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THEATER: "[title of show]"

You've got to have a gimmick


Before he says a word, an old Broadway type, who is completely a figment of my imagination, pushes back from the battered upright against the wall, chomps on the cigar in the corner of his mouth, and offers up the benefits of his years in what they used to call The Business. "So, kid," he growls, "ya wanna write a Broadway musical? Hell, everybody does. It ain't easy. Ya gotta know what people like and what they think's funny, and then ya' give it to 'em — in spades. Yeah, and maybe ya gotta have a gimmick, too."

Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) must have been listening hard. Their 2008 Obie-winning musical, "[title of show]," now running at Blackfriars, is a musical about writing a musical about writing a musical. If that's not a gimmick, then there hasn't been one since the strippers in "Gypsy" departed the scene. They also seem to know exactly what their audience will like.

They've got a clever enough premise that also leads to the show's most important lesson: beware of clever premises and where they might lead, especially if the writers are enjoying their work too much. That's how this show feels. It starts with a nicely absurdist idea that could have led to a genial send-up of musical thee-uh-tuh with its legendary mix of talent and rampaging ego, but instead ends up becoming what one of the characters calls "self-referential, self-indulgent bullshit." He might have been reviewing the show he was in.

To be fair, the youngish audience loved the production, and so will you if you think "fuck" is the funniest word in the language and never stops being funny no matter how many times the characters repeat it. Yet the bawdy asides and non-stop pop-cultural references make up some of the show's funniest lines — even though they don't have much to do with what's going on. When a show has virtually no plot and four barely defined characters, you take what funny padding you can get.

Potentially the cleverest part of the show eventually becomes its heaviest weight. The musical has two writers named, naturally, Jeff and Hunter, who decide to enter a competition for new musicals whose deadline is three weeks away — except they don't have an idea. Eager for success and recognition, Jeff, who works on websites, and Hunter, who watches internet porn while masturbating, decide in desperation to write a show about the show they're writing, minute by minute and line by line.

The musical they're writing is the musical you're watching. Its book, they agree, will consist of the unedited conversations, struggles, and miscellaneous jabbering of the two collaborators, as well as the two actresses, Susan and Heidi, they hire to perform with them. So Jeff and Hunter write a musical about Jeff and Hunter who are writing a musical about Jeff and Hunter. You accuse me of being repetitious? Nowhere near as much as the musical the first Jeff and Hunter write and the second Jeff and Hunter appear in.

The next question: Which of the three musicals are you watching? In the answer lies the potential fun as the two actors zip back and forth through time and space, from being actors to being playwrights to being characters. At first, the moments are sharp, quick, and funny, but they become obvious and predictable. How many times can a character turn to the keyboard player, wave, and say, "Hi, Larry," before it becomes tedious? The show, however unintentionally, provides the answer.

Bowen and Bell's score is easy to listen to but hardly distinguished. It has more songs than most musicals though less than a day after I saw it, I couldn't remember any of them. The ensemble cast of four consists of Dan Howell as Jeff, Matt Liptak as Hunter, Janine Mercandetti as Susan, and Elizabeth West as Heidi. The acting was unpolished, but that may reflect how little they had to work with beyond wise cracks and a few conflicts that never developed and then were resolved with the ease of a quip and a song.

Mercandetti and Liptak had most of the comic lines, although Mercandetti, who has a good sense of comic timing, played everything very broadly, and Liptak had little feel for comedy and tended to speak in great rushes of words that sometimes made him hard to understand. His performance and Howell's felt mechanical — they didn't quite seem to be listening when somebody else was speaking. West was the most assured of the four performers.