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Theatre in Review: Just Another Day (Theatre 555)

Dan Lauria, Patty McCormack. Photo: Russ Rowland

"Did I sleep with you last night?" This question, posed by Dan Lauria to Patty McCormack in the first few minutes of Just Another Day, is the first hint that something is off with the characters known only as Man and Woman. He is genuinely confused; she is mortally offended but, in truth, doesn't know the answer. For that matter, this apparent conversation between strangers may be a repeat performance: As we quickly learn, they live in an institution where they are made to meet, daily, on a park bench, trying to figure out if they share a connection.

It's the peculiar premise of Just Another Day that Man and Woman suffer from a form of dementia that leaves them simultaneously cloudy and articulate. Indeed, she is a walking version of the Oxford English Dictionary. "This blatant, misguided braggadocio of yours is just gutter depravity. Your mind is obviously at the noisome depth -- of a sewage system," she says. She follows that up with: "What do you expect with this vile and demeaning, gasconade of yours?" And, delivering the coup de grĂ¢ce, she announces, "Your obsequious prolixity in trying to obliterate your original intent has nettled me with vile, disgusting, and unfounded, sexual innuendo." Woman may not know her name, but you wouldn't want to challenge her to a round of Scrabble.

Even odder, both characters retain enough knowledge of vintage Hollywood movies to serve as stand-ins for Ben Mankiewicz and Alicia Malone on TCM. Among other things, they can give us chapter and verse on the character actor Abner Biberman, praising his performance as a thuggee in George Stevens' Gunga Din (1939). And because Woman was, apparently, a comedy writer in a past life, they re-enact one of her favorite routines, featuring Vito, God's Special Effects Man. (Vito wants you to know that the Big Bang was his idea: "God was taking a nap by the pool. I snuck up behind and yelled BANG! God jumped! THERE was the Universe.") As you can tell, it's quite a hodgepodge unfolding on the stage of Theatre 555. As Woman says, "We're riding an undulant wave through a maze of delusions." I'll second that.

Does it matter that Vito is a poor cousin to Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's 2,000-Year-Old Man? Or that Lauria (who wrote the script) lifts a gag from Waiting for Godot having Woman wonder if the man was once a critic, wounding him to the quick? Many of the jokes in Just Another Day are older than the septuagenarians onstage: Responding to an insult, the man announces, "I am not a Neanderthal, I was born In Brooklyn." When a certain historical artifact is mentioned, he replies, "Rosetta Stone? I don't believe I knew her." And then there's the competition to create pornographic film titles: I Gave at the Office, Come Blow My Horn, My Bare Lady.

Indeed, Just Another Day is bent on giving us the lighter side of Alzheimer's, served with a few tears on the side; think David Storey's Home reframed as a sitcom pilot. According to a note in the script, Lauria wants to spread awareness of the affliction, but all his script does is misrepresent it, ignoring how, in real life, it leaves elderly people frightened, incontinent, incapable of communication, and in need of constant care. I never thought I'd write this, but, in comparison, the treatment of Maryann Plunkett's character in Broadway's The Notebook look like a clinical case history in The Lancet.

I suppose Lauria created this artificial situation to give the audience a route into understanding what it is like to become unmoored from one's memories. (Among other things, Man and Woman are watched by some sort of offstage minder who, whenever they touch, rings a bell, forcing them to separate.) Maybe better jokes would help -- but, to achieve the poignancy he aims for, he would need to render his characters' conditions with much more honesty and much less shtick.

Lauria has charmed us many times, as the title character of Lombardi, for example, and as the narrator in the musical version of A Christmas Story. McCormack, a child star turned beloved pro, is a pleasure to have around under any circumstances. In 2021, both were part of the delightful ensemble featured in an Off-Broadway revival of Morning's at Seven. To be sure, they manage quick flashes of poignancy here, when the characters refer, fruitlessly, to books that detail their lives, or when McCormack, looking diminished, in a wheelchair, recalls (or fantasizes) having been a band singer. But Lauria has put them in an impossible position -- skillful as they are, they can't make a play out of stray thoughts and wheezy gags -- and Eric Krebs' direction can't invent drama where none exists.

Other accouterments include an uncredited scenic and projection design (featuring stills of classic Hollywood films) and a song, by Graham Russell of Air Supply, which is performed at the top of each act. Costume designer Bettina Bierly dresses the stars attractively. The lighting, by Joan Racho-Jansen, could do more to suggest the difference between day and night.

It's a little early in the year for Just Another Day, the sort of star vehicle aimed at a specific demographic -- in this case, golden-agers -- which usually appears during the summer dog days. Even compared to such attractions, it left me bemused. Or, as Woman says, "I'm depleted of words, for the first time in my life. As if my lexical treasury had been looted." I know just how she feels. --David Barbour

(13 May 2024)

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