I went to see Eric Idle’s new play “What About Dick” at its world premiere last night, at the extremely lovely Orpheum theater on Broadway (L.A.’s Broadway, not The Great White Way). I don’t go to the professional theatre often, perhaps once a year, but I couldn’t resist this. I mean, the cast! The chance to see Russell Brand and Tim Curry on stage together; would any bit of stage remain unchewed? Tracey Ullman? Jane Leeves? Billy Connelly? Eddie Izzard? Eric Idle himself? Not one of them wouldn’t seem a good excuse to go see them on a stage… all of them at once? It’s practically every good funny person with an accent. And being there at the launch of what might be a major new work? That would be cool points.
Was it worth it? Yes. Do I recommend it, well…
First off, it’s not really a play, well, not a stage play. There is some attempt to present it as about the making of a radio drama, but it’s not at all. This isn’t some “Noises Off”, where you’re seeing what goes on behind and around the performance. This is just the (comedic) radio drama itself. So it’s really just a group of actors ith a couple days practice reading from scripts – a great way to put on something with a couple days rehearsal for a short run; think of it as “Love Letters” with a larger cast.
The key problem was that it was hard to understand; I’m not talking at some deep meaningful level, I’m talking simply about the words. Now, less you think that this is an example of my aging ears or the problems with sitting out in seat U 42 (which I only got to move up to because my first seat, W 42, was covered up by the platform for one of the cameras filming the even for later release) I can tell you that I was hearing the same complaint from everyone, including a friend of mine sitting literally front row center. This problem arose from a number of sources – rapid dialog delivered by people looking down toward their scripts, poor audio devices/acoustics; and those wonderful accents, no two quite the same, and with my brain unable to switch quickly enough from translating one to the next. (It’s not just these actor’s natural voices; some were playing multiple characters with differing accents, done with a wide range of success.) There is one character whose accent is supposed to make him hard to understand, and it’s hard for that to be funny when everyone is hard to understand.
Some of the problem was the script itself. It’s not about something. It’s more about a bunch of little characters and then things have to happen so they do… and really, that’s no inherently much of a complaint, the same can be said about most of the Python films. The humor is often cheap and vulgar, which is fine, because Eric Idle can structure cheap and vulgar. A lot was made of “Dick” being the name of a character and also a term with other uses. But I really wanted there to be something more for this to hang on, for getting whatever percentage of the cheap laughs I could actually hear. Things that are set up aren’t actually used; the play is supposed to be narrated by a piano, which is set up as if it’s something hilarious, but very little narration is actually done and the point of view has little impact.
And there certainly was fun to be had. The actors mostly went about it with strong energy; even if I couldn’t understand quite what was Tracey Ullman was doing in a scene, for example, it was still fun to watch her do it. And because this was underrehearsed, there were a lot of errors made, cues missed, lines bungled, and those can be funny even in a high school production… when you have as funny and confident a group as this was trying to address these problems, it can bring out the grins quite strongly.
So overall, it was a disappointment, but worthwhile. I cannot recommend it (and there are at best few tickets left for the remaining three nights of the run, so you’d be hard-pressed to go anyway), but if’n'when it comes out on video, I’ll probably watch it again… with the close captioning on. (And I’ll be diving for the outtakes, the blooper reel which is bound to be in the DVD extras.)
I was wondering if I’d see any celebrities in the audience (yes, I’m not beyond being celebstruck), and (besides my friends, who are contextual celebrities – writers Mark Evanier and Len Wein, the sort of people where many might know their work or creations without knowing their names) the only one I saw was Kevin Nealon.