By Bob Shuman
Rob Ackerman’s Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson is a cute fake out, with all the commercial patter of a Tootsie or Neil Simon–even David Ives—comedy, but on larger issues, it can only shadowbox: like the Advertising sales phrase, in the business where it is set, it serves the sizzle, instead of the steak. The generic characters (audiences will recognize them from at least as far back as The Mary Tyler Moore Show) are trying to survive in the entertainment world herd, while making a dissing, nonsensical 2010 AT&T commercial, apparently now considered a classic. The over-glorified director of the shoot (David Wohl) may be putting an actor at risk, though—and the crew could be deemed complicit, for employing what the play believes to be a startling concept: Naturalism. The script, which provides more waffling than a presidential impeachment hearing, is indecisive regarding its ending, as well, like it’s Rashomon, yet the obvious solution, which is not done, is to grab the director and throw gumballs at him. A comparable step would have been a no-brainer for a character like Dorothy Gale, in The Wizard of Oz (1939), who flings water at the Wicked Witch—and kills her. Marlon Brando stands up against union bigs in On the Waterfront (1954), only to become badly beaten, bruised, and battered. In 9-5 (1980), three women fantasize, slip up, and take action against their sexist boss. Only in contemporary America are workers, in the entertainment industry, so afraid of their shadows.
The play, from Working Theater, may have provided more insight into artist coercion—such as the car accident in Kill Bill (2003) from Tarantino and Weinstein (his trial is currently set to take place 9/9)—but Ackerman wants to present provocation without ever having to stop being clever. Uma Thurman, against her better judgment, as many will recall, also performed naturalistically, in unsafe working conditions, from which she sustained neck, head, and knee injuries–never fully recovering: “I went from being a creative contributor and performer to being like a broken tool.” In Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, Ackerman can’t match such stakes: his climatic event is too small (and maybe not so dangerous, given the amount of money the actor is being paid) and his dramaturgy slippery–he ends up seeming like an apologist for gross behavior on set. Where the evening succeeds, however, is in its timing and brisk pacing–the show is only an hour and fifteen minutes, a one act really, which can deliver on old-fashioned laughs, such as a pie throwing montage (the video design is by Yana Biryukova; sound design is by Bart Fasbender, costumes are by Tricia Barsamian, and the all-important properties, by Addison Heeren). The likable comic actors, almost as recognizable as figures out of commedia dell’arte, include: the eager, young propman (George Hampe), the “pro” electrician (Dean Nolen); the fraught assistant director (Ann Harada), the narcissistic star (Jonathan Sale), and the genius demon manipulator (Wohl). Watch them at the Mezzanine Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 W. 53rd Street), through July 6, because the smaller, open studio set (by Christopher Swader & Justin Swader; lighting design is by Mary Ellen Stebbins), allows good space for viewing vivid and lively acting (to be transparent, this reviewer attended workshops, at the Lark Play Development Center, where director Teresa Rebeck—also the playwright of Seminar and Bernhardt/Hamlet, among others–was one of the co-leaders, in the early 2000s).
People will probably enjoy Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson–and be interested in the truth behind it–but, disappointingly, the script recedes to default cultural talking points (even the show’s advertising has the look of a blue Dem campaign poster), such as the need for feminism, disgust with white men (the spewing has gotten so bad an unlikely Meryl Streep has felt the need to come to the defense of boys: “Women can be pretty fucking toxic”), and realization that Verizon sucks. Of course, in real life, proles aren’t so generic or innocent—position is cemented, in the competitive arts world, through talent and money, politics, legacy, or tribe. Likewise, people can probably count on two hands the number of creators who are actually original and masters of their crafts. Ackerman, who inflates the abilities of his fictional director–who does have power–sees the ineptness of the workers who don’t, simply preserving the status quo. In another play (and movie), Network (2017, 1976), one more entertainment insider, also in TV (an anchorman), shouts, iconically, in exasperation and rage: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Why will the characters in Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson? What has happened in American culture, where people can’t say no?
© 2019 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
WORLD PREMIERE OF
“DROPPING GUMBALLS ON LUKE WILSON”
BY ROB ACKERMAN
DIRECTED BY THERESA REBECK
Cast: REYNA DE COURCY (Film: Wetlands), GEORGE HAMPE (MTC’s REGRETS; TV: “Madame Secretary”), ANN HARADA (Broadway’s CINDERELLA, AVENUE Q), DEAN NOLEN (Broadway’s MAMMA MIA!. NY: OMNIUM GATHERUM, TABLETOP), JONATHAN SALE (NY: HANDLE WITH CARE. TV: “God Friended Me”) and DAVID WOHL (Broadway’s FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, DINNER AT EIGHT).
Photos: The New York Times, Playbill