New York City — What’s fate without a little push? Certainly nowhere near as a funny as Stiff, Dallas playwright Jeff Swearingen’s zippy, big-hearted black comedy, now onstage at Manhattan’s TBG Theater.
The intimate off-Broadway venue is a cheeky home for this play-within-a-play, set in NYC’s Lower East Side in 1954, at the “way-off Broadway” venue the Tin Box Theatre. Robert Grey’s nine-act melodrama, The Blighted Heart, is turning out to be more disaster than epic; neurotic Grey blames the actors, peacekeeping director Stanley Miller blames the limits of his own talent and producer Saul Solomon… well, he’s sure it would be a hit, with the right exposure.
Things take a turn for the madcap when preeminent New York theatre critic Mickey Blake kicks the bucket in the Tin Box. And when Grey, Miller and Solomon stumble across Blake’s notebook, they realize it holds a fate worse than death: the critic intended to eviscerate the production.
So the producer does what he does best, and sweet talks his pals — “What are you buttering us up for?” “Nothing! Ok, a conspiracy.” — into an increasingly elaborate scheme to drum up some attention for the show. They’ll hide the body, submit a far more favorable review to the Times in Blake’s name and watch ticket sales soar. But when Saul goes overboard on the praise and a hotshot Hollywood producer and old college pal of Blake’s stops by for a piece of the action, the guys have 48 hours to pull off the impossible: turn a terrible play into a smash (and make sure no one notices the smell).
Though “Stiff” follows in the proud tradition of meta-theatrical mayhem and corpse-heavy humor — Bullets Over Broadway, The Producers, Weekend at Bernie’s and, a personal favorite, Clue, come to mind — it falls in line as equal, not imitator. Swearingen has a real knack for witty wordplay, and you’ll be more than willing to suspend some disbelief for the formidable comedy trio of Nicolas Greco, Mitch Lerner and Joshua Morgan in the roles of producer, writer and director. Under the direction of Andy Baldwin, they stay in sync through lightning-fast dialogue and screwball physical gags alike. By the time the danse macabre rolled around, for which credit is due to assistant director and choreographer Brandon Mason, lithe corpse Robert Tunstall and duct tape, the audience was in stitches.
Our hapless heroes are bolstered by a revolving door of eccentric characters, including Lori Funk as Blake’s boozy wife who suspects her husband of infidelity; Amandina Altomare as the diva who will stop at nothing to get her time in the spotlight; Jennifer Robbins as understudy turned ingénue, who shows off her actual acting chops in the retooled Blighted Heart; and Becky Barta as the janitor who finds herself in the wrong place at the right time.
Swearingen makes a memorable appearance as dim-witted leading man Guy Van, whose attempts at method go laughably awry, and Clifton Samuels is appropriately over-the-top as good old boy producer Walter Goldstein. But since this is 2018 and not 1954, certain male producer-female actor dynamics veer towards the uncomfortably old-fashioned, and a “me too Brute” joke suddenly takes on an odd ring.
Stiff is also long, with two full-hour acts, and though it quickly picks up steam again post-intermission, I found myself hoping for some nugget of sincerity to drive it home. Above all else, that we would see the real talent of the team we’d come to root for — particularly playwright Grey’s genius — redeemed with the rewrite.
No dice. When we watch Blighted once more, it’s every bit as tedious as the version of the first go-round, which makes it feel a bit unnecessary.
Still, Stiff stands out as family fun. After all, Swearingen initially wrote the play for his Plano, Texas-based Fun House Theatre and Film, the company he cofounded with producer Bren Rapp, and debuted it with a tween-aged cast. It’s a loving and laugh-filled homage to the dynamic between a writer, director and producer, who just might make it to the top with a little bit of strange luck, plenty of determination and, perhaps above all else, belief in each other’s abilities.
Here’s hoping the Stiff team can achieve their goal of an open-ended off-Broadway run come fall, with a bit more money and space to play around with. But I should be careful; I’d hate to meet Blake’s fate to bring that happy ending about.
» Emily Gawlak is a New York-based freelance critic who contributes to StageBuddy.