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Review: 'Setup & Punch' at Second Stage Theatre

May 20, 2009 |  5:30 pm

Setup-and-Punch Freud said it all comes down to love and work, but didn’t mention what to do when the two collide head-on. That’s the premise of Mark Saltzman’s droll new comedy, “Setup & Punch” — double entendre intended. Featuring four songs by the Knack’s Berton Averre and keyboardist Rob Meurer, the Blank Theatre Co.’s deft three-hander is a kind of “Will and Grace” meets “The Bad and the Beautiful.”

Performed on a near-bare stage, “Setup” follows the epistolary rapprochement of an estranged songwriting team. The back story: Brian (Andrew Leeds) and Vanya (Hedy Burress) meet at Cornell in a comic zone somewhere between Noel Coward and Encyclopedia Brown. He’s closeted, she likes unavailable men, and that tension fuels a spirited creative partnership. But things get tricky when they’re hired to collaborate with indie rocker Jan (P.J. Griffith), who has an insidious way of exposing ids.

Emmy-winner Saltzman, who wrote the screenplay for the cult favorite “The Adventures of Milo and Otis,” understands the dynamics of the buddy genre, and the evening is at its best in the moment-by-moment badinage between Brian and Vanya. Like well-matched tennis players, they volley ideas with fleet wit. Under Daniel Henning’s punchy direction, Leeds and Burress find every nuance in Saltzman’s jokes; with her mobile face, Burress seems born for screwball. Griffith plays well off the duo’s repression, particularly in a subway scene where Jan undresses Brian for a party.

The show’s few songs haven’t quite found an integral relationship to the script, and the music misses the chance to push the play into something richer and more expressive. The best number follows the saga of two musical theater lovers too shy to hook up, satirizing Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim along the way.  (I wanted to hear a cut from the team’s oft-referenced hit show, “Fairy Tale Court.”)

The last third of the play loses its focus, and you wish Saltzman could find a less L.A.-plot turn than a pitch at HBO. The material, clearly autobiographical, might need to move one more step away from its real-life inspiration.  Still, “Setup” makes the point that joy can be person-specific. Painfully so. That source of delight may leave your life, but the longing for what he or she brings out in you never does.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

Setup & Punch” Second Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.  8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. $22-$28. (323) 661-9827. Running time: 90 minutes.

Photo: From left: P.J. Griffith, Hedy Burress and Andrew Leeds. Credit: Mark Saltzman