After suffering through Simon Mendes da Costa’s withering Losing Louie, my instinct was to offer you the phone number for Manhattan Theatre Club artistic director Lynne Meadow. I planned to beg you to call and ask, “Did you lose a bet?” Because there is no other explanation for why she’s produced such a comic clunker.
Some critics have unfavorably compared the play with some of Neil Simon’s lighter froth. That’s kind. Mendes da Costa is relatively new to theater (Losing Louie is his second play to be staged), so it’s polite to treat lightweights with kid gloves. The question is whether one of the city’s largest nonprofit theaters should charge $86.25 so Aristophanes-in-training can get in the ring.
The eponymous Louie is dead. In the early ’60s, though, he was married to Bobbie (Rebecca Creskoff) while boffing Bella (Jama Williamson); six-year-old Tony, the son of Louie and Bobbie, catches Louie and Bella in the act. Later, Bobbie delivers a second child that’s stillborn while Bella delivers a son and marries another man to help conceal her child’s true parentage. While grieving, Bobbie, who repeatedly calls Bella her best friend, not only starves young Tony emotionally, but pours her love into watching over Reggie. So much so that when Bella and her husband die tragically—and having already hinted that she knows the real deal—Bobbie persuades Louie (Scott Cohen) that Reggie should be raised as their own.
On the same two-door bedroom set (a terrific design by John Lee Beatty), 1960s scenes are interspersed with those from the present. Remember, Louie’s dead. That’s why middle-aged Tony (Mark Linn-Baker) and Reggie (Matthew Arkin), who haven’t talked in 10 years, are back at the family manse for the funeral. Each bears the burden of their histories, and each carries laundry lists of petty jealousies, grudges and undisclosed truths that suffocate the play in bitterness—bitterness Mendes da Costa thinks he can disguise as sweet-tooth comedy. Tony’s crass wife Sheila (Michele Pawk) and Reggie’s regal wife Elizabeth (Patricia Kalember) sometimes referee the brothers’ bouts; sometimes they mix it up themselves.
But wait—as the Ginsu knife commercial goes—there’s more! Like a subplot about Elizabeth’s pierced clitoris, for example, or about how Tony boozes and upchucks in an offstage bathroom. Universally branded a cheapskate, Tony has hired the worst possible funeral home—one selling pastries—with the result that Louie’s burial becomes a muddy mess, the perfect metaphor if ever there was one. Just about everything interesting, enlightening and amusing happens offstage—although not the picture frame that freakishly becomes unmoored from the wall, revealing a hidden safe they all seemed aware of already. The kicker is that Tony knew Reggie was his half-brother and Reggie knew Tony was his half-brother but one brother didn’t know the other brother knew. Such comedy!
Note to Mendes da Costa: Why allude to Tony’s penis being abnormally small or misshapen if it’s not germane to the story—or is it?
Note to director Jerry Zaks: Do you need a loan? Why did you direct this play?
Such gross miscasting means that you never believe this family is Jewish, you never believe Bobbie and Bella were best friends and you never believe a monotone word Creskoff utters as Bobbie. But I can tell you who’s laughing. His name is Louie. And he’s dead.
Through Dec. 10. Biltmore Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. (betw. B’way & 8th Ave.), 212-239-6200; $26.25-$86.25.