Theater Review: ‘Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson’ at A.R.T./New York Theater

By Jonathan Spira on 3 July 2019
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Filming a television commercial can be tough. Filming one where the sole actor appearing in it will be dinged and knocked out by cherry red gumballs of an indeterminate weight is even tougher.

Such is the story of “Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson,” a play by Rob Ackerman directed by playwright Theresa Rebeck (“Bernhardt/Hamlet”) that opened June 18. This Working Theater production is based on “a sort of true story,” as the script puts it, namely a day in January 2010 when the well-known documentarian Errol Morris is shooting an AT&T commercial starring Luke Wilson. Morris, played with great gravitas by David Wohl, orders Rob (George Hampe), a jittery special-effects assistant, to compound a mistake he made earlier and hit Wilson (Jonathan Sade) on the head from above, instead of just firing off the gumballs in his general direction.

Rob, portrayed so well by Hampe as a star-struck innocent, is no match for the tyrannical Morris, who never met a #MeToo supporter he didn’t dislike. Morris is a legend in his own mind who is subject to expounding about his own brilliance. Still, he is an eminently likeable bad guy, even when trying to render the actor in his commercial unconscious.

“Hit his head,” Morris commands. “Hit him hard.”

His assistant director, Alice (Ann Harada of “Avenue Q” fame), knows him all too well yet can’t risk her job and career by revealing him as a villain. Wilson, who is on the receiving end of Rob’s gumballs, tries to object to being a human shooting range target to no avail.

“You’re fat, you’re washed up, you’re a has-been, your brother’s a much bigger star than you are,” Morris tells Wilson, although yells might be a better way of describing it. Referencing Wilson’s brother Owen, Morris continues the verbal assault: “We tried to get him, but he turned us down.”

His brother might have been a better choice: the actual commercial shows Wilson to be lackluster in his performance and a poor choice to position AT&T against Verizon Wireless.

While at times “Dropping Gumballs” resembles a how-to video on YouTube for filming a commercial on the realistic set by Christopher and Justin Swader with the lush lighting by Mary Ellen Stebbins, the play, which includes Dean Nolen as the veteran props master who builds the rig that drops the gumballs, and Reyna de Courcy, the only woke cast member who rails against what she hears, kept the audience in stitches for much of its 75-minute running time.

“The goal is not to get to the end, it’s to get there with pleasure,” Morris tells his minions. “As soon as the gumballs hit or don’t hit Luke Wilson, the story is essentially over.”

THE DETAILS

Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson
Limited engagement through July 6
A.R.T./ New York Theater’s Mezzanine Theater
502 W 53rd Street
New York, N.Y. 10019
Runtime: 75 min
www.theworkingtheater.org

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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