A little over a decade ago, Mario Cantone performed a one-man show on Broadway in which he reminisced, among other things, about his first acting gig in New York City when he was cast as a rustic in a Shakespearean comedy performing in Central Park. Night after night, the audience never laughed, and he wanted to scream out at them, “You try to making f-king 400-year-old jokes work!”
I thought of Cantone’s comment while I watched the new musical “These Paper Bullets!,” which opened Tuesday at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater. It’s based on the Bard’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” and it makes you wonder why anyone would rework an f-king old plot about lovers who are deceived into thinking they’ve been unfaithful.
Rolin Jones has updated the story to 1964 and set it in London during the heyday of the Beatles, Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon, although only the hairdresser is a character (very minor) here. Jones’ Fab Four is a group named the Quartos, which hires a talented drummer (James Barry) after dropping an untalented one (Adam O’Byrne), who vows revenge and so kick-starts the story, which is impossible to follow if you don’t know your Shakespeare.
“These Papers Bullets!” not only purports to be a comedy. It’s also a musical, and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong has written a few songs that present a very good facsimile of the Beatles work before they went to India and dropped acid. There isn’t enough of Armstrong’s music and there’s way too much of Jones’ book, which achieves the uneasy feat of being both arch and frenetic. Jackson Gay directs the actors to scream and gesticulate like crazy people. Only Justin Kirk as one of the Quartos (shades of McCartney or Lennon) manages to deliver a somewhat subdued performance despite wrestling with a stuffed bird, among other things.
One piece of comic business works: Nicole Parker as Kirk’s love interest Bea (the Quant figure) uses a discarded condom as a slingshot and instead manages to slap herself in the face with it.
Another charming bit, unfortunately, can’t be repeated in future performances. During the big wedding scene, a webcam recorder is taken into the audience and theatergoers are mistaken for famous people of the era, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. At the preview I attended, the person misidentified as Sean Connery happened to be a critic, there to review the show, and he was genuinely pissed at being on camera. He also bore less resemblance to 007 than any other person in the theater. Now that was funny.