I don’t mind messing with Shakespeare. I’ll take Kiss Me, Kate over The Taming of the Shrew, and the underappreciated 1971 Broadway musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona over the original.
So I was particularly disappointed that the Geffen Playhouse’s These Paper Bullets, a “mod-ish ripoff” of Much Ado About Nothing, set in a 1960s London hotel, didn’t meet expectations. Especially since it’s by Rolin Jones, the writer of the fantastic Pulitzer-finalist play The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow and estimable television shows such as Friday Night Lights.
In an interview in the program, Jones admits that he doesn’t love the Shakespearean comedy genre, and he complains about Much Ado’s dramaturgy. I sympathize. But in These Paper Bullets, he’s unintentionally created ammunition for the purists.
The problem isn’t that the setting and the play don’t fit. In fact, to Jones' credit, they do so seamlessly. The instant love between Hero (here Higgy, played by Ariana Venturi) and Claudio (here Claude, played by Damon Daunno) works well when analogized to a groupie and a singer in a Beatles-esque band, and Venturi's spoiled, Quaalude-obsessed model is the show’s bright spot. And Benedick (Justin Kirk) and Beatrice (Nicole Parker) make convincing John and Yoko figures, especially as the plot develops in the second act. In fact, when the show strays from the play to update Hero’s final ruse, it doesn't pay off.
The performances of original songs are set in a recording session or at a concert, and it’s fun to figure out which one is an homage to which Beatles hit, especially when you remember they were composed by Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day. And the manic energy yields a smattering of laughs. But as Jackson Gay's production gets longer (it’s more than two and a half hours) and its attempts at British farce keep falling flat, impatience sets in. The slapstick bits weren’t so much funny as they made me think, “Oh, they’re trying a slapstick bit.”
The lines tend to begin as Shakespeare and end as Austin Powers. There are your expected cheeky sex references — a “taking you in the rear” joke here and an orgy reference there. At the wedding ceremony, the drummer says he has “the ring-o.” (Oh, so the drummer is supposed to be Ringo!) And, as in too many of today's TV shows and films, it's assumed that vomiting is inherently hilarious.
Audiences would be better served seeing Joss Whedon’s modernized film version of Much Ado. The original language and story are intact — and it's delightful.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; through Oct. 18. (310) 208-2028, geffenplayhouse.com.