Location: Second Stage Theatre,
Website: Official Second Stage Theatre site
Starring: John Lithgow, Jennifer Ehle
My Review: In a world where the death of print journalism is no longer a fear, but a stone-cold reality, the gossip columnists are probably the last people anyone is concerned for. And in the new comedy Mr. & Mrs. Fitch, by Douglas Carter Beane, the gossip columnists prove that they are not going down without a fight.
Mr. and Mrs. Fitch live in a happy, shiny bubble of wealth and notability in their spacious
Even before the play began, I felt like I hated Mr. and Mrs. Fitch. The stage operates without a curtain, so their luxurious apartment is on full view while you wait for the show to begin. And the apartment is every New Yorker’s dream; high ceilings, stainless steel kitchen appliances, a slanted window wall overlooking the city, a spiral staircase leading to a lofted bedroom, and an exposed brick wall with built-in bookshelves, complete with a rolling ladder. It’s like real estate porn. Then the play opens with the happy couple stumbling in late at night, drunk and giddy after another night of hobnobbing with those dying to be seen, then sitting down to compose a quick column about who said what to whom before heading to bed. I instantly wondered who could possibly live such a privileged life of ridiculous and undeserved decadence. And apparently, not Mr. and Mrs. Fitch for much longer.
In a play that only features two characters, it’s imperative that the two actors cast are able to carry the entire performance. Luckily for Mr. & Mrs. Fitch, John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle are. Lithgow is definitely the stronger of the two, with his booming voice and theatrically pompous commanding of every scene. Ehle often seems to be trying to keep up with him, but that may be due more to their characters than their acting abilities.
Mr. and Mrs. Fitch have a bit of a May/December relationship, and as the younger partner, Mrs. Fitch is often subjected to jabs of being a “silly woman.” While it seems that Mr. Fitch means them in loving jest, she may be taking them more to heart, as she often seems to be striving to impress him with her bright ideas and witty banter. When threatened with a firing, Mr. Fitch flies into maudlin rage, so Mrs. Fitch takes it upon herself to find the solution to their problem. And after much hemming, hawing, and double-talk, she manages to convince him to invent a new celebrity that they can scandalize however they see fit. In this way, Ehle’s character seems to always be reaching, while Lithgow is allowed to be the more comic of the two.
While the set and the actors are stellar, Mr. & Mrs. Fitch falls a little flat with the play itself. It relies mostly on being clever and witty to elicit laughs, like constantly referencing books, musicals, writers, and other plays in ways that will only truly appeal to a devoted theatrical and literary crowd. There are also plenty of winking self-referential jokes, like when Lithgow declares that, “theater is what movie people do when they want to announce that they’re ready to do television.” Even when the jokey references hit home, they never created more than a slight chuckle in the crowd, making me wonder if the play would work better as an all-out campy comedy. With a premise as ripe for comedy as Mr. & Mrs. Fitch has—the fabrication of a huge lie to save a career that’s already dead—it seems a shame not to play it for big laughs. And already knowing the comedy skills Lithgow has, it also seems a waste to not fully use his talents.
Mr. & Mrs. Fitch also tries to be overly clever about the digital-obsessed world we live in, and hits its target only some of the time. For example, when Mr. Fitch wonders if he should get a Kindle, Mrs. Fitch reminds him that he had one and broke it when throwing it across the room in disgust over what he was reading. It’s a quick throwaway moment, but it resonated with how a lot of book lovers (myself included) feel about e-readers; they’re too delicate to withstand the voracity of a true reader. But then in another moment, Mr. and Mrs. Fitch realize they don’t have a real TV anymore and have to scramble to find their crappy little shoebox-sized TV that’s kept in the bookcase. How is it even feasible that two people who make their living as gossip columnists don’t have a 60-inch wall-mounted LCD constantly playing the E! channel in the background? It’s clear to the audience that the Fitches fancy themselves intellectual muckrakers, but it’s a stretch to ask us to believe that they would attempt to detach themselves so much from a key source of their livelihood.
Bottom Line: While an enjoyable enough night at the theater, Mr. & Mrs. Fitch has the potential to be more than it is. Rather than straddling the line between comedy and drama, I would have liked to have seen it tip the scale and go full-on farce. No one is going to lament the dying career of a pair of spoiled gossip columnists, so you may as well go for the gusto.