Mike Reiss has won four Emmys as a writer/producer for "The Simpsons."
One of those trophies is currently stuck up the posterior of a disgruntled television comedy writer named Alvin in Reiss' latest stage lark "I Hate Musicals: The Musical."
The show — really more of a play with music, but what kind of crummy title would that get you? — is having its world premiere through Oct. 15 at the Ivoryton Playhouse.
This is Reiss' third show at Ivoryton, and judging from the joke-filled curtain speech he gave on opening night, he's very comfortable on this stage. A bit too comfortable, in terms of sensing whether a script might need a bit more work. He seems happy to just lob jokes around this small, bright theater. It's up to director James Valletti and a hard-working six-person cast to string all the disparate bits into coherent full-length entertainment.
"I Hate Musicals: The Musical" seems depressing on the face of it. Alvin is a divorced, washed-up veteran of classic sitcoms who somehow never won an Emmy and now barely subsists as a New York playwright who's never won a Tony. ("A Tony," Alvin's agent opines, "is just an Emmy for old people — it's an Emmy on Lipitor.")
Act One of "I Hate Musicals" finds Alvin in Los Angeles, on the verge of getting back in the sitcom game, thanks to a network executive who needs to hire someone over 50 to diffuse a pending discrimination lawsuit. Just after he's pitched his bold new idea, a new series called "My Brother the Pope," there's an earthquake. Alvin is pinned under a pile of concrete (and punctured by that sharp-winged Emmy) for the rest of the show. His life flashes before his eyes.
Or maybe it's Rodney Dangerfield's life that he's reliving by mistake. The play becomes a long series of one-liners about disrespect and defensive anger. Alvin rails against the TV industry, agents, marriage, the West Coast, New York, Florida and everywhere in between.
"It was a nasty break-up."
"No, I never bit her. Why would you ask that?"
Most of the topics of his jokes are popular targets of abuse, but Reiss is out to slaughter sacred cows as well, even if they have nothing to do with what's going on in his show at the time. The show's title provides justification for some pokes at Broadway. A Sondheim medley is suggested, but "we can't —he only had two hits."
"Hamilton" is described as something New Yorkers have to see — "it's the law" — then mocked with such an insipid rap that it makes the original look that much mightier.
Most of the music in "I Hate Musicals: The Musical" consists of song parodies. Only a few of these are based on showtunes, though "I'm Flying" from "Peter Pan" does appear, as "I'm Dying." Most of the numbers are reworked pop hits, from Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" to the Village People's "YMCA." Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." is strangely played straight, without parody.
"I Hate Musicals" has a stated distaste for musicals, but it's also not crazy about plot development, continuity or consistent characters. Mike Reiss also dislikes movement. For most of the second act, Alvin is trapped in that rubble. Other characters flit in and out, but the hero is mostly restricted to immobile monologues and phone calls. Keyboardist Michael Morris is there to provide musical accompaniment.
As the beleaguered, Emmy-gouged Alvin, Stephen Wallem must find the throughline between all the random punchlines and a credible depressive character. He works strenuously to sell this material and succeeds despite all the obstacles. The ubiquitous Connecticut comic actor R. Bruce Connelly (whose relationship with the Ivoryton Playhouse goes back decades) nails the most consistently written character in the show, that of Alvin's old, old-school agent.
A four-person ensemble handles all the other roles. The limber dancer Sam Given, in pasted-on facial hair, plays a security guard as well as Sigmund Freud. Amanda Huxtable plays Alvin's unfaithful wife as well as his mother and the Virgin Mary. Ryan Knowles, the slender, deep-voiced actor who was so memorable as Buddy in the national tour of the Queen musical "We Will Rock You" at the Shubert in New Haven in 2014, makes a strong impression as a prissy "Yale professor of Theater History," not to mention as Satan. Will Clark (a Connecticut-raised actor who works with the Cry Havoc Theater Company in L.A.) is the most laid-back of all of them, offering rare moments of calm and nuance amid the vaudevillian frenzy.
Like an L.A. earthquake, "I Hate Musicals: The Musical" just keeps rumbling until it's done. Some of that rumble happily comes from eruptions of laughter. Some comes from too-long routines grinding slowly to a halt — do we really need a long explanation on The Professor's travails on "Gilligan's Island"?
If you hold on long enough, you'll find many mirthful nuggets to sustain you. But even at 90 minutes with no intermission, "I Hate Musicals: The Musical" can also be an endurance test.
I HATE MUSICALS: THE MUSICAL — by Michael L. Reiss with original musical composed by Walter Murphy, directed by James Valletti — continues through Oct. 15 at the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton (a village in Essex). Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $17 to $50. 860-767-7318, ivorytonplayhouse.org.