiosity.
As one of the imposing stage veterans in this play, Shamos (replacing Alan Tudyk during rehearsals) yet again reveals his command of comedy and drama — he makes it all look easy. Just as he recently did in Steven Levenson’s heavy-heavy If I Forget, Shamos downshifts like an expert NASCAR driver into becoming a well-meaning but unhappily surprised, very nice fellow.
It may thus be that Benanti — looking spectacularly beautiful in the gold slip of a dress handed to her by Roth — is the show-stealer. She didn’t win that Tony for Gypsy for nothing, and she imparts some of that Gypsy Rose Lee bravura to her character. If the best acting is reacting, she’s got that down. At every moment, it’s hard not to keep tabs on what she’s up to with her sultry eyes.
To Martin’s mind, is marriage an obstacle? He himself has been married twice, and has had many relationships. Perhaps he’s trying to get to the bottom of a complicated institution. In this sense, Meteor Shower doesn’t arrive from outer space. Despite its stars, however, the play still somewhat burns up in the atmosphere.