Each day more than a hundred tons of space rock hurtles at the Earth, but the vast majority of the debris weighs just a few milligrams and quickly burns up in the atmosphere. Only rarely is an object big enough to make a significant impact and wind up in a natural-history museum. Alas, Steve Martin’s elliptical and zestless couples comedy has plopped onto Broadway via Los Angeles and New Haven without being vaporized by the heat of scrutiny or the flimsiness of its construction. Still, I seriously doubt this attenuated, forgettable vignette about marriage and therapy – and um, astronomical phenomena, I guess, because it’s in the title – will make a crater of any consequence on the theatrical landscape.
Comedy-starved audiences may chuckle at Martin’s breezy non-sequiturs. You can almost hear his confident-idiot cadences in some of the dialogue. But the humans who spout his pseudo-witty banter and the world in which his cosmic craziness unfolds (a meteorite burns straight through a character reclining in a lawn chair) are neither original nor brutal enough to sustain interest. It’s zany and absurdist, you might be thinking. Give it a break. But to call this theater of the absurd would be an insult to the genre. This is what a college freshman weaned on Saturday Night Live would submit if asked to write in the style of Ionesco or Albee.
Emotionally fumbling, over-counseled spouses Corky (Amy Schumer) and Norm (Jeremy Shamos) have invited alpha couple Gerald (Keegan-Michael Key) and Laura (Laura Benanti) over for drinks at their home in Ojai, California. There’s a meteor shower that night, and Gerald wants to watch. (The year is 1993, for no other reason, one assumes, than to justify Key’s pleated mustard corduroys and sandals.) The hosts are nervous and status-conscious. The guests, we learn, are aggressive and destructive. Take Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s “Get the Guests” and flip it. Then remove any resonant language, wit or suspense. Martin rewinds to the opening scene – Corky and Norm getting ready, Gerald and Laura approaching the house – multiple times to toy with alternate setups and trajectories for the evening. After being bullied, seduced and humiliated, will Corky and Norm find the nerve to confront the boorish interlopers – and thus, symbolically, their unconscious selves?
The story is just an excuse for Martin the author to noodle about, writing his characters into and out of wacky corners with minimal consequences. “Corky is a cannibal,” Norm blurts out to fill an awkward silence, a writerly twitch that feels improvised and leads to more funny-sounding words, like Himalayas and Sherpa. If the characters or situations were truly inspired or demented, you could overlook the lack of depth or narrative logic and simply enjoy the anarchy. But we’re stuck in an in-between zone of semi-realism and semi-surrealism, a vacillating tactic that wants to poke fun at marriage-counseling tropes while ending on a note of cutesy rapprochement.
Jerry Zaks' workmanlike staging and Beowulf Boritt’s turntable set maintain an illusion of movement, but it’s down to the actors to breathe life into the inert folderol. At times, they do. Shamos runs a variation on his endless stock of squirming dweebs, scoring laughs with a mere panicked hesitation. Benanti vamps and pouts amusingly as the man-eating glamour puss, making a nice foil to Schumer, who opts for dowdy killjoy. The baby-faced comedian, making her Broadway debut, seems constrained by the expository first half, but lets loose in the second with unsexy sex scenes and “exploding head syndrome” squawks. And, after his slapstick Horatio/Player King in director Sam Gold’s (underappreciated) Hamlet at the Public Theater this summer, Key is fast becoming a stage MVP. At home amid Martin’s declamatory bombast and the quick changes from sincerity to opaque smugness, the lanky actor makes a case for the work having coherence and heft. But in truth, Key and his fellow cast members can only light up the darkness, briefly, before the void returns.
The movie poster for Alien (1979) warned, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Well, at the Booth, no one will hear you laugh.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.