When Douglas Carter Beane’s comedy Mr. & Mrs. Fitch made its off-Broadway debut in 2010, New York critics were almost universally harsh in their condemnations of it. Beane is a much-loved playwright and screenwriter in that town thanks to quip-laden plays such as As Bees in Honey Drown and The Little Dog Laughed, satires that deal with the intersection of fame and urban culture. The New York pundits especially didn’t care for the title characters of Mr. & Mrs. Fitch, a bisexual internet gossip columnist and his younger muse of a wife. I wonder if the relentless skewering the play gives to a certain type of hyper-literate East Coast bon vivant was a little insulting to some sensibilities.
Regardless of where you live, though, Beane’s perpetually wisecracking twosome can come across as among the most self-conscious, self-absorbed characters you’ve ever seen on a stage. Amphibian Stage Productions, which also produces in New York, gives the script a crisp, tight, occasionally meaningful Fort Worth production under the direction of Texas Christian University drama faculty member Krista Scott. The Amphibian version comes as close to making the Fitches likeable as any staging could, but they still wind up scraping the nerves pretty hard by the show’s final scene.
Mr. and Mrs. Fitch (Bradley Campbell and Meg MacCary) have seemingly fabricated their personalities not out of the raw experiences of their lives but from the books they’ve read, the plays they’ve seen, the music they’ve listened to, and, most importantly, the famous people they’ve traded one-liners with. We’re not even sure what their real names are — the Fitch surname is drawn from a Cole Porter tune. Their rapid-fire conversational style is loaded with more literary references than a dinner party at Truman Capote’s — Proust, Sontag, Eliot, Blake, Waugh, and Wharton are just a few of the writers cited in an endless barrage of name-dropping. And do I need to mention that the Fitches have an especially well-developed sense of irony? They know better than anyone that all their cultured wit is in service to what is presumably one of the shallowest and most dishonest communities on the planet — the New York celebrity social scene, which Mr. Fitch covers in a widely read column. “I shall do my best to shield you from all sincerity,” Mr. Fitch promises Mrs. Fitch early on in the play. Although the cleverly worded gossip tidbits and bitchy blind items bear Mr. Fitch’s byline, they are collaborations through and through.
Playwright Beane gives us little glimpses of a sad, frustrated undercurrent in Mr. & Mrs. Fitch — she wants to have a baby and a considerably more active marital sex life than he can provide, though his affection for her seems real. For years he’s been threatening to write a devastating social satire (hilariously) titled America: A Prophecy yet doesn’t seem to know how to start. But these are little more than hints of a richer inner life. The show’s meager plot kicks in when the Fitches, out of sheer boredom with the grind of their lives, invent a handsome, charismatic young scenester named Jamie Glen and mention him in their column. Their description is so alluring that Jamie winds up making another publication’s “10 Sexy New Yorkers to Watch Out For” list, and, before long, the nonexistent celeb starts turning up everywhere on gossip websites.
Casting the right pair of actors is absolutely essential to Mr. & Mrs. Fitch — the characters’ ultra-urbane, artificial personalities can quickly become suffocating if not handled with great care. Director Scott helps Campbell and MacCary to play the Fitches mostly free of contempt and cynicism, which is a smart move. If the couple came across as truly hating their jobs, their lives, or the scene they covered, this show would be unbearable. Campbell and MacCary are also in impressive command of the multitude of great lines in this show, including “I’m feeling vulnerable in a ‘television for women’ kind of way” and “my nipples are harder than long division.” But the major problem with Mr. & Mrs. Fitch is an old one — it’s hard to make a substantial script out of the superficiality of celebrity culture. The subject rarely stands up to the kind of extended treatment Beane gives it here. The playwright makes earnest stabs at trying to diagnose our culture’s disdain for depth and truth, but has anyone ever looked for those things in gossip columns? “Fiction is the new reality” declares Mrs. Fitch, and even with the ubiquitous examples of reality TV stars to point to in 2012, it’s hard not to shrug your shoulders and sigh: It was ever thus.
Mr. & Mrs. Fitch
Thru Apr 29 at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 1300 Gendy St, FW. $15-$25.