I freely and cheerfully admit to a certain romantic snobbery about the 1920s—its stock market crash, gangland massacres, dawn of television (yep, television) and wholesale advances in astronomy are just some of the things that, for me, mark that decade as the cultural watershed it was. So when I learned that La Jolla Playhouse's current Herringbone is set in 1929, my antennae went up. Surely, something in this musical comedy would call to my obsession. Maybe some cute flapper would pull a flask from her garter and share it with me after the show (the garter, not the flask).
Herringbone, unfortunately, is clueless to its own rich setting; there's not a flapper or a stickball game in sight. It's actor BD Wong (M. Butterfly, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) in a nonstop one-man free-for-all, with a story that darts between dark comedy and soap opera. The piece has long since abandoned its Depression-era pretense—and while Wong has a good handle on the character mix, he introduces the principals so anxiously that we never get a fair chance to make their acquaintances. Wong is glad-handing, hardworking and lithe, which is more than can be said for a production that refuses him (and us) a second to take a breath, much less two.
George Herringbone is 8 years old, but his youth doesn't exempt him from that most ominous fate—spirit possession by a vaudevillian mentor's vengeful partner. His sudden talent for tap-dancing (“Little Mr. Tippy Toes”) sets up a battle for his mind and heart. The bad guy loses.
Beyond that, there's not much to say, except to note Wong's extraordinary stamina. He preens, pouts, pounces and prances his way through the characters as effortlessly as you and I brush our teeth. And while it's too bad that librettist Tom Cone didn't do more to enhance the setting (there's something about a Wall Street suicide, but that's practically it), Wong does cut an engaging figure in costumer William Ivey Long's deep blue duds and porkpie hat.
Wong has the staying power of a marathon runner, all right—except he's not running a marathon. He's there to help establish our relationship to people we care about, tough duty when 10 of the 11 characters are introduced in the first act alone. I suppose Roger Rees has done a decent job at directing Wong through his hair-trigger responses, and Ellen Fitzhugh's lyrics pair nicely with Skip Kennon's fanciful music.
Even so, this show is a Wong-a-thon of the first order, with little to hold it up but the star itself. Take him out of the picture, and Dan Lipton's great piano is nearly all that's left. That's fine for a concert—but if I'd wanted a concert, I'd have gone to one.This review is based on the matinée performance of Aug. 9. Herringbone runs through Aug. 30 at La Jolla Playhouse's Hughes and Sheila Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive. $30-$65. 858-550-1010, www.lajollaplayhouse.org.Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.