When some comedies go up in smoke, you get indignant if not furious that your time (and money) has been so abused. That’s not the case with Blair Singer’s Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas, a satire of Hollywood pretensions currently playing at the Geffen Playhouse. Staged with goofy ease by John Rando, as though it’s been plucked from a comic book, Singer’s play is actually quite amusing at times, not because it’s particularly clever, but because it isn’t, and obviously has no ambition to be so. There’s a certain charm in that.
In one scene, an ancient shaman in the Ecuadorian Andes (Mark Fite), costumed by Robert Blackman in peacock feathers, wanders around like a performer who missed his start time for a gig in front of the Mann Chinese Theater and wound up here by mistake. When he kneels down to offer a miracle cure to a dying tribesman, we hear at least 14 of the old man’s arthritic bones crackle and snap like Rice Krispies. The joke is just so dumb, how can anyone get mad?
The play has the same character as my grizzled neighbor who loves stopping me on my way out the door to tell lewd, lame jokes. There’s no pretension, and the guy just wants to connect. Give him a break.
I would be remiss, however, not to mention this tiny detail: Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas is dreadful. It filled me not with fury but with a kind of terror at how precarious the line is between humor that fires and that which misfires. Some of this has to do with craft, but most of it has to do with alchemy. People who scoff with righteous indignation at a production like this simply don’t understand that humor is a long, long way from science.
Years ago I was a house manager at the L.A. Public Theater, when it occupied the Coronet Theatre on La Cienega. They were putting on Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy, directed by Paul Benedict, with Robert Picardo and Linda Purl. One preview, it looked like the most strained, insipid piece of crap ever conceived, and it was received as such. The next night, with Benedict as taskmaster making the most subtle adjustments to the arc of the jokes, the timing of a hand gesture that would accompany a crack, or a facial response, the farce took flight. I bore witness: one night silence, the next night, crescendos of laughter floating into the air. Though there are problems with the writing craft, the comedy in Singer’s play might have more crackle were the performances tightened.
Matthew Modine is about an actor named Matthew Modine (played tongue firmly in cheek by Matthew Modine), who was once a star. But that was a decade or two ago, when his light blazed across the firmament. Now he wants to be back on Hollywood’s A-list. There’s no particular reason that he deserves to be on Hollywood’s A-list. He doesn’t believe in the art of film, or television, or the art of acting, or the art of anything. He’s simply attention-deprived, and his claim to fame is that Al Pacino once took his advice on an acting tip.
I guess that raises the question of why anybody beyond Hollywood would actually care about such a guy, or, for that matter, why anyone in Hollywood would care, beyond the sting of painful recognition, which is the point. But it’s such a small and obvious point, that may be a conceptual problem.
In an early scene, Modine begs to be represented by publicist Whimberly North (Peri Gilpin), who acts and sounds so much like Julie White’s agent in Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed, Singer should probably have acknowledged it. (This is the kind of play with such a breezy structure, it can afford that kind of riff.) Whimberly is simply not interested and orders Matthew out of her office. Then she changes her mind. The reason is chemical. She feels a sexual charge, which is the basis for so many of her decisions. The key to resurgent fame, she muses, is to find a hip charity. And this is how the action winds up in the Ecuadorian Andes, where Matthew and Whimberly and her assistant Jeffrey (French Stewart, a brilliant comedian who can be both droll and swishy in a single gesture) try to draw the world’s attention to the dying alpacas, to the indigenous tribe that derives its sustenance from them, and to the efforts of Matthew Modine to offer the help of a great nation — or at least of a guy from Hollywood.
The tribe is here represented by Fite, Reggie De Leon, Mark Damon Espinoza and Edward Padilla, who for the most part stand around looking stupid and speaking with stupid accents. No dignity for the natives here. No dignity for anyone. This is an American blend of The Benny Hill Show and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with a touch of Mel Brooks thrown in for good measure. The alpacas are life-size puppets that appear to have been trucked over from the Jim Henson Muppet studios. They’re big and furry, with doelike eyes. They groan and then drop dead, disappearing behind a painted cliff. (The Andes here look quite cheesy, as Andes go.) The challenge is to get the last remaining survivors, a male and a female, to copulate. You should see two life-size alpaca puppets trying to copulate, with the lure of perfume (that was Modine’s idea). Or perhaps you shouldn’t see it. Even from Row G, I found myself slightly embarrassed for the puppets.
Yet there is a difference in the style of humor being employed here, and in the British influences: The repartee in those British comedies is spitfire quick. The jokes here are plodding, deliberately so, a strategy to ensnare the dimwittedness of the main characters. The notable exception is Gilpin’s cynical publicist; Whimberly speaks briskly but nonetheless makes idiotic decisions, beginning with the one to take Matthew Modine as her client. And this is the core of the problem: Farce starts with a credible premise that gets pursued with unwavering consistency, leading to a ludicrous conclusion. It’s the rigidity of the logic that forms the wit, logic that goes off the rails. You can find that in movies like Brazil and Charlie Chaplin’s routines. When the premise is as wobbly and random as it is here, you just get a kind of comedic anarchy: absurdity, not farce. The absurdity here has some traction but not two acts’ worth.
Still, Modine is just right for everything that plays and everything that doesn’t. His stage presence is as lackadaisical as Singer’s structure. He’s a bit like a walking shell. A revelatory moment comes near play’s end, when Modine offers an “important” reflection — literally — he talks about how he was staring in the mirror, an undertaking he always enjoys. He arrives at some innocuous conclusion, which is the crux of the play’s entire philosophy. Somewhere in there lurks an anger about hypocrites who believe in nothing but their own advancement. This was the anger of Molière, in the 17th century. It’s nothing new, but it deserves to be retold. It matters greatly, and this comedy is so amiable, and so freewheeling, it would have you believe that it doesn’t.
MATTHEW MODINE SAVES THE ALPACAS | By BLAIR SINGER | GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, 10866 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd. | Through October 18 | (800) 745-3000