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Theater review: 'Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas' at Geffen Playhouse

September 17, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Matthew modine1

When it comes to comedy, the only rule that counts is whatever works. Yet after seeing “Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas,” the jejune meta-farce starring Modine as a fictionalized version of himself, I’d like to propose a few guidelines for playwrights and those who care about their careers.

First, it’s never a good idea to include in your title a mammal that most audience members can relate to only as a blanket or throw. Second, you should avoid giving any stage time to these grazing creatures, as they tend to lower the general level, especially when portrayed by shaggy puppets with dopey expressions. Third and finally, unless you can justify putting a laugh track on the Discovery Channel, you better not attempt to wring guffaws from mating scenes — and I don’t care how spryly adorable you think their congress may be.

To his own detriment, Blair Singer, a journeyman dramatist and TV writer, violates each of these tenets. And though his play — which had its world premiere Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse under the direction of John Rando — wouldn’t work even if he hadn’t, the resulting fiasco is of a far more grandiose order.

Matthew Modine2 How bad are we talking? Well, the old saying that “dying is easy, comedy is hard” seemed to pertain as much to theatergoers eking out stray giggles from their seats as those poor performers saddled with this bomb material onstage.

More’s the pity for Modine, who plays a washed-up Hollywood caricature named Matthew Modine who sleeps in a Winnebago and subsists on junk food, bong hits and memories of his ’80s glory. What must have seemed like a self-parodying lark ought to result in some white-knuckle meetings with his current management team.

OK, sometimes blind hope gets the better of all of us, but was there no one at the Geffen (including Rando, a Tony winner for “Urinetown: The Musical”) capable of making an objective assessment of a script that should have gone no further than a benefit reading with a carefully planned guest list? Did the game involvement of Modine — a stage and film actor, so terrific in “Married to the Mob” and “Full Metal Jacket” and still impossibly boyish after all these years — short-circuit everyone’s critical faculties?

Modine isn’t the only victim here. Peri Gilpin (familiar to many as Roz on “Frasier,” a series that will live eternally in rerun heaven) plays Whimberly North, a glamorous shark-like publicist Botoxed to the nines, whose much coveted expertise is in rescuing stars from their shameful (and typically self-inflicted) crises, the most heinous of which, of course, is Hollywood oblivion.

Gilpin’s character is a flimsy knockoff of the actor-devouring agent that Julie White won a Tony for portraying in Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed,” a role that White reprised in Los Angeles at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Unfortunately, the only thing Whimberly has over her theatrical predecessor is her wardrobe (kudos to costume designer Robert Blackman for making Gilpin look so fabulous). Suffice it to say that the flamboyant flourishes of this A-list flack seem strained, and the wit Singer inflicts on her, instead of being smutty in a satirically revealing way, is often just plain crass.

French Stewart (an L.A. stage stalwart and “3rd Rock From the Sun” alum) gives it his farcical all as Whimberly’s gay assistant, Jeffrey, the sassy in-house genius who comes up with the idea of having Matthew salvage his nearly extinguished fame by rescuing the dying alpacas on Mt. Chimborazo in the Andes (a foreign relations strategy that has apparently replaced adopting African babies as a cynical public relations ploy). Stewart knows how to get a rise from the audience, but the hernia-inducing strenuousness of his effort is apparent, especially when he assumes his other role of Pierre du Perrier Jouet, a French U.N. official with a love of Champagne and a total disregard for English pronunciation.

By the time Pierre enters the madcap escapade, Singer’s galumphing story has reached South America, and we’ve moved from a silly entertainment industry lampoon to a sketch comedy bungle for the theatrical record books. And not even set designer Beowulf Boritt’s playfully stagy backgrounds or the presence of exotic animal puppets can coax us into overlooking the obvious ineptitude.  

Edward Padilla, Mark Damon Espinoza and Reggie De Leon try against all odds to preserve a scrap of honor in their “Gilligan's Island”-like sketches of Chimborazo brothers (no luck, I’m afraid). But at least they’re spared the indignities of Mark Fite, the cast member left stranded by two of Singer’s most ham-fisted scenes, the first requiring him to personify Matthew’s conscience, the other setting him up to impersonate Charlie Rose.

A veteran of loony comedy, Rando keeps revving up the high jinks, but this backfiring spoof cries out for a cease-and-desist order. Maybe Modine’s lawyer can make a few well-placed calls.

-- Charles McNulty

"Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Ave., Westwood.
 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 18.
$45 to $75. (310) 208-5454. Running time: 2 hours.

Photos: Top: Matthew Modine. Bottom: Peri Gilpin and Modine. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times

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