I sink, therefore I am

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  October 8, 2008

A long-married, vaguely dissatisfied couple on the cusp of retirement, Charlie and Nancy disagree on how to spend their sunset years. Charlie, whose fondest childhood memory is of sinking into the womb of the sea, is “happy doing nothing.” Nancy wants to goad him into adventure (which, in the form of the lizards, comes knocking). But in the play’s first act, much of which is a back-and-forth between the humans, Charlie seems in dire need of Zoloft, whereas Nancy is possessed of an awkward, fulsome enthusiasm that belies the character’s caustic side. Moreover, the two, moving among director/designer Miller’s chair-like outcroppings, seldom talk to each other. Once the lizards turn up, the play becomes more of a conversation — not to mention a highly articulate dance of apprehension, aggression, and politesse.

With its Jurassic Park cocktail-party ambiance, Seascape is among Albee’s cleverer absurdist creations. What a fabulous twist on Virginia Woolf to re-create Nick and Honey as big lizards! But the later, gentler work does not earn the marathon length of the Vesuvius of connubial vitriol that made Albee’s name. It’s less a fight to the finish than a mannerly scuffle on the sandy shore of progress. And in this protracted original form, it’s also a textbook example of why less is so often more.

Gutenberg! The Musical (Downstage at New Rep at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through October 26) is the polar opposite of The Producers, the Mel Brooks vehicle in which two con men set out to produce a Broadway musical so egregious it’s bound to fail, whereby they’ll be able pocket the investors’ money. Bud and Doug, the two guileless geeks behind Gutenberg’s musical within a musical (its Springtime for Gutenberg, if you will), are as proud as punch of their musical about the 15th-century inventor of the printing press. They truly believe it’s great, and they could not be more thrilled to be presenting it to us, a gang of potential producers at a backers’ audition. Armed with little more than a formidable stack of hats, the collaborators play some 30 parts and render their show’s entire pastiche of a score, which ranges from overwrought ballads to sinister slink to boogie-woogie. They even provide confidential insights into their masterpiece’s inner workings and construction. They, it turns out, are much funnier than their stinker of a musical.

The brainchild of one-time roommates Scott Brown and Anthony King, Gutenberg! The Musical began as a one-act goof at Manhattan’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, made appearances at the 2005 and 2006 New York Musical Theatre Festivals, and opened Off Broadway in a two-act version in 2006. It still feels like an attenuated Saturday Night Live skit and has precious little to do with Gutenberg. Bud and Doug claim to have Googled him, coming up with so little that they felt justified in making his story up. Thus their hero is not a goldsmith from Mainz but a winemaker whose German home town is the fictional Schlimmer, a bastion of illiteracy where silliness is oftener on the menu than wit. But in Bud and Doug themselves, Brown and King have created a manic monument to the self-delusion of talentless artists everywhere.

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