After years of writing for the likes of Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore and Bing Crosby, Kenny Solms has finally struck out on his own. The result is “It Must Be Him,” a frothy musical comedy in the well-worn tradition of shows about show business, which opened September 1 at New York’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater.
Louie Wexler (Peter Scolari), the protagonist of Solms’s transparently autobiographical tale, is a frustrated, aging writer who lives in a Beverly Hills mansion but fears that Hollywood has left him behind. Louie’s prime — like Solms’s — was in the golden age of variety television, and he now spends his unhappy days tinkering with an unfinished screenplay and bickering with his sassy Hispanic housekeeper. Worst of all, he’s desperately lonely: In lieu of a real boyfriend, Louie pines after the gorgeous 23-year-old Scott (Patrick Cummings), an aspiring actor who lives with him but sleeps in a separate bedroom.
Louie is Jewish, a detail that seems to have been included only as a pretense for a few scenes in which he is haunted by the ghosts of his parents (Bob Ari and Alice Playten) — a stereotypical pair who nag, vex, and smother from beyond the grave. The father accuses Louie of being jealous that his brother got the bigger bar mitzvah; the mother alternately fusses and consoles. (Louie is also visited, inexplicably, by apparitions of his brother and of a frumpy girl he dated in high school, both of whom are living.)
Predictably, Louie’s movie — a romance based on his relationship with Scott — is a disaster: Louie’s agent sends home all the actors halfway through the first reading, and the real Scott takes up with another man his own age. It’s a grim situation, but despite Louie’s persistent failures — to sell a script, to get a man, to write a masterpiece — he never earns our sympathy. Solms pathologically avoids poignant moments, opting instead for an endless barrage of easy one-liners calculated to elicit knowing — if not genuinely mirthful — laughter. (Scott doesn’t even know who Debbie Reynolds is. The horror!) Heartbroken and penniless, Louie wails, “My last credit was for the Osmonds’ Christmas Special!”
Things pick up, momentarily, when Louie decides to adapt his failed screenplay into a musical. Like all good parodies, composer Larry Grossman’s musical numbers are devilishly close to the real thing: His love theme is only slightly mushier than something by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and a brief musical quotation from “West Side Story’s” “Maria” drew the biggest laugh of the night. Just when we’re beginning to enjoy the show-within-a-show, it ends — but not before we’re subjected to a raunchy number about sadomasochistic gay sex, complete with chains, leather and enormous dildos.
The actors make valiant efforts to bring the flat characters that Solms has written to life, but they can only do so much. Liz Torres struggles to make the housekeeper into something other than a tired stereotype; Harris Doran brings subtle physical humor to the role of Louie’s assistant; and Peter Scolari is appealingly scattered and neurotic as Louie, although his singing is uncomfortably quiet. Edward Staudenmayer is particularly fun to watch in a series of silly bit parts, from a flamboyant actor to a smarmy reality-show emcee.
At a scant 75 minutes, the show feels long, partly because we’re made to sit through so many iterations of the same story about Louie’s dreary life. Finally, Louie and his agent decide they’re in love; they’re nearly the same age, which makes them an “appropriate” pair, and the agent buys Louie’s house so they can live together. It’s an ending that’s as abrupt and contrived as anything Louie might have written. Thinking of Solms, one can’t help thinking that perhaps Louie isn’t the only one who has trouble writing convincingly about his own life.