Rita Rudner is not quite a household name, but when she shows up in Two’s a Crowd, the new little musical for which she cowrote the book with her husband, Martin Bergman, and in which she stars, she commands entrance applause. If you don’t know who she is, here’s the scoop: The comedienne first showed up on 1980s late-night talk shows, usually Letterman or Johnny Carson, selling the persona of the modern, put-upon woman—frustrated with technology, female powerlessness, and men. She had a good run with it, wrote some books, and moved from network TV mostly to Las Vegas, where she has been steadily performing for almost two decades.
At 59E59 Theaters, the audience, which looks like it remembers her from Letterman, eats up everything she does. Rudner, an attractive 65, still peddles her “poor me” shtick, updated to reflect the invisibility of women over 60 and the greater challenges of dealing with Uber, Twitter, and kombucha. As Wendy, a married lady off on a Vegas fling after discovering her husband’s infidelity, Rudner has written herself some pretty good lines: “I’m afraid to watch a television show I like. If they find out my demographic watches it, they’ll cancel it.” She has an amusing cross-eyed thing going on when Wendy’s upset, which is most of the time, and she can do physical comedy—watch her windmill her legs in an attempt to seduce Tom (Robert Yacko), the guy who’s sharing her room (more on the plot to come). But the “compleat musical comedy performer”? No, she’s not quite that.
Rudner’s voice is small, especially compared to the three actors sharing the stage with her, and she hasn’t learned to modulate the mood swings of Wendy, who’s often an unpleasant presence. Wendy is exacting, rigid, sarcastic, and accustomed to having her way. So, when the full-up Vegas hotel accidentally books her and Tom, a poker-playing widower who hasn’t gotten over losing his wife, in the same room, the first 15 minutes of Two’s a Crowd consist largely of the pair hurling insults at each other. Tom: “I was here first.” Wendy: “What are you, seven?” Tom: “What are you, seventy?” This grows tired quickly. Kelly Holden Bashar and Brian Lohmann rush on to play everyone else—an unctuous hotel executive, an opinionated chambermaid, Wendy’s repentant husband Gus, and, most hilariously, a sulky room service waiter—and play them well.
Wendy and Tom, after snarling at each other for too long, discover some shared interests and late-middle-age sexual attraction, and Tom turns out to be not the simpleton we thought. He’s into Marcus Aurelius and Oscar Wilde, and he misses his daughter, who’s in Australia, while Wendy is disappointed in her son, who works with puppets (cue some very easy puppeteer jokes). Act I ends with the two about to do the nasty as Wendy cries, “Intermission!”—which is funny, but also a direct steal from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Act II sorts out whether Wendy will end up with Tom or Gus; the answer will not surprise you.
The music and lyrics are by Jason Feddy, who, brandishing a mean guitar, also frequently interrupts the proceedings to offer raspy songs that comment not very contextually on the action. Feddy’s music is adequate lite-FM, while his lyrics are repetitive and the most casually rhymed this side of Spring Awakening. “River/endeavor”? Why not? “New/room”? What the hell, it’s only a musical. There are good numbers—a duet on how appealing Vegas’s phoniness is, Gus’s Elvis-rock apology to Wendy—but many are more distracting than plot-advancing or character-defining, and when the finale is a cheerful quartet entitled “Shit Happens,” you sense that Feddy is getting desperate.
Yacko tends to yell his lines, which, given Jonathan Burke’s turned-up-to-11 sound design, is irritating, while the lighting, by Tessa Ann Bookwalter, is overbright. Bookwalter also did the set, which is convincingly hideous when a Vegas hotel room but underdesigned when it revolves to reveal a restaurant or Keno lounge. Bergman directed, unsubtly.
Two’s a Crowd does have its laugh-out-loud moments, and anyone fed up with so many current musicals’ habit of ignoring over-30s will respond to its embrace of over-50s. Its construction is slipshod, however: it would benefit from cuts, and it’s trite. Wendy, contemplating the “morning after” that begins the second act, opines, “I just don’t know what this is.” That makes two of us, honey.
Two’s a Crowd plays at 59E59 Theater (59 E. 59th St.) through Aug. 25. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call (646) 892-7999 or visit 59e59.org.