The vibe radiating from New Theatre’s Not Ready for Primetime is a spirit of anarchic fun, a scrappy let’s-put-on-a-show aesthetic appropriate for a play about the early days of NBC’s late-night staple Saturday Night Live.
The world premiere by Erik J. Rodriguez and Charles A. Sothers sports a live band, young actors holding up cards to get the audience to applaud or boo on cue, and hard-working performers who (particularly in the case of Danny Leonard as Chevy Chase) fall all over themselves trying to evoke the essence of the sketch comedy show’s creator and original cast.
Running at New Theatre’s new home in the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, the production contains an additional element that stirred pre-opening interest: Miami Marlins president David Samson is featured in the show’s meatiest role as Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels.
Not Ready for Primetime marks Samson’s stage debut in a full-length play. Though Samson, who’s clearly into trying new things, was the first person kicked off the current edition of Survivor, he holds his own in Primetime. As the sometime narrator and a driving character, Samson radiates a presence and confidence undoubtedly accrued from his day job. His speaking voice has a bit of a Michael Douglas timbre to it, and if his Lorne gets mired in repeated instances of ranting then relenting, that’s the writing, not the actor.
Director Ricky J. Martinez helped Rodriguez and Sothers transform their script from a collection of sketches into a full-fledged, behind-the-scenes play about how hungry young performers coped with the sudden fame that the 1975 show brought them. Carefully researched, Primetime explores backstage rivalries, hookups, drug use and, briefly, the frustration of the cast’s women at not getting a bigger piece of the writer-performer pie. The situations and language are adult and sometimes raunchy, so do not bring kids to the show.
The actors playing Gilda Radner (Jennifer Lehr), John Belushi (Zack Myers), Dan Akroyd (Ivan Lopez), Jane Curtin (Melissa Ann Hubicsak), Garrett Morris (O’Neil Delapenha), Bill Murray (Luis Daniel Ettorre), Laraine Newman (Susie Taylor) and Chase must fully inhabit the character while finding ways to suggest the real performer.
The playwrights and actors do get certain qualities of the originals: Radner’s sweetness and loneliness, Newman’s hippie aura, Akroyd’s Canadian accent and randy nature, Belushi’s troublemaker persona, Morris’ angry-outsider attitude, Curtin’s reserve, and the enmity between Chase and Murray. But audience members who watched Saturday Night Live in its first five years will have a harder time buying actors who feel like vaguely similar stand-ins for comedy legends.
What’s missing from the play are sketches of a quality that might have made the cut on the show (some of the “funny” stuff really isn’t) and an effective ending (the current one, as with plenty of Saturday Night Live sketches, doesn’t work). As its title suggests, Not Ready for Primetime needs more attention if it is to have a future beyond its New Theatre premiere.