Mr. and Mrs. Fitch

As Morty and Sylvia* left the theatre, Sylvia commented on the characters in the play saying, “They’re funny people.” Morty corrected her and said, “They’re superficially witty.” Morty was right. Mr. and Mrs. Fitch, both the play and the characters, were superficially witty: their apartment was insincere and their personalities (for about ¾ of the play) were disingenuous.

Mr. and Mrs. Fitch is a new play by acclaimed playwright Douglas Carter Beane currently in previews for its world premiere at Second Stage Theatre. The title characters, whose surname comes from a Cole Porter song, are gossip columnists in New York City and are played by theatre luminaries John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle. It seems like both are doing their best with a script which is not doing its part. Mr. Beane was trying too hard with this work, sprinkling allusions to social satirists throughout the show and aiming for Noel Coward-esque rhythm, but his efforts were palpable (never a good thing) and fell flat. Instead of being smart, Mr. and Mrs. Fitch seemed like they were trying to be smart and to sound educated. They reeked of academic elitism, the kind of snobbery that comes from a jaded attitude and quick-draw judgment about those around them.

Consider their apartment, for example. Scenic designer Allen Moyer paid great attention to the detail of the Fitch residence. As I settled into my seat before the curtain, I looked at the set and thought, “Wow, there’s a lot there. Lots of books, knick knacks from here and there. Nice artwork.” Then it dawned on me. Something felt insincere, like these are the kind of people who decorate their apartment with an elephant statue (upon which sat a stack of books) they got in India to show where they’ve been and what they’ve done but leave out anything that seems to say who they are. I like to walk into a person’s home and get a sense of who the person is and what he or she likes. Mr. and Mrs. Fitch seem to want people to walk into their home and know how much they’ve accumulated. Their d├ęcor seems to be all for show - lots of style but no substance.

Maybe this was appropriate because their interaction with each other, for almost the entire character driven play, also seems to be for show. They speak like they have an audience. This isn’t supposed to be a meta play where the character are aware of the audience so this kind of interaction doesn’t work. While Beane clearly wasn’t aiming for precise verisimilitude or naturalism, he was going for realism. I suppose he did get it because, unfortunately, there are people like Mr. and Mrs. Fitch in real life - but I don’t like them. And I certainly don’t care to watch them on stage for 90 minutes. Mr. and Mrs. Fitch are like those people I went to high school and college with - and remember I ran with the theatre crowd - who were always performing. I once had to tell a friend, “I’m standing right in front of you - just talk to me” to get him to stop addressing me in the style of Puck telling the audience that “all is mended.”

This is not to say that the outing was entirely un-enjoyable. To be sure, when John Lithgow is on stage in a comedic role you are assured moments of comic greatness but they are nestled in between long bouts of obnoxious pontification and name-dropping. It was a shame to see Lithgow, who was fantastic two seasons ago in All My Sons, particularly in his fight scenes with the underrated Patrick Wilson, be so poorly served in this play. Moreover, both he and Ehle seemed to trip over their words a number of times, no doubt because the dialogue wasn’t conversational and was unnatural as it tried too hard to get a message across.

The play is currently in previews so it is still being worked on (read: rewritten) constantly. It may change by the time the play opens, and could change even more if there are other iterations down the road. But in a post-performance discussion with the playwright, Mr. Beane seemed very defensive of his writing, very certain of the kinds of people Mr. and Mrs. Fitch are, so I wouldn’t hold my breath.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.