As Act Two of Gutenberg! The Musical! begins, we’re finally treated to some meaningful comedy. Prior to this, the script by Anthony King and Scott Brown has been mostly insipid, with no real significance beyond its desire to please. But now, as the lights come down, we “overhear” the two actors, Matthew McGee and Joey Panek, supposedly chatting in their dressing room, unaware that a mic is on. What they choose to talk about is the keyboard player, David Estevez, who, sitting onstage, is taking in every condescending word and reacting, we imagine, with justified outrage. In these enjoyable moments — which aren’t in my copy of the text — a subject as important as ethnic stereotyping is referenced, along with an issue as perennial as human hypocrisy. We laugh heartily because these topics really matter. And we’re tempted to look inward, at our own transgressive thoughts.
If only the rest of the show were so provocative. But Gutenberg! for the most part is a tedious exercise, far beneath the considerable talents of its performers. It brings us a vapidly distorted history of the printing press, characters who bear no relation to anyone we know, and songs that aspire to, and don’t quite reach, memorable cleverness. The premise is this: We are Broadway producers who’ve been invited by writers Bud Davenport (Panek) and Doug Simon (McGee) to a makeshift performance of their new musical in the hopes that we might want to bankroll a full production. As Bud and Doug don’t have much money, they’ve opted to play all the show’s parts, utilizing, to clarify matters, baseball caps inscribed with the names of characters.
Bud and Doug are far from being credible historians. Having Googled their hero’s biography, they’ve discovered that not much is known about him, so they’ve come up with a narrative pretty much of their own making. This features a wine-presser from the town of Schlimmer named Gutenberg (“I’m the pride of Schlimmer/I’m the crème de la cremmer/I am Gutenberg!”) and the young woman who adores him, Helvetica (“I was raised to milk a cow/And sit upon a stool./And cows they never ask you much/No wonder I’m a fool!”). The other main character is a dastardly Monk who doesn’t want a literate public (“As long as I’m the Monk, no one in this town is going to learn to read. That way, the Bible says whetever I say it says.”)
Sensing the intellectual cravings of the townspeople, Gutenberg realizes that he must turn one of his wine presses into a printing press (“I’m gonna take the grapes out/And put letters in/Put letters where them grapes have been”). When the Monk learns of this new invention, he sets out to destroy it with the help of Helvetica (“You stomped his grapes for wine/Now stomp for Monk this time”). Will the Monk and Helvetica impede human progress? Will Gutenberg rescue his printing press before it’s too late? Here’s a clue: Anything can happen, especially if it doesn’t signify. Counter-history has seldom been so limp.
And this mediocre script has one truly terrible effect: It makes Matt McGee look mediocre along with it. Regular readers of this column will know that I think McGee to be the paramount comic actor in the Bay area. Well, you’d never guess it from watching Gutenberg!. With idiotic dialogue and a shallow storyline to carry, McGee just comes across as a pleasant summer camp counselor, well-meaning and amiable, but hardly extraordinary. Panek as Bud fares a little better — he somehow maintains an ironic edge through all the emptiness — but this is a show that gives good actors little to work with. Steven Flaa’s staging is likable enough, and Jerid Fox’s set has the look of a theater space between productions: door frames, an easel, hardware, a ladder. Fox also designed the costumes, which graphically express the failure of both characters’ fashion sense.
I haven’t talked here about the more-than-a-dozen characters whom the actors play in addition to the three central ones. Maybe that’s because I’ve seen this trope too often: one to three performers playing 10 to 50 roles, and almost always for two reasons: artistic (the virtuosity!) and financial (only pay two actors!). Of course, it’s not a theater’s fault that it doesn’t have 10 times the budget, but still I can’t help but notice that these tours de force are proliferating. I wish I could believe that the benefit is always to the audience.
Anyway, that’s Gutenberg!: a misuse of time and talent.
There are sturdy two-character plays out there that might have been scheduled instead. I vote for those.