Digging Uneven Dirt with ‘Mr. & Mrs. Fitch’ and Backyard Renaissance Theatre

Gossip writers. Their specialty is digging up dirt on celebrities, and readers eat it up. The title characters of Mr. & Mrs. Fitch make us laugh and squirm at the lengths tabloid journalists will go to pen a juicy column, but its San Diego premiere, presented by Backyard Renaissance Theatre, is uneven. While the actors deliver excellent performances, playwright Douglas Carter Bean’s script is too clever.

Sandy Campbell and Andrew Oswald star in Mr & Mrs Fitch, presented by Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company. Image Backyard Renaissance

Andrew Oswald, who worked previously with Backyard Renaissance as Carr Gomm in The Elephant Man, and has local credits at Cygnet and Diversionary Theatres, and Sandy Campbell, a favorite resident artist at Cygnet, are the Mr. and Mrs.

They work and drink a lot together in their Manhattan loft, and we are invited into their bottom-feeder life of mixing fact and fiction.

They feed off each other, spewing out so many big words and literary references that we don’t believe them. Even English professors are gobsmacked by gobs of bon mots.

As Mr. Fitch struggles to type an intro on his laptop, a phone rings. It’s the stupid land line with an old-timey answering machine. The message plays the song “Tell me lies,” which is hilarious, and confirms they are old. When they hear a threatening message, Mr. Fitch freaks out.

“Don’t be truculent,” warns Mrs. Fitch.

Who uses the word truculent (adjective: eager or quick to argue or fight; aggressively defiant) in casual conversation? Only this odd couple.

Mrs. Fitch dreams of wild sex with her hubby, but he bats for the other team, so they pour a drink and play with witticisms. Campbell’s Mrs. Fitch delivers eye-rolling lines with aplomb, such as “I’m feeling vulnerable in a ‘television for women’ kind of way,” and “my nipples are harder than long division.” Oh my.

Desperate for a big story to satisfy their editor, the couple makes up a character, mincing over his name and sexual identity for maximum traction. Within minutes, the fiction goes too far as parody and storytelling.

The play’s biggest rewards are the couple’s frenetic verbal games and wardrobe changes, but it’s still too word clever. If you could win on Jeopardy in the theater category, you might catch the inside-jokes.

When Mr. Fitch calls his wife a charlatan, she laughs at the accusation and dances the Charleston. “Zelda, we wait for nothing…” they repeat in unison, a flash to Zelda Fitzgerald, the writer, dancer, Jazz-Age celebrity married to F. Scott Fitzgerald. We wanted more live action like this, and less blab.

While some of the jabs are cruel–Mr. Fitch calls his beloved a whore–it’s all an act. It’s as if the actors Oswald and Campbell escaped from a 1930’s movie with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Oswald does a swell job of singing Cole Porter’s tune “Mr. and Missus Fitch” about an Oklahoma couple striking oil, from the play Gay Divorce, and remade as The Gay Divorcee. Even this song has a gossipy back story–Porter and friends admitted to planting stories about fictitious people as a prank. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qimZz_vHCo0

Oswald’s Mr. Fitch and Cambell’s Missus exude studied sophistication. Their relationship survives through smart-assery. When an invitation arrives, they call it the “ass-kissers Ball.” They are pros and never falter.

Tony Cucuzzella’s scenic design is mid-century modern and suggests a large apartment in the tiny Moxie theater space that hosts Backyard Renaissance. Our eyes bounce from a living room to a kitchen, and focus on alcoholic beverages available in three easy locations. In a comic line about mistakes, Mrs. Fitch refers to a brilliant pink wall. “I was drunk and tired.”

Under Francis Gercke’s direction, fast and furious repartee sparkles, but the script is hard to love. They don’t even call each other by a first name. They pretend to be happy, but are continually bored. Mr. and Mrs. Fitch don’t have true love or personality, only what they’ve stolen from books and shows. By the final scene, our heads are spinning.

Costumes by Jessica John Gercke are plentiful and range from evening gowns to skivvies because this couple stays up late to party and sleeps till 4:30 in the afternoon.

Playwright Douglas Carter Beane is obviously poking fun at the twisted life of writers and deadlines, and he’s slapping the masses for gobbling up irrelevant garbage. But Mr. and Mrs. Fitch can’t compete with TMZ and the National Enquirer and seem lost in 2019. Good grief, they don’t even have HD TV.

The idea of quitting the sleazy bizz and writing the Great American Novel is also dated, not nearly as funny as Oswald’s imitations of tweets. When his Mr. Fitch goes off on a tangent about Latin songs, we wish for more speed and physical comedy, as when Mr. Fitch reaches for his blue pill.

Since the days of Louella Parsons and Walter Winchell, gossip writers have been feared and loved. Their co-dependent relationship between celebrities and their publicists can make and break careers, and take down presidents.

While the playwright Bean should know more about the bottom-feeding life of gossip columnists, his commentary on fake news resonates. The play succeeds with loads of comic material and one-liners, if your brain can keep up. Oswald and Campbell have wickedly good chemistry, and anyone who enjoys verbal sparring is in for treat.

Mr. & Mrs. Fitch, presented by Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company, runs through April 14, at Moxie Theatre. 6663 El Cajon Blvd. www.BackyardRenaissance.com

Backyard Rennaissance Theatre Co. will soon have a home. It has been named company-in-residence at La Jolla Playhouse for next season.

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