Frederick’s Maryland Ensemble Theatre (MET) goes for “wild and crazy” with Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower. The four cast members, directed by Tad Janes, work hard at being as wild and crazy as they can be. Their ability to generate numerous laughs from Martin’s one-liners fails to redeem his inch-deep script.
Kaydin Hamby’s excellent sound design begins with a pre-show recorded reading of clichéd self-improvement advice, mixed with fittingly insipid music. This matters because the first couple we see — the earnest, initially somewhat passive Corky (Jennifer Pagano) and Norm (Jack Evans) — regulate their relationship by the strictures of such advice. It’s enough to make you think that Meteor Shower will be a spoof of psychobabble (“If you don’t deal with your subconscious, it will deal with you”), except that by play’s end, the script seems to embrace it.
The setup has Corky and Norm, in anticipation of a spectacular meteor shower, preparing to entertain another couple, the alpha+ male Gerald (Matt Baughman) and the vampish Laura (Shea-Mikal Green). In Baughman’s skilled physical acting performance, Gerald is the wildest and craziest of the lot. He promptly encroaches on Corky and Norm’s physical space, as he and Laura begin a game of sexual one-upmanship on their hosts, seeking the “total collapse” of their relationship.
Rewind the tape. Several times. Scenes are replayed, with variations and additional revelations, in various chronological configurations. The effect is that of a funhouse mirror take on themes from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, reimagined as a series of Saturday Night Live skits.
In the midst of all this, the cast, particularly Pagano, deliver the one-liners to good effect. For example, as Gerald and Laura prepare to leave after the mayhem concludes, Gerald allows as how they might have overstayed their welcome. Norm responds, “Oh, that’s impossible. You were never welcome.” Asked, “Aren’t you glad you’re not a man?” Corky replies, “Oh, so relieved. I couldn’t stand all the advantages.” Then there’s a colloquy involving Corky’s description of her husband’s endowment: “It’s been photographed by Mapplethorpe.” “How did he hear about it?” “Word of mouth.” Badda boom.
There are vegetable jokes, featuring eggplants and celery. Not to leave carnivores unsatisfied, Corky has had an episode of situational cannibalism. A detailed depiction of Gerald’s drug abuse derives its humor from Corky’s obliviousness to it. Much comic use is made of “exploding head syndrome,” which sounds like a Martin invention but is a real sleep disorder, likely less comic to those who experience it. The titular meteor shower plays its part as well, leading to a delightful special effect involving a smoking video-enhanced hole in a character’s midsection.
But the driving force of the action is sex. While Corky and Norm work out their relationship issues through new-agey rituals, Gerald and Laura resolve theirs through performative grinding. Gerald and Laura are determined to achieve their goals by seducing Corky and Norm. When, in the final variation on the evening’s festivities, Corky and Norm — forewarned this time of the other couple’s malevolent intentions — turn the tables on Gerald and Laura, they exert dominance via thoroughly cringeworthy feigned homosexual aggression.
Unfortunately, comedy deriving from character is a concept foreign to the play. Corky, Norm, Gerald, and Laura never become real characters rather than devices to deliver Martin’s clever lines. Since the audience never has the chance to become invested in the characters, the stakes remain low. This is not the fault of the actors, who do their over-the-top best to deliver the flimsy goods. Pagano’s prolonged scream midway through the show — Fay Wray herself might envy it — is one example.
MET’s physical production is well executed. David DiFalco’s set is divided into two sections, one representing the hosts’ living room, decorated in Southern California bland, and the other their patio, with two chaise lounges (the back cushion on one of them is changed out to illustrate an effect of the meteor shower). The arrangement serves well the frequent two-character scenes in which the remaining characters are out of visual and hearing range. Will Heyser-Paome’s lighting design focuses attention, as it should, on whichever of the two playing areas is at the center of a scene, and adds yellow specials representing meteors.
The highlight of Taylor Burke’s costume design is a flaming red jacket for Gerald, as well as its singed version later in the show. Corky and Norm are dressed blandly, fitting in perfectly with their surroundings. Laura’s billowy black dress might better have been something slinkier, given her seductive intentions.
In MET’s production of Meteor Shower, the actors outclass the material. The whole of the play never becomes equal to, let alone greater than, the sum of its often amusing parts.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Meteor Shower plays through April 24, 2022, at Maryland Ensemble Theatre, 31 Patrick Street, Frederick MD. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday performances are at 8 pm; Sunday performances are at 3 pm. Tickets, priced at $28, are available online or through the theater’s box office, 301-694-4744.
The Meteor Shower program is online here.
COVID Safety: Since March 11, 2022, Maryland Ensemble Theatre no longer requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for entry, but masks are strongly recommended. If any ticket holder is not comfortable with these guidelines, the theater will refund the full purchase price. A full explanation of this policy change is here.