Wednesday, June 19, 2019

31 (2019-2020): Review: DROPPING GUMBALLS ON LUKE WILSON (seen June 18, 2019)

“Cloudy with a Chance of Gumballs”

When it comes to movie titles that include the names of famous, still working actors, I can think only of Being John Malkovich. I can’t, however, come up with a play that does so (can you?) other than Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, by Rob Ackerman, which just opened at Off Broadway’s A.R.T. /New York Theatres in a Working Theatre production. (Note: a day after posting this I spotted the title of a new novel by Kerry Winfrey, Waiting for Tom Hanks.)
Jonathan Sale (below), Dean Nolen, George Hampe. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Wilson (Bottle Rocket, Legally Blonde, The Royal Tenenbaums) himself doesn’t appear in it but a striking facsimile does in the person of Jonathan Sale (a slender actor stuffed just enough to suggest Wilson’s having recently packed on a few because of the generous catering provisions available).

The play itself is a slim, 75-minute, semi-absurdist, oddball farce inspired by events surrounding the making of an AT&T smartphone commercial in 2010. The commercial, seen here, was one of a series, and not only starred Wilson but was directed by famed documentarian Errol Morris (David Wohl). 
Dean Nolen, George Hampe. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Its intention is to satirize what happens when Morris’s (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) eccentric directorial demands clash with the requirements of corporate advertising. It offers some insights into the behind-the-cameras operations of commercial-making and also comments on whether or not celebrities doing commercials is somehow beneath them. Woody Allen, it’s noted, did his in Japan as a way of avoiding scrutiny at home. 

While the play is sometimes cute, sometimes quirky, sometimes funny, and more times not, it remains consistently watchable thanks to the cleverly humorous direction of Theresa Rebeck, better known as a respected, prolific playwright (with four Broadway plays to her credit). Rebeck is wise enough to know that, despite the silliness of the circumstances, the best way to present them is to keep a straight face and take things seriously. Under her command, the actors know just when to overplay (rarely) and when to underplay; keeping their touch light, for the most part, they manage to keep all those gumballs in the air.

Ah, yes. Those gumballs. The play says that 500 of them (which seems low when you view the actual commercial)—representing the red dots on AT&T rival Verizon’s connectivity map—had to be dropped from above on Wilson as he said his lines. They began slowly and then turned into a torrent that he calmly stemmed by popping open an umbrella. (Some sources say they were marbles.) 
Reyna de Courcy, Jonathan Sale (below), George Hampe. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In the play, those responsible for pouring the gumballs are a middle-aged special effects man, Ken (Dean Nolen), and his young, fast-talking, insecure yet dedicated assistant, Rob (George Hampe). The latter is based on the playwright, himself a professional prop master. 

Also involved are Jenny (Reyna de Courcy), the young, enthusiastic, entry-level props person, awed to be working with Wilson and Morris, and Alice (Ann Harada, Cinderella), the ambitious, seriously professional, first assistant director. (Harada also appears in a flashback as an Australian director.)

Conflicts begin to arise during repeat takes of the commercial when Rob’s insecurity is triggered by his having been praised for a good job on the first take. This leads to subsequent screwups, which cause Wilson to be struck by a gumball, an effect Morris finds so interesting he insists that many more gumballs be dropped directly on the actor’s head, despite the pain Wilson’s already experienced.
Jonathan Sale, Reyna de Courcy, George Hampe, Ann Harada, David Wohl. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
 Soon we’re in a tangle of power dynamics in the workplace chain of command, the props and effects people, the actor, the party responsible for the actor’s safety, and the egotistic director, who insists he’s the smartest one in the room. Meanwhile, the situation sparks a number of reactions, including a sharp diatribe by Rob against the effects of corporate greed. There's also one from Jenny, citing feminist issues, including this blast.

Because women read more and write more and care more and work harder and do better at almost everything, so we need to be heard-- in the workplace and in the halls of power and the hallways of schools-- ’cause we are so fucking sick of bloated old white men telling us what’s right and what’s true in the world.

These outbursts may have serious goals but they deflect from the play's comedic style and implicit purposes by drawing attention to their polemics.

As things heat up, Morris remains preternaturally cool, enjoying his ability to make demands no matter whose heads roll for insisting otherwise. His readiness to defy union rules borders on the chilling. Wohl (Golden Boy, Fiddler on the Roof), often delivering Morris’s thoughts via a handheld mike, carries it all off with memorable assurance.
Dean Nolen, Reyna de Courcy, George Hampe, Ann Harada. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Christopher Swader and Justin Swader’s impressive-looking set, spread across a wide expanse of A.R.T.’s Mezzanine Theatre, with the audience facing it on several rows of bleacher seats, represents a greenscreen space in a Brooklyn Navy Yard film studio. Director chairs sit amid the lighting equipment, reflectors, and cables. Eventually, red gumballs litter the stage, forcing the actors to walk around and on them, crushing any in their path. (Impossible if they were marbles, of course.)

Mary Ellen Stebbins’s lighting is fine, Yana Biryukova’s video design fits perfectly, Tricia Barsamian’s costumes are all appropriate, and Bart Fasbender's sound design excellent.

Even with the occasional shifts from comic realism to more surrealistic moments, the basic situation begins to seem like an overextended sketch. Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson is a dramatized anecdote that doesn’t really offer that much to chew on but, like a gumball, tastes good while it lasts.

A.R.T./New York Theatres/Mezzanine Theatre
502 W. 53rd St., NYC
Through July 6