Debra Monk steals the spotlight in Paul Weitz's slight but amusing valentine to theater folk.
Much like The Little Dog Laughed, Weitz's amusing if slight work will mostly appeal to people who love show business. (Talk about preaching to the choir!) You can tell the true aficionados from the rest of the audience by their laughter during an uproarious second-act sequence in which Marnie (Monk) and her husband Jerry (Lawrence Pressman), a pair of ex-Broadway stars, act out the titles of some famous plays in a wacky game of Charades. (Trust me, you may never think about one popular Broadway musical in the same way again.)
To some extent, Show People is both a play about games and a game itself. Marnie and Jerry, who have fallen on hard times, have been hired by Tom (Ty Burrell), a high-tech entrepreneur, to spend the weekend at his magnificent beach house in Montauk (impressively designed by Heidi Ettinger). Their job, which Marnie finds slightly distasteful, is to impersonate Tom's parents in order to impress his girlfriend Natalie (Judy Greer), a violinist whom he hopes to marry. This rather odd situation becomes even more perverse when it's revealed that Natalie is also an actress hired by Tom -- who, by the way, has told Natalie that he's actually gay. To quote Marvin Gaye: What's going on?
Weitz's cleverest stroke is that Tom is the one person who never breaks character; he constantly refers to Marnie and Jerry as mom and dad while the professional actors frequently forget who and where they are, lost in their own personal dramas about money and fame. Unfortunately, such cleverness doesn't extend to the play's ending. After waiting until well into the second act to discover Tom's motivation for engineering this elaborate charade, the audience is let down by a fairly predictable resolution.
Still, under Peter Askin's competent direction, there's fun to be had in the interim. Most of the credit belongs to Monk, who brings Marnie to three-dimensional life with the kind of caustic line readings that this versatile actress has made her trademark. She is just as effective in the play's few dramatic moments, which focus on Marnie's sadness over never having children.
Monk is well matched by Pressman; he gives Jerry just enough actorly hauteur to be funny but not obnoxious while also maintaining a core humanity that's supremely touching. Burrell approaches the role of the nerdish, insecure Tom with remarkable conviction, although he seems a bit too conventionally good-looking for the part of a lonely loser. Greer is sometimes rather wan as the equally insecure Natalie, though she scores huge laughs with her reading of the opening lines of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy.