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'Shows for Days' review: Memoir deftly captures amateur theater's messy charm

Patti Lupone, left, and Michael Urie perform in

Patti Lupone, left, and Michael Urie perform in a scene from Douglas Carter Beane's new play, "Shows for Days," currently performing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in New York City. Credit: AP

Backstage theater-memory plays tend to have an inbuilt charm, especially tales of the moment when adolescents first realize they were meant to be actors/playwrights/directors/sometimes even critics.

And so it is with "Shows for Days," Douglas Carter Beane's sweet mess of a good-natured comedy about his life-changing teen year, 1973, with a community theater troupe in Reading, Pennsylvania.

How happily one indulges the messy parts, and the over-the-top effeminate eccentricities, and the anachronistic improbabilities may well be determined by a soft spot for the genre and a few other acquired tastes.

The major one is the desire to see Patti LuPone transform into the irrepressibly self-dramatizing, Yiddish-spewing grande dame of the struggling, doggedly ambitious little Prometheus Theatre without, somehow, being that cliche. She is lovely -- part the Norma Desmond we never got to see, part sturdy pragmatist with a curling lip behind the thespian romanticism.

Then there is Michael Urie, the playwright's stand-in, who amusingly sets the scenes as a happy adult, then flips back to the boy as curious suburbanite on a life journey. By merely removing his glasses and putting on his backpack, Urie -- last seen embodying Barbra Streisand in "Buyer & Cellar" -- takes us convincingly into this tender, sometimes hurtful microcosm of misfits and idealists, real estate and cynical politics.

Beane, whose "The Nance" explored oppressed gay life amid burlesque in 1930s New York, toys with some serious issues -- including homophobia, blackmail and the pressure to do commercial hits. But, clearly, his heart is with his goofy streak here.

Director Jerry Zaks can't quite herd the playwright's conflicting intentions into a single coherent voice, much less one that resists the occasional bellow. Despite all that, and a title I can't decipher, his affectionate production is a lark.

Dale Soules, as the lesbian co-founder, gets many of the best lines and honors them by not overselling, while Jordan Dean, as a desirable actor, balances the tricky teen seduction without losing the play's innocence. Although the subject is amateur theater, the design team -- including a smart, spare set by John Lee Beatty and exuberantly awful period costumes by William Ivey Long -- is anything but.

WHAT: "Shows for Days"

WHERE: Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center Theater

INFO: $75-$85; 212-239-6200;

BOTTOM LINE: A messy but affectionate backstage memoir

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