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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

Comments () | Archives (26)

I think that anybody within 5 blocks of the Geffen Playhouse last night could have heard the booming laughter. While this show may not be an important piece of theater, it certainly is a good time which is more than most can say about the shows that McNulty has more positively reviewed.

Charles McNulty seems overly harsh in his criticizm of this piece. He sounds like a jaded and bitter old man with absolutely no sense of humor. He needs to lighten up and maybe enjoy himself once in a while.

I think the Geffen should send apology letters to their dwindling subscribers.

I find it odd that there is no mention of the audience's reaction in McNulty's analysis. Who, after all, is the play – and, ostensibly, this review – intended for if not the theatergoing public? I don't know if journalists read these comments, but I would be very interested in his honest assessment of the audience's reaction. It seems like readers ought to know if this play is more likely to lead to a night full of light laughter rather than the groaning misery that this review would lead one to believe. I, for one, sometimes seek out heady life-affirming shows...but sometimes all I really want is a fun night out without adding any more burdens to my already addled psyche. It really would be helpful if this reviewer gave me enough information to make a decision about the raw entertainment value of this show and not just its weight or relative "importance". Put simply: Did the audience enjoy the play? Is this really too much to ask of a professional journalist?

Gil Cates, long considered the luckiest guy in the entertainment business for his uncanny ability to glum onto high paying gigs (like "Super Duper Managing Creative Producing Director" at the Geffen) scores another big stinky one with this travesty. It is interesting to note however that Los Angeles theatre will now compete with Broadway in the category of "Biggest Waste of Time in the Theatre With a Play That Has the Name of a Large Furry Animal", Llamas; Broadway's entry being "Moose Murders".

That negative review was preposterous. While there was some weakness, especially in Act 2, we laughed and laughed - and I don't laugh unless something is funny. The cast was sublime - notably Peri Gilpin, French Stewart, Mark Fite, Matthew Modine. I'm offended at the excessively vitriolic review, reminiscent of the old days of John Simon in New York Magazine. Clearly, McNulty didn't like the play, but a review should be balanced between personal bias and sense of fairness of what both the audience is experiencing and larger sense of the creator's vision. It wasn't his taste, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have merit. The play is meant to be silly. It's not meant to be Larry Gelbart-incisive. It's meant for a few laughs, and that it delivered.

Thanks you, Charles, for sharing your rules, guidelines and tenants for successful comedy. If I had read those rules ahead of time I suppose, like you, I would have had a miserable time. Instead I went to the show and, like most in attendance, I couldn't stop laughing. Sure, it was silly, but the performances, particularly those of Modine and French, were very funny. Spare your readers anymore excerpts from the McNulty Rule Book of Comedy. Next time you review a comedy, keep that tired old rule book at home.

Wow, this is one scathing review! Was Mr. McNulty expecting Shakespeare when he sat down to review this show? Just based on the title alone, it's pretty obvious this play was meant to be farcical, making fun of Hollywood and its neighboring zip codes. I took my mother (who had been in the business for more than 20 years) and we could not stop laughing. In fact, it sounded to me like all the other theater goers were laughing too. Yes, it was silly. It was SUPPOSED to be silly. Not everything is going to have a hidden message or a double meaning. Sometimes it's nice to be able to sit back and enjoy a show because it's funny. I guess Mr. McNulty is not a fan of funny - too bad for him.

Sadly, this was like seeing a high school production with high waulity sets. The acting was poor, the direction bad and the script awful. The audience barely chuckled - perhaps becasue the acrors forgot their lines or stepped all over one another's lines. This review was spot-on. Save your money and don't see this.

My husband and I loved it! It was smart, cleverly written and yes, silly, but very funny. Critics really do have the most useless job.

In a time when all we hear is bad news on television, a play with silly laughs is refreshing. I don't know what qualifications the LA Times critic has, but Mr McNulty did not see this play last night (Sat) or this afternoon (Sun) when I saw the play and laughed with the rest of the audience. (I loved the play so much last night, I took my Mom again this afternoon!)Is it literary genius? No, but its not trying to be. Message to the writer, Blair Singer, bring us more of this!

I enjoyed the show and had to come back to read this article again. The performances were excellent and the lines were great. Thank goodness I was able to get past the negative remarks in this review and make my own assessment.

If you're looking for a good, long laugh with exceptional actors and a great production, make sure you don't miss this show. One of the highlights at the Geffen and it makes LA Theater shine!!

Could'nt stop laughing about the play 30 mn later still in the car...
We were not prepared to have such A BALL!
This show is ... JOY !!!!!!
The one you thought would never happen any more...
Great writing , great acting ( could not believe the slow motion battle..)loved the big alpacas puppets, etc etc..

(I have pity for Mr Nulty,the reviewer...Hey, Cheer up,man!..Have fun and don;'t judge yourself! )

This is true -- the audience loved it.
And also true -- it was embarrassingly awful. If this had been written and staged 20 years ago, it still wouldn't have been funny, but might have had a touch of originality. But having cliched characters that acknowlege that they're cliched doesn't make them any smarter or funnier... it just gives the players an excuse to waste viewers time and money.

Well.. what can I say. I arrived late and was mad at my GF but I was soon in a better mood and enjoyed French Stewart in all his silliness. The play was not good or at best OK it was simply slapstick with knee jerk laughs. I liked a few of the acts and a few of the lines.. yet on the way home we didn’t speak of it. The next day.. no mention either... odd for a play I thought. When we went to Luis and Keely at the same house we talked about it for days. If you don’t know So Cal and you don’t follow every little detail of the Hollywood scene you will not like this play. It’s a mash of expired pop culture references and fart jokes for lack of a more simple way to explain it. The acting was SOOOO bad but it was intentionally bad. I thought a script like the one in this play could benefit from at least an attempt at acting. There was no emotion to be found, no passion, little real comedic timing from anyone except French Stewart. The supporting cast was just goofy and clumsy.

If it was not for the very clever and funny French Stewart this play would be a walk out. There was fun to be had but I would wait for the script to be scanned and pirated on emule before I purchased a ticket if I were you, or if I had a time machine. Geffen I want the lost hours of my life back for this.. I will be sending my bill.

Sunday night is always a tough one for Comedy. Sunday night these days is even tougher. But there was solid laughter for the last 60% of the show.

Yes, it started a little slow. Yes, it is sending up the local entertainment business. Yes, the actors were often caracaturing themselves. Yes there were a few "in" jokes that I didn't recognize (For example the reference to being an Agent of the CAA) because I'm not in the entertainment business. But it was FUNNY!

For the record, it's tough to get me to laugh at a play. I was laughing. It was very funny.

My date and I had only one complaint: The lines were delivered fast enough that sometimes the laughter drowned out the next funny line. And yes, there was a lot of laughter.

The reviewers, both professional and readers that panned it, should lighten up. This is not a show that will be run on Broadway and it won't persist into the next few decades as a theatric classic because there are too many contemporary references and jokes that are "now".

But that is part of the charm. I've seen so much theater over the last 15 years that takes its self so seriously and it trying to get you to "feel" some way about something that they all seem to blend together. Virtually none of them were "fun". This show isn't drama. This show was fun.

If you want a light evening with some good laughs at a show that is deliberately fun, you should go see it.

McNulty needs to lighten up - what were you expecting? It's called "Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas", it's ridiculous, and the cast had some ridiculous fun with it. And what's the comment about Modine playing a character named Modine? It's him, you half-wit!
This play is plenty funny, we saw it opening night and laughed ourselves silly.

What a treat. I haven't laughed this hard for some time.
This is a very funny comedy, well written and with wonderful actors not afraid of depicting a style of humor of the self-serving and egotistical world they portrayed.
If we could just get more persons to laugh and exercise selfdepricating humor, perhaps we would be better off as a society.
An additional treat was that we were able to talk to some of the actors afterwards, incl. Mr. Modine and Ms.Gilpin, and were able to express our gratitude in person.
Go see it, enjoy and laugh and, have a good time.
Gwenver Haas

Love the actors. But ouch. This was painful.

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