I know we could all use a good laugh nowadays. But would you settle for a thousand chuckles?
Because that’s what “Gutenberg! The Musical!” is offering. In the two-man, 20-character skit of a show that opened Thursday evening on Broadway, the jokes are abundant, interchangeable and lightweight: comedy as packing peanuts.
If that suggests an inconsequential payload, well, perhaps consequential was not what the writers, Scott Brown and Anthony King, and the director, Alex Timbers, were after. Silliness crossed with satire seems to be their target, and with the help of two expert farceurs, Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, they do hit the silliness bull’s-eye. The satire, I’m not so sure.
But let’s enjoy what we can. Gad plays Bud Davenport and Rannells is Doug Simon, loserish 40-something co-workers at a nursing home in New Jersey. Bitten by the Broadway bug, they decide to collaborate on a musical, despite a rudimentary knowledge of the genre and an advanced lack of talent. When Bud, the sweaty, impulsive one, inherits money from an uncle who recently started (and then suddenly stopped) hang gliding, they get their chance: They rent the James Earl Jones Theater for a bare-bones reading in hopes of acquiring a backer. Doug, the button-down one with the toggle-switch smile, chips in by selling his parents’ house.
What we see on the stage of the Jones is the deliberately horrible result. Bud has written the music and Doug the book (and both of them the lyrics) for a show about the 15th-century German inventor who gives the show its title. Having discovered from a Google search that reliable information about Gutenberg is “scant,” Bud and Doug are relieved of the responsibility to historical truth that is apparently so burdensome to the creators of most biomusicals. About the inventor of movable type, they can make everything — not just most of it — up.
So their Gutenberg is, counterfactually, a “wine presser” in the nonexistent town of Schlimmer; his wine press is what inspires his printing press. (“I’m gonna take the grapes out and put letters in,” he sings. “Put letters where them grapes have been.”) But a mad monk who is not a fan of literacy denounces the new technology and leads the townsfolk to burn its inventor at the stake. A familiar moral is drawn from that fake history: “Gutenberg’s death did not stop his dream,” a laborer steps out of time to tell us.
Or rather, Doug does, because he and Bud, having spent all their money on the rental of the theater, were unable to afford a cast. Instead, with the help of 99 custom-printed trucker hats to identify the dramatis personae, and another 25 that become a kind of puppet chorus line, they narrate the show and play all the characters in it. These include Dead Baby, Beef Fat Trimmer, Feces, Two Drunks, Antisemitic Flower Girl and of course the printer’s love interest, a wench named Helvetica. Her big number (sung by Bud, petting his imaginary tresses) is “I Can’t Read.”
Gad and Rannells, a Mutt and Jeff team since they starred in “The Book of Mormon” in 2011, couldn’t be better. Gad’s weird combination of bluster and insecurity (he twitches a lot) makes Bud almost two-dimensional; Rannells, with his golden retriever gloss and whirring-computer energy, takes Doug most of the way from conceit to character. Together they land every joke.
But with more than two hours of can-you-bottom-this yucks, it’s exhausting work — for them and for us. As a distraction, Timbers provides innumerable bits of clever stage business, seldom involving anything fancier than mime, sound effects and simple props. At one point the two men, just by switching hats and poses, somehow perform a four-part chorale. At another, Gutenberg’s big moment of inspiration is capped with the firing of what you might call a confetti popper, except that “confetti” implies plural. Here there is approximately one confett.
Even so, the nifty bits soon start to seem compensatory. (When in doubt, hit the big red “Fog” button.) Even the hats wear out their welcome as we wait for a turn in the story that will have some meaningful effect on the cheery, woebegone souls who wear them.
That turn never comes. Despite the arrival of a third character played at most performances by a guest star — Cynthia Erivo, Jonathan Groff and F. Murray Abraham so far among them — Bud and Doug are still the same sad sacks at the end as they were at the beginning. Perhaps that wouldn’t be a problem if the show were just 45 minutes long, as it was in its original one-act incarnation, at the Upright Citizens Brigade in 2003. (By 2006, when it ran for a few months Off Broadway, it had grown a second act.) Pythonesque sketch comedy thrives in a tight, humble frame.
Without it, the silliness wears itself out. And since the printing press story was never more than a beaten-to-death MacGuffin, that leaves “Gutenberg! The Musical!” as just another satire of musical theater and its eternal hopefuls. Here the problem is not excess but triteness; the tropes of sincere incompetence and pathetic ambition are too familiar, if expertly carried out. They have been flogged so much — and often more wittily, in musicals like “[title of show]” — that they do not respond much to the whip anymore.
This problem partly stems from what may have been a deliberate form-fails-function choice to put nothing onstage that would seem more skillful than what Bud and Doug could have written themselves. So the songs, accompanied by a trio called the Middlesex Six, are never more than the dittyish retreads you might expect from an untrained doodler like Bud. And aside from the jokes, which exist only outside of the “Gutenberg” story, and at the expense of the two men within it, this Broadway musical’s book might as well be Doug’s.
For better or worse, that’s the writers’ premise — “We tried to come up with, like, what’s a terrible idea for a musical?” King told Alexis Soloski in The New York Times. And you can’t say that premise isn’t maintained with discipline from top to bottom: the dollar-store stage set by Scott Pask, the clumsy high school movement by Nancy Renee Braun and especially the on-the-nose costumes by Emily Rebholz. Gad in a dad tie and Rannells with his argyle sweater vest tucked into his cuffed pants are somehow funny without further elaboration.
Alas, everything else does get elaborated: “We fell in love with our own dumb stuff,” King also told The Times.
Fair enough, but two hours is a tad long for lovemaking. If I cannot therefore give “Gutenberg! The Musical!” my heart, I’ll at least give it a confett.
Gutenberg! The Musical!
Through Jan. 28 at the James Earl Jones Theater, Manhattan; gutenbergbway.com. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes.