One of the first lines in Not Ready for Primetime, a patchy chronicle of the tumultuous inception of Saturday Night Live, is a pithy mission statement delivered by its creator, Lorne Michaels. He says his new variety show will be "absurd, young, and hip — and if you don't like it, get the fuck out of my way."
In those halcyon early days, with its cast of soon-to-be comedy icons, Saturday Night, as it was called then, was the hottest thing on television, the future of sketch comedy. But in this new play by Erik J. Rodriguez and Charles A. Sothers, currently running at New Theatre, we just have to take Lorne's word for it. The playwrights spend so much time spelunking the recesses of the Not Ready for Primetime Players' psyches that their televised genius is left unexplored, existing only in the audience's collective memory bank.
There is no sense of the loopy, off-kilter brilliance that inspired Land Shark, Samurai Delicatessen, the Super Bass-O-Matic, "Jane, you ignorant slut" and other innovations that made SNL must-see TV decades before NBC coined the tag line. Even the play's prologue, a broad riff on the series-opening "Wolverines" sketch with John Belushi as a foreigner learning English, fails to capture the winning subtlety and daringly delayed punch line of the original.
Though the first act at least attempts to represent the creative nuts and bolts of producing SNL — peppering the script with punchy dialogue likely lifted from Live From New York, Tom Shales and James Miller's gossipy page-turner about SNL's history — the second act concentrates almost solely on misguided melodrama and sentiment. The playwrights home in on each players' defining Achilles heel: Laraine Newman's heroin addiction, Garrett Morris' drug addiction and resentments, Dan Aykroyd's philandering, Gilda Radner's bulimia, John Belushi's partying, and Chevy Chase's douchebaggery. A script about a comedy show becomes little more than a procession of tragic biographical signposts. It's literally as serious as cancer.
But New Theatre, which runs Not Ready for Primetime through April 19 as part of its Boomfrog! series of youth-targeted plays, has its own share of problems in translating this wayward source material. The Lorne Michaels of 1975, as conceived by Rodriguez and Sothers, is a pothead with delusions of grandeur and a mouth like a Scorsese antihero. He's our conduit into the play's world, narrating events to us when he's not participating in them. The role is played by David Samson, who in his day job is the longtime president of the Miami Marlins. This bit of novelty casting has led to some positive PR for New Theatre, but Samson struggles to add nuance and dimension to the part. He's basically one-note — that note being the long-suffering herder of unruly cats — and his monotonous delivery lacks the necessary confidence to back up Michaels' bluster.
Even more inexplicable is the casting of Danny Leonard, a young FIU student, to portray Chevy Chase, who was 32 in the first season of Saturday Night. Leonard is an accomplished pratfaller, as was Chase, but his contribution to Not Ready for Primetime's brief "Weekend Update" snippet is weak, and his age difference is glaring. When the famously lopsided media attention granted to Chase in those early episodes dominates the narrative and creates internecine battles within the cast and crew, it doesn't jibe with what we've seen of Leonard's talent; he often seems like a kid at the adults' table.
The rest of the cast runs the gamut from anonymous to pretty solid. Melissa Ann Hubicsak as Jane Curtin and Susie Taylor as Laraine Newman perform well as funnywomen striving to be heard in a sexist, funnyman's world, though Taylor sometimes doesn't project her voice enough to be heard. O'Neil Delapenha's Garrett Morris gets so lost in the mix that we forget he's in the cast — fitting, perhaps, for his tragic character, who was mired in disposable, stereotypical roles during his unhappy SNL tenure.
Luis Daniel Ettorre plays Bill Murray, apparently, but you couldn't tell from his blank-slate performance, and Rodriguez and Sothers give him nothing interesting to say or do. As Dan Aykroyd, Ivan R. Lopez channels the radical spirit of this Canadian dervish, but his mastery of Aykroyd's staggered, fast-talking Canadian patter is inconsistent.
The brightest bulbs in the cast's chandelier are Zack Myers' Belushi and Jennifer Jill Lehr's Radner. They are both dead ringers for their characters, and they're the only ones to transcend the limp script and discover their comedians' wit and wisdom. Myers has said Belushi is one of his comedy idols, and it shows in this loving tribute.
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Nicole Quintana's brick-walled set design, presented on a three-quarter thrust stage, is a serviceable rendering of the outside of Studio 8H. The production's strongest facet is the presence of a seven-piece live band tucked discreetly into a corner of the black-box space, a pleasant treat for a small-budgeted production like this. Known as the "Primetime Players Band," the talented septet occasionally integrates itself into the action and provides a soundtrack during intermission. A few roving "Studio Monitors" occasionally prompt us with "Applause" signs, as if we're in a live studio audience at 30 Rock, but in a play that never explores the actual show, this never works on a conceptual level.
Not Ready for Primetime ends on a rousing note, with Lopez and Myers dressed as the Blues Brothers and performing "Sweet Home Chicago," but it's too little, far too late. The overriding problem with this production — the wide tent under which all the smaller problems congregate — is that it's not funny, plain and simple. Even when it's supposed to be funny, it's not funny. It's a good thing most theatergoers will have at least some knowledge of SNL at its best; viewers unfamiliar with the series will surely wonder what the fuss was all about.