"Taller Than a Dwarf" is hardly a memorable title for Elaine May's new comedy. A good alternative might be "Funnier Than a Funeral" or "Sharper Than a Sledgehammer" or "Smarter Than a Fruit Fly."
In the interests of honesty, however, any of those titles would have to have the words "Only Just" attached.
On paper, "Taller Than a Dwarf" looks immensely promising. The key people involved all have impressive track records.
The author, Elaine May, is a vastly experienced comedienne, playwright and screenwriter. The director Alan Arkin has a Tony Award and an Oscar nomination in his locker.
In the lead roles are Matthew Broderick, a Broadway and Hollywood veteran, and Parker Posey, who has appeared in more than 30 movies.
Of course, it's not unusual for highly accomplished people to go wrong. What makes "Taller Than a Dwarf" such a rare event is that almost everyone goes wrong at the same time.
May's script is basically an extended sketch. It takes one idea and kicks it around for 90 minutes. And that idea is not particularly original: After years as a dependable nonentity in the lower depths of a market research company, Howard Miller (Broderick) decides to rebel.
His decision one morning to go back to bed rather than trudge into the office sends his wife, his parents, his mother-in-law, and his boss into a spin.
Howard is, in his own words, an "urban, Jewish, almost generic white male from Queens." Unfortunately, this is an accurate description. But with dramatic characters, unlike prescription drugs, generic means bad. It's a polite word for a cardboard cut-out.
May gives us no reason to be interested in Howard and Broderick, instead of trying to fill in the gaps, makes them much wider. In what must be regarded as a cry for help, he plays Howard in a funny voice, like a robot in a cartoon. But when the voice is funnier than the lines, you know you're in trouble.
Actually, Broderick's gimmick makes things worse. His Howard is so weird from the start that when he flips, it hardly seems to matter. Whatever dramatic point May is trying to make sinks rapidly below the horizon.
As his wife, Selma, Parker Posey, for all her movie experience, seems deeply uncomfortable on stage. She never gets near the precision and timing essential to successful farce.
Alan Arkin's direction, meanwhile, tries to make the action interesting by shifting the furniture around. The play uses two spaces: the Millers' apartment and the stoop and sidewalk outside. Since nothing very complicated happens outside, there's no need for an elaborate change of sets when the action moves from one to the other.
Perhaps realizing that Tony Walton's typically impressive sets are one of his few assets, though, Arkin uses elaborate changes of scenery. The only effect is to break whatever momentum has been achieved. For a farce, which needs a helter-skelter hysteria, this is fatal.
Or, rather, it would be fatal if the play were not already dead. If you can find consolation in such small mercies, you'll think it's great to be "Taller Than a Dwarf."
A trip to the Longacre Theatre for the new Elaine May comedy "Taller Than a Dwarf" is like a tour in a humorless time machine.
You may think you're there for a modern production but, in fact, it's 1955. The few jokes about Reagan and liberalism could just as easily target Eisenhower.
It's an uninteresting, shrill story, centered on Howard Miller (Matthew Broderick), an office whiz whom we glimpse as he gets up and dresses for work.
The key event here turns out to be a shower handle coming off. Miller pleads with his wife not to call the super but to hire a plumber instead. She must get dressed, too, for she's also got a job (she's a typist, I think).
A black kid from a neighboring apartment arrives. The kid, positioned by his mother to take advantage of white liberal guilt, gets walked to school every day by Miller.
But instead of taking him, Miller begins to brood, saying, "I'm a failure ... since when is liberal a bad word?"
When Miller finally does go outside - Tony Walton's set adds an unconvincing porch to the Queens building - he flings his lunch away in disgust.
A Irish cop, on unlikely foot patrol, sees his gesture and demands a bribe in exchange for not writing him up.
An angry Miller then turns to the audience and tells them, "You probably think I could have handled today better," after which he goes home and back to bed, where he plays board games.
His parents arrive. His mother (Joyce Van Patten) serenades him with "Some of These Days," while he sings in retort, "I Am Woman." The shtick is mildly funny, but it's not the first time a guy has gotten laughs with this song.
His wife comes home and they have a fight. Then there's the crucial confrontation. The super shows up, angry and demanding an apology for an earlier insult.
Miller won't apologize, insults him further and faints.
The rest of Miller's family and his boss all turn up and approve of his standing up to the "dirty Nazi" of a super. Miller is a hero to all.
It is jaw-droppingly unfunny and pointless. Broderick is getting a bit old to play the eternal victim - there is not a single challenging moment for him.
Parker Posey, wacky queen of indie cinema, makes a peculiar choice for a depressed Queens wife. She never makes this poor creature vivid or authentic. (Not that she's been given a chance by the script.)
As Miller's parents, Van Patten is insufferable as a caricature of a Jewish mother, and Jerry Adler is a comically quiet Jewish dad.
Posey's mother is played by Marcia Jean Kurtz, who is at least authentic, but her routine quickly grows tiresome. The boss is Sam Groom, whose character is given a tritely contemporary spin.
The super (Michael McShane) and the cop (Greg Stuhr) are demeaning and insulting ethnic impersonations - and the moral low points of May's writing.
Walton's set - fragments of rooms with slanting walls - seems to comment on the play, but what does it say? Alan Arkin's direction seeks to conceal the emptiness, the datedness of the material.
As recently as 1994, when she did "Power Plays," May offered brilliant and unsettling material, set mainly in the Manhattan world of the paranoid and graced with her mad logic.
This "Taller Than a Dwarf" seems like a sitcom version of Queens, but a sitcom that's singularly unfunny, smug and superior.
Give us a real writer of Queens lunacy like John Guare.
The first uh-oh in ''Taller Than a Dwarf,'' a disastrous new comedy by Elaine May, comes in Matthew Broderick's very first speech. Popping up from beneath the rumpled bedclothes in an untidy brownstone apartment, cute with sleep, he addresses the audience in his high-pitched, winningly earnest manner.
''I'm Howard Miller,'' he says. ''I'm an urban, Jewish, almost generic white male from Queens. I graduated from City College. I have no special talents. I'm not really happy. I'm very much like you.''
The last line is the laugh, not a great line but not a bad one, establishing a we're-in-this-together bond with the audience as well as the discomforting sourpuss humor that Ms. May is known for. But then after a pause comes the unnecessary, unwanted, just-in-case-you-didn't-get-it addendum: ''Unless, of course, you're happy.''
Given the comic credentials of the people involved here -- the play, which opened last night at the Longacre Theater on Broadway, was directed by Alan Arkin -- it is a stunningly tin-eared moment. And it is, alas, no anomaly, but a harbinger of gag-based scenes, dialogue that seems to have been written with a laugh track to be inserted later and characters whose motivations for saying and doing anything are either trivial, contrived or entirely obscure until it's too late to care.
The play tells the story of the day Howard's midlife crisis comes home to roost, but that it is an ensemble farce isn't evident until it is half over. In an extended slapstick sequence that doesn't build so much as erupt, Howard's wife, Selma (Parker Posey), ends up gnawing on the leg of the building superintendent (Micheal McShane) as Howard's boss (Sam Groom) looks on in horror and his mother (Joyce Van Patten) and father (Jerry Adler) help dump the poor man into the bathtub, whereupon he plunges through the floor. It could have been riotously juicy. But as it is it comes so out of nowhere that it feels like intermission.
What has happened up to that point is that Howard has gotten up late for work and has been faced with the irritating home delays that have been bedeviling sitcom characters for decades. Selma turns on the kitchen sink so the shower turns suddenly scalding; the shower nozzle comes off in his hand so he can't turn it off. There's some snippiness over their dwindling finances. He finally goes out but has forgotten his lunch. The boy from down the hall comes by for Howard to help him cross Queens Boulevard. And the landlady drops in for a warning that their leaking shower is eroding the ceiling of the apartment below. Foreshadowing!
Finally, when Howard manages to leave the house again, he drops his lunch on the sidewalk and is accosted by a policeman who attempts to elicit a bribe rather than fine him for littering. Howard, absurdly, doesn't get it -- it's a painfully unfunny scene -- but the episode is nonetheless his breaking point and he retreats into the house and takes to his bed.
This is his I'm-not-going-to-take-it-anymore mode, and when everyone he knows arrives to see him -- they're worried except for his boss, who has some paperwork for him to complete, and the super, who is angry because Howard has insulted his wife -- he refuses all ministrations and quits his job.
And so the apple cart of everydayness is upset. Chaos ensues and when the bodies are untangled, Howard's feckless rebellion is construed by everyone else as backbone, sending his wife, in particular, into sensual ecstasy.
''It's so thrilling to be married to someone you don't really know,'' she says, far and away the play's most pungent line and really the first clear evidence that these characters are tethered to a narrative design.
Ms. May's intention here seems to be to suggest that midlife angst, the sense that the rest of one's life will be an endless procession of the same old stuff, is itself an age-old story. She's sympathizing with Howard but mocking him, too. The ordinary chaos in the Miller home -- not to mention their outer borough brand of low-income frustrations -- suggests no one so much as Ralph and Alice Kramden. And lest we tend to view Howard as special, the super and his wife (Cynthia Darlow), Howard's mother-in-law (Marcia Jean Kurtz) and the policeman (Greg Stuhr) all get the chance to address the audience on behalf of their own unfulfilled ambitions.
''I know this play isn't about us,'' the super says. ''But I just want you to understand. We had dreams, too.''
At the same time, the playwright has made an attempt to locate her everypeople in today's world. The boy down the hall is black (played, at the performance I saw, by a very cute and composed child named Dajon Matthews), which allows for some asides delivered in homeboy lingo and rap verse but which is otherwise a pointless role. The radio blares occasional news bulletins about trivial lawsuits and Internet millionaires, which are meant to lay groundwork for the anything-goes-as-long-as-I-get-mine morality that the play ends up, more halfheartedly than it means to, taking a poke at. And it's hard to miss the reference to Amadou Diallo when the cop asks Howard for his wallet.
So the mundaneness of it all might be purposeful, but the flatness couldn't be, could it? The script escorts the action in the most perplexingly toneless dialogue to be heard on Broadway in some time:
SELMA: Oh, great.
HOWARD: What is it?
SELMA: You didn't pay the Visa bill.
HOWARD: Are you joking?
SELMA: I gave you that bill three weeks ago and you swore you'd pay it.
HOWARD: I did pay it. I know I did. Besides, you never gave me any bill.
The failure of such a passage, quite aside from the lameness of the joke, is that it leaves the audience without a clue as to what distinguishes the people involved. The lines, and they are representative, are illustrative of the pasted-together gag sensibility that cripples the play's opening scenes.
It's a little hard to fathom from a writer whose comedy skits with Mike Nichols and whose screenplays for films like ''The Heartbreak Kid'' were so rooted in the neurotically misshapen psyches of her characters, but Ms. May doesn't seem to know Howard and Selma (or any of the others) very well. Not, at least, until she proves them all crazy by having them behave so. As a result, she has left her longtime colleague Mr. Arkin flailing for ideas and some very fine actors digging pretty deeply into their well-worn bags of tricks.
Without the stage experience of her colleagues, Ms. Posey, the star of many independent films, is the biggest casualty. Selma, as written, is an opaque character, but Ms. Posey, by turns coy, exasperated and shrill, seems lost almost to the point of panic in her search for a thorough idea.
Mr. Broderick soldiers through the opening scenes with bravely controlled energy and finally gets his laughs in mid-breakdown; he does a lovely, ridiculous turn with a singing hand puppet and when he returns to sanity, he does convey an amusing sense of being legitimately appalled at what he has wrought. Ms. Van Patten is so over the top in her version of the Jewish mother from hell -- watch her try to wrestle Howard's arm into his bathrobe -- that you can't help admiring her wholehearted service to a play that doesn't pay her back. Mr. Adler, as the befuddled dad and husband, employs his great rubbery face in expressions of helplessness that have been funny forever.
There is also a daunting set by Tony Walton, which seems both overly staunch and overly soaring but does suggest from the start, by virtue of its skewed interior planes and a framework for the building that is broken away as if in ruins, that the world of the Millers is dangerously close to collapse. If only these walls could talk.
Veteran humorist Elaine May, a longshot candidate, has snuck in under the wire to claim the hotly contested prize for worst new play of the Broadway season with "Taller Than a Dwarf." This urban-angst comedy's sheer unpleasantness dwarfs the drawbacks of such viable candidates as "Epic Proportions," "Voices in the Dark" and "Wrong Mountain." (Contenders for best new play of the season are rather fewer.) The production is a very sorry vehicle indeed for the Broadway debut of the sly, charming indie film star Parker Posey, not to mention the usually delightful Matthew Broderick, whose admirable allegiance to the stage is cruelly abused here.
Broderick plays Howard Miller, a Queens everyman who turns a morning of mishaps into a protest against the tyranny of middle-class drudgery. Trouble begins when Howard wakes up late and the shower handle pops off in his hand, leaving the hot water running.
He dithers for a while about a solution, fearing to call the super because he lives in craven fear of possible recrimination. He dithers a little longer about being late for work, and dithers some more about not having time to walk the little black kid from upstairs across the street to school.
Still dithering, he urges his wife Selma (Posey) to make an excuse to the boss at his market research firm, and to go buy a wrench and fix the shower --- a ludicrous suggestion. (And by the way, when was the last time you met a thirtysomething couple named Selma and Howard?) Racing off to work after more assorted dithering, Howard promptly spills his lunch in front of a cop. Now dithering to beat the band, Howard talks himself into a big ticket for littering.
At this point the hapless fellow slithers homeward once again, in anger and frustration, where he decides to retreat to the comfortable irresponsibility of bed. Howard spends the rest of the play protesting the daily grind by playing jigsaw puzzles and singing an odd assortment of tunes from the some strange inner hit parade, while his family urges him to get up and go to work.
Eventually --- oh so very eventually --- a violent confrontation with the slovenly super ensues, at which point Howard's family stops railing at him for not getting out of bed and switches instantly, and preposterously, to lionizing him as a hero of the working class, a man who's inspired them all by assaulting and insulting his superintendent.
As perhaps has been established, May has written a play about a dithering idiot, and why she thinks we'll chortle and cheer sympathetically at such an irritating dimwit's rebellion against the workaday world is anyone's guess. A poor relative of Neil Simon's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" (hardly that playwright's finest hour!), the play's implausibilities and lapses in logic are too many to enumerate. Its dialogue is alternately aimless and inane, the jokes tired or crude, the slapstick strained and graceless. The whole play is so labored and awkward you begin to think the actors are making it up as they go along.
Broderick's vaunted adorableness fails him here. Probably nobody could make the craven Howard appealing, but Broderick adds to his grating nature by affecting a variation on the coy, boyish and artificial voice he used far more appealingly in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
Posey, who made a bewitching stage debut in a Los Angeles production of John Patrick Shanley's "Four Dogs and a Bone," is miserably miscast and misdirected by Alan Arkin. As Howard's overbearing, stereotypical Jewish mother, Joyce Van Patten is overbearing and stereotypically Jewish, while Jerry Adler walks through his role as Howard's henpecked dad looking vaguely nauseated --- and who can blame him?
Purporting to be a comic plea for the forgotten man of the urban middle class, the play is in fact an insult to him. The title derives from Howard's contention that to be grateful for one's small slice of the economic pie is like taking pleasure in being "taller than a dwarf." May seems to share the sneering and patronizing attitude now abroad in the land that suggests that everyone who's not a potential dot-com millionaire or CFO of a Fortune 500 company is a miserable, bitter loser. (The same snide tone marks those tasteless TV ads in which little kids stare mournfully at the camera and say things like, "When I grow up I wanna have a brown nose.")
In any case, a plea for the common man rings rather hollow coming from May, who is noted for being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop to rewrite Hollywood movies. And indeed her distance from the milieu she's trying to evoke is apparent throughout the play, perhaps most glaringly when Howard's boss himself comes rushing over from Manhattan to bring him some work when he calls in sick. As if.
The play's nasty coup de grace is a happy ending that suggests Howard and Selma will find happiness--- i.e. big money --- through litigation. Fade out on the couple in a clinch, visions of lawsuits swimming in their greedy heads. In fact, it's Parker Posey and Matthew Broderick who may have grounds for legal action --- they should sue for reckless endangerment of their careers.