The night in 1993 that we meet Corky (Amy Schumer, in her Broadway debut) and Norm (Jeremy Shamos), owners of a pretty spiffing place in Ojai, California, 50 or 60 meteors are expected to streak across the night sky.
That is how Steve Martin’s comic play Meteor Shower gets its name, and the inky sky encircles the couple’s gorgeous, sleek home, ingeniously designed by Beowulf Boritt to reverse itself to become its own patio.
Their abode is perfect for parties, which is handy because at the beginning of the play the couple are planning for the arrival of Gerald (Keegan Michael-Key, in his Broadway debut) and Laura (Laura Benanti), who are coming over for drinks and to observe the light show.
“Life on this planet could have been generated by meteors striking the Earth,” Norm muses before their arrival. “The brightness of the sun overwhelms the dimness of the meteor. Like the way some personalities overwhelm the lesser lights.”
Well, we may be about to watch the same unfold domestically: The meteor shower Martin imagines certainly presages some heady behavior among the four humans. Corky and Norm have a strong marriage, but a scuffed one too. They are a lived-in couple, and jab at each other, but know enough about how tender marriage can be that they have had therapy, or something like therapy, to stop themselves from going too far.
Occasionally, they clasp hands and recite affirmative salves. It’s a technique they have clearly practiced many times. “I understand you probably did not know you hurt me,” Corky will say, and Norm will respond: “I’m sorry that I hurt you in this way. I hope that you understand that I did not intend to hurt you, and I will try to use that particular joking manner less often.”
The couple are comically immersed in the process of respecting each other, as opposed to naturally doing so. Schumer’s well-honed deadpan is perfectly suited to this pitch, and the multiple award-nominated Shamos is an excellent partner. The unhappiness beneath the platitudes is barely veiled.
Before the guests arrive, we know that Laura was a West Coast editor for Vogue and Gerald is tough on the tennis court. He also offers his take on something called the bug flux, where coastal and mountain bugs meet and chaotically mingle, just as they will at this party.
Key’s Gerald seems dominant and a little sociopathic, Benanti (a Tony-winning star, most recently famous for her Melania Trump impersonation) sleek and inscrutable, and they both seem like ravenous aliens when faced with Schumer’s Corky and Shamos’ Norm. The latter are quickly bamboozled at their guests’ grand statements (“I’m a guy with a vision of a wonderful night,” says Gerald) and alpha posturing.
Both couples seem absurd in very different ways, and the comedy of the play takes those absurdities to the extreme. If Corky and Norm have their therapy affirmations, Gerald and Laura have dramatic blow-ups that bloom as suddenly as they dissipate. “Shut your stupid face,” says Gerald. “Eat me,” says Laura. Gerald: “You wish.” Laura:“I sure do, cowboy.”
“Well, what an interesting exchange of ideas,” manages Corky after that eruption.
The intentions of the guests seem to be to seduce and confuse the hosts. The play becomes a game or test, but to what end we don’t know.
The structure of the play, confusingly and unnecessarily, shifts between unspecified time zones and perspectives, so we next see Gerald and Laura pre-party, he contemplating the composition of couples: “Good-looking guy, good-looking girl. Not so good-looking guy, not so good-looking girl. Not so good-looking rich guy, good looking not so bright girl. Not so bright rich guy, good-looking smart girl. Not so good-looking rich girl, macho latent-homosexual guy.”
This, like a lot else in the play, produces gentle laughs to balance out the more farcical ones when all the sexual coupling, and attempted sexual coupling, takes place. Director Jerry Zaks delights in his actors’ physical goofing: Schumer’s bunny-hops and Shamos’ straddling of Key are particularly memorable.
The play is a brisk, intermission-less 80 minutes, and its problem is that every character, if not unsavory, is not that likable. Do they feel imperiled? Not really. Do we care about their relationship faultiness? No. Both couples are playing games, and both know they are playing games, and we are in on the games.
The deeper potential emotional beats of the play—infidelity, mortality, the grind of coupledom—are diluted because everything is a jape. (Shamos’ Norm seems the most like-a-normal-person on stage and Shamos is a brilliant, emotionally elastic performer.)
Unmoored from traditional tensions, Meteor Shower quickly becomes a breezy charade, or game of laugh chess, where Key’s mugging is pitched against Schumer’s, and where their partners joust with them and each other for momentary supremacy. The conversation wheels madly around threesomes, cannibalism, and at some point everyone pairs off with someone. Gerald contemplates the power of Corky’s vagina, and Laura tries to seduce Norm.
Shamos has the pleasure of wearing the play’s most spectacular special effect, which will go unspoiled here (although the lounge chair with a burning hole in it on the play’s website gives you a clue). It does allow Schumer, in her wonderfully dry way, to note—when someone asks what Corky will do without Norm—that she intends to redecorate.
The last part of the play posits, in another time shift, that Corky and Norm will get their own back on their lusty, shifty interlopers. When Gerald boastfully offers his $80 wine to them, which we’ve already seen a few times, Corky says it’s really worth $4, and they’re not drinking it.
The play’s big twist—it will genuinely make you gasp—hits you in its closing moments. This again will go unspoiled here. But if the stakes seemed low because everything seemed like a jape before it, then that final twist pulls the rug out from under the play and completely recasts the characters we have gotten to know.
Rather than enriching the psychological credibility of the characters we have been watching for the previous 78 minutes, it rather stretches that credulity to the breaking point. If you love absurdity and farce as ends in themselves, then Meteor Shower will merrily entertain you. But that rug-pulling twist implies that Martin wants us to take these characters a little more seriously than, ultimately, we take them.
Meteor Shower is at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th St., New York City, until Jan. 21, 2018. Book tickets here.