Kat, an avant-garde musician from 21st century Brooklyn, finds a kindred spirit in an early 20th century British explorer in the two-person musical “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me,” which is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through May 17. It’s not like they have nothing in common: Bravery in the face of impossible odds, after all, is a requirement for both of their professions.
Also, in case you were wondering, the explorer — Ernest Shackleton, who, in real life, led three expeditions to the Antarctic — is a figment of the sleep-deprived musician’s imagination.
There are lots of clever touches and some laugh-out-loud jokes in the play, which is written by Joe DiPietro (“Memphis,” “The Toxic Avenger,” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”). Playing Kat, Valerie Vigoda of the band GrooveLily — who co-wrote the songs with her GrooveLily partner and husband Brendan Milburn — has the musical chops to make her believable. And Wade McCollum brings a sweet, goofy charm to the mock-heroic Shackleton.
The musical has imaginative staging and some laugh-out-loud jokes. But it was ultimately a disappointment, due to the shallowness of its characters and its plot. It felt more like a series of skits, strung together, than a well-conceived play.
It takes place mostly in Kat’s snow-filled apartment; she’s so poor, apparently, that she can’t afford a roof. At the start of the play, she’s making a video for a dating web site, cupid’s-leftovers.com, introducing herself with an autobiographical song that makes clever use of video. We learn that she hasn’t found much of an audience for her music, and hates her day job.
She shares the apartment with her infant son, whose dolt-ish father has left them and is touring the country in a Journey cover band. Her son lives in the apartment’s only warm room, she tells us.
Things go from bad to worse when she gets a phone call from her boss, telling her she’s fired. “My work is good,” she protests. But she’s told it’s not her work that’s the problem, it’s her.
She seems to be hurtling toward rock bottom. Somehow, though, her video makes its way across time and space and touches the heart of Shackleton, who enters her apartment through her refrigerator and says he was captivated by her “fantastical transmission.” They set off on an adventure together, romantic sparks fly, and he teaches her stuff about exploring that she can apply to her own life and career (“blind, relentless hope is what brings about miracles,” he says).
Unfortunately, Shackleton is not just unreal; he’s also not much of a character. He’s a dashing, Hollywood-ready leading man with a boyish twinkle in his eye. One of the musical’s recurring jokes is that he can never just say “I”; it’s always, “I, Ernest Shackleton!” He spends much of his time striking poses and very little of it paying attention to Kat.
And Kat is just as much of a raging narcissist; her main problem with the world is that it hasn’t noticed how brilliant she is, and though we hear her son crying, offstage, at various points in the play, she usually ignores him and continues doing whatever she’s doing. Even her theoretically bold music is not something to get excited about, as she’s just rehashing stuff that Laurie Anderson was doing more than 30 years ago.
The play has a serious, uplifting ending, but it’s kind of beside the point. The best things about “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” are the silly, throwaway gags that are laced throughout it.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I just get the sense that everyone involved was aiming for something more than occasional amusement.
The musical is at the George Street Playhouse through May 17; visit GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.