Playwright Douglas Carter Beane may have made it big, with a pack of works on Broadway in recent years, but he hasn’t forgotten his roots. His latest comedy, “Shows for Days,” inspired by his own adolescence in the early 1970s, recalls finding refuge –– and a measure of love –– in a community theater in Reading, Pennsylvania, at the tender age of 14.
And if your gaydar is pinging it should, for this coming-of-age tale is also partly a coming-out tale. But mostly it’s a love letter to the theater, specifically the amateur kind that brings together intrepid, like-minded souls to commune and create art. Theater as support system, you might call it.
Staged with flair by Jerry Zaks in the relatively modest Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, the wispy memory play is as heartfelt as it is deeply personal. It’s so earnestly humble they needed to haul in the big guns to bring it to life.
This firepower is supplied by the one and only Patti LuPone. Aided by William Ivey Long’s luminous costumes, her nuanced performance is nothing short of spectacular, erasing any shred of doubt that she is among the greatest performers on the New York boards today, a living legend. And, I might add, she does not sing a single note. Though a case could be made that from her, even a well-timed zinger sounds very much like music.
LuPone plays Irene, the fearless, often monstrous co-founder of the struggling Prometheus Theater Company, willing to do whatever it takes to keep the troupe alive. (Any resemblance to a certain mythic yet iconic, semi-deranged diva trying to salvage a showbiz career is purely intentional.) LuPone imparts the bossy egomaniac with a streak of vulnerability; it’s hard to detest her even when she’s blackmailing one of her cohorts. She’s doing it for art’s sake, after all.
The perfect counterpoint to LuPone’s brash Irene is Michael Urie’s Car, a stand-in for Beane. The winsome Urie slips easily between the role of present-day Car as a successful dramatist, and Car as the gawky, curious teen who joins the troupe to escape his suffocating life in the cushy suburb of Wyomissing.
Not that such dexterity should surprise anyone who saw Urie’s enchanting hit solo show, “Buyer & Cellar,” where he juggled multiple roles, including that of no one less than Barbra Streisand.
For such a small theater company, there’s plenty of drama. Their dumpy home in a row of abandoned storefronts is terrorized by a wrecking ball, forcing them to scramble for new digs. A rival company threatens to run them out of business, staging crowd pleasers like “You Can’t Take It With You” while Irene prefers dusting off more challenging, esoteric works like O’Neill’s “The Great God Brown.” The critics, sad to say, hated that production, with one headline screaming “Great God Brown? Good God, No!”
Her back against the wall, Irene insists that Clive (Lance Coadie Williams, who wowed in “Bootycandy” last year), a devoted troupe member, convince his rich, closeted Republican boyfriend to donate a new space or she will blast their closet wide open.
The married Irene is having a fling with Damien (Jordan Dean), a young member of the company who — you can see this coming a mile away — hooks up with Car. The hormone-charged youth is unsure about his sexuality until that blissful encounter, which occurs behind a rack of costumes.
Irene strong-arms the wisecracking lesbian stage manager Sid (the delightfully acerbic Dale Soules) and ditzy actress Maria (Zoë Winters) into making tough personal sacrifices for the good of the group. What’s more, Irene suffers from a serious, life-threatening illness.
Did Beane, whose recent Broadway triumphs include “Cinderella,” “The Nance,” and “Sister Act,” really have such a crisis-packed adolescence? Not exactly. The adult Car reassures us that much of the proceedings are fiction, and some characters are composites.
Not that it matters. We enjoy the rambling, wild ride, even if it’s more affectionate than affecting. And we appreciate his insights about tapping into the irresistible magic that is theater. As Car deftly observes, with a twinkle in his eye, “On stage, ginger ale is champagne.”
SHOWS FOR DAYS | , Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St. |Through Aug. 23: Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.: Sun. at 3 p.m. | $87 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 10 mins., with intermission