Night at the museum

Pub date January 21, 2009
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionTheater

REVIEW American Conservatory Theater leads off its new season with a revival of John Guare’s rollickingly self-referential 1974 comedy, a madcap musical so quirky and of the moment in conception and mood that it comes shrouded in a sometimes dazzling, more often distancing veil of nostalgia.

New York playwright Bing Ringling (Brooks Ashmanskas) has received his first commercial production — after only several hundred attempts — in a dreary downtown theater haunted by an insane producer (Mary Birdsong) with a failure wish and a strong resemblance to a tottering Kate Hepburn. Shadowed by the billboard superstardom of movie actor and old neighborhood pal Tybalt Dunleavy (Stephen Derosa), Bing recoils from the scathing reviews of Etruscan Conundrum, leading to a desperate search for meaning that winds through his past, his parents’ couch, the home of his maniacal death-devouring composer (played to the hilt by an irrepressible Derosa), and finally to the dizzy heights of celebrity, from which old pal Tybalt (Derosa again) is preparing to sail down in one big swan dive. The point is not that dreams do come true, you see, but that they exist at all — and get in the way of real life.

Although Guare reworked the material for ACT’s revival, adding even more autobiographical touches as well as some bright if unexceptional new songs, Rich and Famous remains a hit-and-miss affair, with some flat notes and fewer high ones shaking up its middle register. The often overly broad humor has dated — though it can still work well, as in the scene with Bing’s obsessive, half-senile parents, played by Derosa and Birdsong. Moreover, the main character, while sympathetic, never becomes more than mildly interesting, which contributes to the sense of the intermissionless performance dragging on. Overall, the feeling is not unlike walking around inside a museum piece — which is just what happens in one vignette. But the play’s whimsy is so rooted in a specific moment, despite a stab at more timeless themes, that maybe that’s inevitable.

Rich and Famous is, however, expertly performed by a versatile four-person cast — including ACT’s priceless Gregory Wallace in a couple of scene-stealing flights — and directed with appropriately zany energy by John Rando. It’s also lovingly gussied up by scenic designer Scott Bradley in jazzy, period-evoking slashes of color, including set pieces drenched in the garishly comic shades of nightmares. All of which ensures Guare and Ringling’s one-ring circus is nothing if not a frenetically romantic spree. (Robert Avila)

RICH AND FAMOUS Through Feb. 8. Tues.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.–Sun., Jan. 21, and Feb. 4, 2 p.m. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary, SF. $17–$82. (415) 749-2228,