Another Triumph for Steve Martin

From left: Keegan-Michael Key, Jeremy Shamos, Amy Schumer, and Laura Benanti in Meteor Shower
His new Broadway play is among the best work of his long career.

On two occasions, I’ve been in the room with Steve Martin when someone asked him, “How do I make it in show business?” You can tell the questioner is expecting Martin to say something like, “Oh, have you got talent? You need to call my agent Fred, his number is 310—.” What he actually says is this: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Steve Martin has been on the pop-culture scene for a long, long time. Remember the old Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that ran on CBS (and was cancelled after the show veered sharply left)? He was a writer for it (and did an ahead-of-its-time anti-comedy routine in 1968). At 72, he continues to do such impressive new work that if he weren’t already famous, he’d be making a name for himself all over again. He’s still so good, you can’t ignore him.

After some regrettable years playing dopey but lovable dads in Hollywood movies such as Cheaper by the Dozen, Martin rediscovered himself as a writer, crafting lovely novels and turning his attention increasingly to the theater. Two years ago he provided stellar country-bluegrass music, and the book, for Bright Star, and now he’s back on Broadway with his most delectably wacky effort in many years.

Imagine Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rewritten by a French absurdist and you’ll have some inkling of what’s in store for you in Meteor Shower, Martin’s bizarre, inventive, and uproarious new play (at the Booth Theatre through January 21). We’re in Ojai, Calif., in 1993, where, at a well-appointed upper-middle-class home, Corky and Norm (Amy Schumer and Jeremy Shamos) are anxiously awaiting their drinks guests, Gerald (Keegan-Michael Key) and Laura (Laura Benanti), whom Norm invited over after striking up a passing acquaintance with them.

Corky and Norm are eager to make new friends but they’re on edge, navigating slightly rough marital seas. Whenever one incidentally says something mean (“It just doesn’t sound like you. It’s clever”), they hold hands, lock eyes, and speak earnestly about their feelings in a trust-building exercise they picked up from pop-psychology tapes. They want to put on a brave front for the visitors, whom they suspect of being cooler than they are, and each of them might just be open to a little extramarital flirtation. Instead, when Gerald and Laura arrive, they immediately start putting their hosts through the wringer.

Martin begins conventionally enough, with the aggressively normal Corky and Norm preparing nervously for their guests while occasionally slighting each other as if they were in a Neil Simon play. But repeated fragments of scenes — we keep reliving the entrance of Gerald and Laura, with similar dialogue each time and no one remarking on the repetition — point to a possible space-time glitch. (It’s also the detail that makes Meteor Shower theater rather than just a movie or TV show performed live.) In 80 minutes of crackling-synapse comedy, Martin conjures up a boisterously fulfilling evening, one of the best I’ve had this season on Broadway, keeping us guessing about the bizarre secret between the two couples until the final minutes. The revelation, when it comes, doesn’t exactly make things fit together, but who would ask for a respite from such gleeful nonsense? The first-rate cast expertly times every odd line.

In 80 minutes of crackling-synapse comedy, Martin conjures up a boisterously fulfilling evening, one of the best I’ve had this season on Broadway.

Martin, who revealed in his memoir Born Standing Up that he made his first sallies into comedy via study of the syllogisms of Lewis Carroll, has come quite a distance since the days when he appeared onstage wearing bunny ears (a meta-routine, meant to spoof the desperate unctuousness of Las Vegas–style comedians of the 1960s). But he remains very much the same man, with a keen gift for misdirection. Others, perhaps, could have included in Corky’s biography a passing mention of her being a cannibal but not made it quite so daft: She emphasizes that the verb tense is incorrect and that she merely was, on one regrettable occasion, a cannibal, what with having been stranded in the Himalayas for 47 days with no source of calories except her best friend and a dying Sherpa. Norm, who brought up this information within minutes of welcoming the second couple into his home, notes that such an action might be looked at askance in a place such as Ojai but in the Himalayas, “It’s just another day at the office.” Due to this trauma, Corky developed a malady called “exploding head syndrome,” or sudden spasms of intense cranial discomfort coupled with psychological torment. As Norm puts it, “It’s been a problem.” If only your next cocktail party could be this intriguing, or at least this strange.

The play’s title derives from an expected astronomical event that the two couples intend to observe from the rear patio (the set rotates between the interior of the house and the outdoor side, where two chaises longues overlook the hills). Possibly Martin means to suggest that it’s the meteors streaking in the distance that have caused the rip in time at the Ojai house, but it seems more likely that he adored the opportunity to deploy a bit of meteor in a spectacular sight gag.

In a play in which we learn that the language spoken in Tierra del Fuego is “Tierra del Fueganese” and characters say things like, “I’m fine but I thought you were dead,” there’s never any doubt that you’re in the hands of a master of the absurd. Comics younger than Steve Martin have long since lapsed into shtick — Jerry Seinfeld is still doing breakfast-cereal gags — but Martin continues to send his comic concepts ricocheting off each other on improbable trajectories. May he remain eternally wild and perpetually crazy.


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