Steppenwolf Theatre

at the Apollo Theater Center

Straight white male, middle-aged, pompous and gruff but caring underneath, seeks straight white female, 20s, good-looking, aggressive but vulnerable. Purpose: friendship, mutual education in humanities and humanity, intellectual discussions, repressed erotic attraction, dramatic fireworks leading up to satisfying conclusion.

The description is Pygmalion, of course. George Bernard Shaw’s didactic comedy worked awfully well as a model for Garson Kanin’s flagwaving Born Yesterday and Willy Russell’s heartwarming Educating Rita, and less obviously (and so more effectively) for Jerry Sterner’s brilliant and provocative Other People’s Money.

Garry Marshall and Lowell Ganz’s new play, Wrong Turn at Lungfish, reuses the tried-and-true dramatic formula Shaw made famous in his play about a phonetics teacher who tries to educate an illiterate girl and ends up unleashing a free-willed woman. Like Shaw’s Henry Higgins, college professor Peter Ravenswaal corrects the grammar and diction of his guttersnipe, Anita Merendino; he also teaches her a few big words (like “facetious” and “fellatio”). But what Ravenswaal is really concerned with is Big Ideas. You know, Schopenhauer, Baudelaire, Keats, Aristotle, Eliot. Big Ideas that come in books written by authors with droppable names.

Wrong Turn at Lungfish is written for audiences who think Big Ideas come in books but haven’t actually read any, and don’t intend to. This presumed audience, weaned over the years on brainless TV sitcoms, want their Big Ideas predigested for them and then dropped onto their mental plates like baby food, taste enhanced by easy-to-understand melodramatics and glib one-liners.

Such is the theatrical meal served up by Marshall and Ganz, courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre and its almost comically erratic taste in scripts. Set in a New York City hospital, Wrong Turn at Lungfish is the story of Ravenswaal and Anita, a blind, dying intellectual and the streetwise tart who comes to him as a volunteer reader for the sightless. He’s irascible and ill-mannered, she’s uneducated but resilient; she’s a superstitious Catholic, he’s a supercilious Protestant. He’s a widower facing death alone, she’s the mistreated lover of a low-rent mob enforcer named Dominic. By the end of act two, Ravenswaal has taught Anita to live independently and she has helped him to die with dignity. It’s all very touching, and not a shred of it is the slightest bit convincing.

Why? Because Marshall and Ganz’s script is blatantly manipulative as it piles up cute jokes and quirky mannerisms and predictable plot twists for its prefabricated characters–the surly but sensitive teacher, the tough but tender tart, the pea-brained, well-muscled thug, and the snippy, exasperated nurse. Guided by Marshall’s snappy directorial style–honed to slick, two-dimensional perfection from years of directing TV shows such as Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and The Odd Couple and movies such as Nothing in Common and Pretty Woman–actors John Mahoney (Ravenswaal), Laurie Metcalf (Anita), Tim Hopper (Dominic), and Mariann Mayberry (the nurse) breeze through their paces with nary a false step. Metcalf is particularly on target, but then she’s played this character before, with a different accent, in Educating Rita. But the characters remain generic types, with nothing more specific to distinguish them from their predecessors in other plays than superficial tics and, in Metcalf’s case, a playfully tasteless series of bimbo costumes from designer Erin Quigley.

Toward the end of the play, Anita tells Ravenswaal that Dominic doesn’t like poetry because it makes him feel stupid. Wrong Turn at Lungfish won’t make anybody feel stupid; every idea, every symbol–including the title image, of the fish whose development of lungs marked the evolutionary turning point of the migration of life from water to land–is spelled out to avoid confusing or offending a mass audience weaned on insipid drivel like Marshall’s own Happy Days. This Lungfish swims in very shallow waters indeed.