BWW Review: ¬"Simpsons¬" Scribe Premieres I¬'M CONNECTICUT at Connecticut Repertory Theatre
As a non-New Yorker, one of the curious occurrences of going to see a show in New York City is how much the natives love hearing jokes or jibes aimed at themselves. Drop a particularly New York name and the audience, almost on cue, erupts in a way that is not heard anywhere else. The insider nature of these local references is always enjoyable because it reveals how, even in the biggest of cities, we are all hometown proud. We love to have our opinions reinforced or foibles exposed in an affectionate or knowing manner. It makes us feel included. And so it goes with Mike Reiss’ I’m Connecticut. After one of the final performances at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre, an audience member nabbed the playwright and said, “You nailed us.” No doubt it was music to the ears of the transplanted Connecticuter. Or is it Connecticutian? Or Nutmegger?
Reiss’s central thesis is that Connecticut is a boring state. The fact that we don’t even know what to call ourselves seems to be proof positive of the play’s point of view: we are essentially unexceptional and undistinguished. As a transplanted New Hampshireite, I sat taking umbrage to the central thesis. Sure, compared to New York and Hollywood (two places where Reiss can comfortably call a professional or personal home), Connecticut seems bland. Try being raised in the Granite State and even Reiss’s birthplace of Bristol, CT can seem downright cosmopolitan, populated as it is with ESPN World Headquarters, the oldest continuously-operating amusement park (Lake Compounce), and the Witch’s Dungeon Museum of classic Hollywood monsters. In a way, it could be a case of the grass being greener on the other side of the state border.
What was fascinating to watch, however, was how quickly all of the Connecticut folks bought the premise. The audience was only too happy to agree, knowingly laughing at our general lack of any sense of exceptionalism. Despite being frequently labeled as frosty New England aloofs and snooty liberal intellectuals, the Nutmeggers on the campus of UConn readily accepted the goofy, socially awkward stand-in for Connecticut (and the playwright), Marc, as one of their own. This is all due to Mr. Reiss’s eminently likeable, funny, smart, rapid-fire script. Maybe we aren’t as boring as we thought!
A first-time playwriting effort by the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning television writer, Mr. Reiss shows a facility for stage comedy. Writing for The Simpsons and the late, lamented The Critic, it is no surprise that the jokes come fast and furious. A minority fail to land, but the majority earn their chuckles and belly laughs affording their author an impressive batting average. Not surprisingly, the action sometimes takes a Simpsonian bent with surreal moments that lift us out of the present into a parallel universe where U.S. states can speed date and Marc can be confronted by another transplanted Connecticutian, Samuel Clemens. Taking a page out of Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall, a work that Reiss admissibly admires and emulates, I’m Connecticut cross-cuts into asides, direct address, and snappy, New York-y dialogue. Yes, even though it is titled I’m Connecticut, the play ultimately has a New York State of Mind.
Befitting a stage piece created by a television writer, the set mainly consists of giant screens that help the audience ricochet across many locations, oftentimes represented in a cartoonish or idealizEd Manner. The projections, designed by Allison McGrath and Greg Purnell, are the most sophisticated and sharp I have ever witnessed on stage. Instead of distracting, they add to the comedy and sense of place (which, oddly, never actually reaches Connecticut itself).
With machine gun jokes and flashy videos, ably directed by Paul Mullins, the biggest concern could be the performers getting lost in the shuffle. Mercifully, this never occurs thanks to a top-notch cast led by Harris Doran as Reiss’s stand-in, Marc. Both a nebbish and a mensch, Marc was a Jew-out-of-water in WASPy Simsbury, Connecticut. You would think in New York, he would be right at home, but his Connecticut blandness (and a propensity to lie), make his search for a sense of self and a suitable match a Herculean task. Much like Woody Allen’s caricature of himself, seen in almost every film the auteur ever made, Marc is the neurotic joker and the butt of the joke. Doran ably walks the tricky balance of getting laughs, getting victimized and earning some pathos in the process.
Jerry Adler and Joyce Dewitt, both television and stage veterans, have a great deal of fun in their respective roles. As the comic banter at times borders on situation comedy (not necessarily a complaint), these two pros are particularly adept at handling the quick pacing. A cast standout is Michael John Improta playing Marc’s mouthy buddy from Boston. He possesses all of the confidence that his friend lacks and Improta has a great time in the role. The dozen of actors in a barrage of supporting roles (including other states) are hilarious and sharp.
As Marc’s Southern belle romantic interest, Maggie Sulka proves a sweet Georgia peach. Unfortunately, the central romantic conflict at the heart of the play does not ignite the way it does between, say, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle (iconic New York romances referenced in the course of the evening). A big difference is that Keeton and Ryan’s roles and performances are as significant as their male counterparts, while I’m Connecticut is almost single-mindedly focused on Marc’s viewpoint. Further development of the script of this most-worthy vehicle could add greater balance and a more rewarding finale.
Ultimately, the play rises and falls not on Marc’s relationship with Diane as much as relationship with his home state. And this is the big question: Can I’m Connecticut build a relationship with audiences that will not get the immediate humor of the local references? Calling Simsbury “Simsboring” is side-splitting to people who live in spitting distance of the privileged community, but will it play in Oklahoma? Certainly I believe that the play should have a life in other Connecticut venues and it could be quite successful in New York City, where looking down your nose at your neighboring states is a rite of passage. What's nicest about I'm Connecticut is that, like its central character, is that it is so darn nice and eager to please. It's refreshing to encounter a comedy that has little on its mind other than ensuring that the audience is having a good time. If Reiss focuses on the universality of the central romance, I’m Connecticut could be a fine, funny calling card for Reiss' home state in theatres across the country. It may not help Connecticut tourism, but at least people will take some pity on us and that has to count for something.