Early in Douglas Carter Beane’s new comedy “Mr. & Mrs. Fitch,” Mr. Fitch (John Lithgow) sits down at the baby grand piano in the well-appointed living room of the Manhattan loft apartment where he lives with Mrs. Fitch (Jennifer Ehle). Accompanying himself, he sings “Mister and Missus Fitch,” a song written by Cole Porter for the 1932 musical “Gay Divorce.” Mrs. Fitch stands nearby beaming at his clipped and sophisticated performance. Together they do a bit of a Charleston for no good reason except that they could use a break from talking not to each other but at each other.
Mr. & Mrs. Fitch are the co-writers of a popular and successful gossip column for a major publication. They are gadabouts to social events and celebrity haunts where they ingest juicy and provocative items for their daily column and for the edification of their readers. At home they glibly jabber away at a clip to rival the twittering of magpies. With Mr. Beane responsible for the play’s text and with Lithgow and Ehle in charge of delivering it, you can be sure that the incessant repartee is as remarkable for its snap and crackle as it is in its execution. If one had to invent a word to describe the banter it would be gay-lic. They are equals in dispensing this avalanche of sparkling bon mots. But all the facetious and condescending remarks about those they saw at the party from which they have just returned quickly become tiresome.
It doesn’t take long before their repartee sounds more like a debate in which the content is only as good as the speed with which it is delivered. Just as we are about to scream back at these two very uninteresting, well-dressed, evidently well-heeled people to shut up, a plot, or shall we say a situation, is introduced. Their boss is not pleased with the column they just submitted and threatens to fire them if they can’t immediately come up with some original and juicy item.
At first, Mrs. Fitch suggests that getting fired might be just the thing for Mr. Fitch to begin the novel he has long postponed. But a little more practicality forces their hand, and they do come up with an idea: they will invent an icon who will be provocative enough to interest the bloggers, twitterers, and chatterers. Needless to say their plan backfires in the most obvious way you can imagine.
Of course one could fill up a review citing many of the witty, catchy, bitchy phrases that embroider this play. But what’s the point? Lithgow and Ehle work hard trying to be amusing. Lithgow, an extraordinarily fine actor (“All My Sons,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) is always a pleasure to watch. He gives Mr. Fitch a demonstrably debonair air and an affectation that is to the Noel Coward world borne. Ehle, who has defined her gifts as an actor in “The Coast of Utopia,” “Design for Living,” and “The Real Thing,” sashays around the apartment with an air of self-satisfaction, but she also suggests a woman clinging to a relationship that is both superficial in its practice yet earnest at its heart.
There is a glimmer of hope for a plot as they toy suggestively with the promise of intimacy and as bits of background information surface that suggest that there have been a few Misters in Mr. Fitch’s past. Savvy observers of cultural history will see the allusions (He, “Dearest; “ she “darling”) to columnist Dorothy Kilgallen and her husband and producer Dick Kolmar, who hosted “Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick” for many years on the radio.
It is surprising that Beane, the author of such crackling sardonic plays as “The Little Dog Laughed” and “As Bees in Honey Drown” and the hilarious book for the stage musical “Xanadu,” could not see or hear deficiencies in “Mr. & Mrs. Fitch,” like its lack of three-dimensional characters and a plausible plot. Director Scott Ellis keeps the play’s two motor-mouths in high gear until late in Act II when the play shifts gears and becomes a muddle of maudlin reminiscences. Allen Moyer’s handsome setting includes a skylight with floor to top windows, but only those sitting on stage right can see the view. The rest of the audience is forced to see only what is directly in front of them. **
“Mr. & Mrs. Fitch,” through Sunday, April 4, Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street. $70. 212-246-4422.