Have you heard of pre-wine? According to a character in Meteor Shower, which opens the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio season, it accounts for whatever you drink before your guests arrive. It doesn’t count toward your evening total.
I suggest at least a few glasses before taking in this risible one-act, which runs through Oct. 27. It may distract you from the vapidity of this 80-minute comedy of no manners, which often feels like an ice-cold rehashing of several better plays. It will surely dull your sense of how poorly the production is directed, and offer balm to the experience of seeing four fine Philadelphia actors flailing in roles they should be able to ace with their eyes closed.
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You will probably expect the laughs to flow fast and furious. After all, the script comes from the pen of Steve Martin, one of the greatest living humorists. A successful Broadway production two years ago featured Amy Schumer and Keegan-Michael Key, who are among the leading lights of contemporary comedy. The scenario — two couples engage in alcohol-fueled banter that grows progressively toxic — seems, if not entirely original, rife with satiric potential.
Instead, what emerges feels more like Edward Albee lite. Long-married Norm and Corky (Greg Wood and Susan Riley Stevens, Walnut regulars and a real-life couple themselves) absorb the corrosive energy of Gerald and Laura (Jake Blouch and Jessica Bedford), who may or may not be projections of themselves. It all happens against the backdrop of the 1993 Perseid meteor showers, which the couples take in from the relative comfort of an Ojai, Calif., backyard.
The parallelism calls to mind Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, the latter of which will be staged in the same venue come spring. But Martin’s play lacks the late master’s expertise in mining the depths of a troubled, compromised psyche. The subtext announces itself, sometimes literally, which takes the bite out of the proceedings.
Frankly, it also isn’t as funny as even the darkest Albee drama. (Corky never taunts Norm with anything nearly as acidic, or sidesplitting, as Martha’s famous dig to George: “I swear if you existed, I’d divorce you.”) A sharp zinger might crop up here or there, but they’re nearly all sunk by director Debi Marcucci’s stagnant rhythms. The audience is always several paces ahead of her inert direction.
If other audience members are anything like me, they will also leave with a stiff neck thanks to Roman Tatarowicz’s ill-advised tennis court set, which requires the spectators to whiplash their heads back and forth to keep abreast of the action. The astroturfed set, with its brash lighting by Jimmy Lawlor, also fails to suggest the general sense of New Age woo-woo that Martin embeds in the play.
Of the four actors, Blouch comes closest to fully realizing his character — he suggests the dangerous narcissist beneath a neatly manicured surface (costumes by Rebecca Dwight) — and Stevens loosens up enough to land a few laughs in the final moments.
Through Oct. 27 at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St.