You can't help wishing that "Meteor Shower" was a meatier show.
That may be a funny thing to say about a starlit light comedy in which both inner feelings and internal organs are openly on display. But there's opportunity for brilliance here, and lightning simply doesn't strike often enough — though those titular meteorites certainly do.
"Meteor Shower," which is at the Long Wharf Theatre through Oct. 23, throws a lot at you: dinner-party repartee, marital issues, adultery, skewed time frames, shifting attitudes and celestial objects. The jokes hit hard. Anything subtler floats away into the ether.
Steve Martin has concocted a relationship comedy in which the comedy matters more than the relationships. Some of the jokes are so well set-up, so finely honed, that they stop whatever else is happening on stage in its tracks. Interestingly, in the show's structural framework, Martin is already toying with the concept of restarting the play continually from different perspectives and starting points. But "Meteor Shower" resets itself in ways the playwright may not have intended.
Details change, but generally speaking the play is about Corky (perky Arden Myrin) and Norm (neurotic Patrick Breen), a couple who are constantly working on their communication skills. Their guests for an evening of skygazing, Gerald (smirky Josh Stamberg) and Laura (slinky Sophina Brown), are the id to Norm's and Corky's superego. The visiting pair's unrestrained malevolent manner threatens to undermine their hosts' tenuously happy existence.
Dinner parties have been a natural setting for stage comedies for eons, and some of the banter in "Meteor Shower" merits comparison with such great works as "Blithe Spirit," "Dear Brutus," or even darker fare like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." A wine-fueled, get-to-know-each-other gathering is fertile ground for a story ostensibly about the insecurities, expectations and uncertainties felt by married couples. Yet the ground keeps shifting — literally, due to Michael Yeargan's revolving turntable of a living room/backyard set, but also because of Martin's inability to nail down his main themes. He saves his big statement for the play's very end, where it acts more like a punchline than a revelation.
Martin does not appear in "Meteor Shower," but the play has trouble standing on its own without him. Not only has his face has been prominent in all the "Meteor Shower" advertisements, but many of the lines in the play are not only written but delivered in the dry, declaratory style that Martin perfected in his 1980s stand-up routines and still uses when presenting at awards shows. This wasn't the case with his previous plays, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" and "The Underpants," both of which have been staged at the Long Wharf Theatre in recent years. Those shows, and this new one, were all directed by Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, who has a clear affinity for Martin's physical and verbal rhythms.
"Meteor Shower" is a co-production with the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, which presented the show in August/September. An entirely different cast initially was announced for the Long Wharf run, though when Craig Bierko left the production while it was already doing preview performances in New Haven, Stamberg from the San Diego cast was re-enlisted.
The staging is direct and propulsive. Even when they are in humbled postures, the actors behave with full-bodied, wide-open-eyed alertness. Stamberg has a mad swagger, setting the physical pace for his castmates. Myrin, in particular, can add extra laughs just by arching her eyebrows and going "Hmmm."
But this starry-eyed show has more on its mind than snappy comebacks. There's something profound struggling to get out from under all this meteoric mirth, but when all the dust has settled we're still left in the dark.
METEOR SHOWER by Steve Martin, directed by Gordon Edelstein, is at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through Oct. 23. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. There is a Wednesday matinee Oct. 19. Tickets are $34.50-$89.50. 203-787-4282, longwharf.org.