Meteor Shower probably wouldn't be on Broadway without all the celebrities involved. Not only does it have a famous author (beloved comedian and Bright Star composer Steve Martin), but it features a cast of four big names above the title, including Amy Schumer in her Broadway debut. Relying on the appeal of the performers isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially for a play that skirts the line between absurdism and sketch comedy. Meteor Shower never pretends to be brilliant (and it's not), but it will make you laugh.
It is set in the Ojai, California, home of Norm (Jeremy Shamos) and Corky (Schumer), a couple who have been to marriage counseling. We know this by the way they clasp hands and lock eyes when one feels slighted by the other. "I'm asking you to be more careful with my feelings. They are not playthings," Corky says with forced sincerity, leading to an equally forced apology from Norm. They anxiously anticipate the arrival of another couple, Gerald (Keegan-Michael Key, also making his Broadway debut) and Laura (Laura Benanti), who are coming over to see the Perseid meteor shower (it was particularly brilliant in 1993, when this play takes place). The four drink wine and engage in awkward conversation as they wait for the heavens to fall. Everyone comments on the eggplant bouquet that arrived at the house that afternoon from an unknown sender. An air of mystery hangs over this suburban twilight zone. It's like a Will Eno play, but funny.
A lot of that has to do with the performances. Martin's humor is mildly amusing on the page, but hilarious onstage. We can't help but laugh when Benanti glances at Schumer and remarks in a Botox deadpan, "I just get tired of looking awful. Don't you?" Key is the opposite of poker-faced, grandly mugging through an explanation of why meteors cannot be seen during the day: "The brightness of the sun overwhelms the dimness of the meteor. Like the way some personalities overwhelm the lesser lights." We begin to wonder if Laura and Gerald are actually aliens who learned to act human by watching the Miss Universe Pageant and Old Spice commercials.
Schumer is more stealthily over-the-top, lulling us into believing that we're watching a bland suburban wife before whiplashing us with a precisely timed line delivery or pained facial expression. We might believe that Shamos is the straight man to these three clowns, and at first he does deliver a superbly mild performance as the aptly named Norm. But there is very little normalcy to be found in this play, something that becomes apparent as Shamos fully commits to the most ludicrous twist of the evening (no spoilers here).
With four very big personalities doing their shtick, Meteor Shower takes on a distinctly vaudevillian quality. Perhaps director Jerry Zaks is nodding to that when he has Benanti perform an anachronistic Charleston to Beethoven’s Fifth during the scene transitions. Zaks masterfully choreographs the sight gags that make up so much of the comedy — bizarre moments that seem to be more for their own sake than in service to a plot.
Beowulf Boritt's furtively ridiculous set provides an ideal environment for a living room comedy that threatens to transition into a horror show at any moment. Tacky art adorns the walls and a drink cart occupies a place of honor downstage left. When that interior transitions to the back patio, the whole set cracks open and rotates with celestial violence. Ann Roth's costumes suggest the '90s without drawing focus, except for one very active shirt. Lighting designer Natasha Katz creates the conditions for a major astronomical event (impressive work by meteor animator Allison McGrath), while Fitz Patton makes it sound like meteors are actually showering onstage.
Unfortunately, these high production values belong to an undercooked play, much of which feels like a live staging of Martin's "funny ideas" notebook. Martin may be poking fun at the current fad for writing plays about the multiverse by presenting scenes one way and then restarting them as a variation…or he just may not have decided which version he likes best. A pop psychology explanation for what we have just witnessed arrives at the very end, but following this generally unreliable narrative, we're hesitant to trust it. It feels like hearing a moral at the end of a David Lynch film. Whether you love that kind of ambiguity or hate it, Meteor Shower is undeniably the season's strangest new play.