`Luck': Is There a Doctor in the House?

LUCK, PLUCK & VIRTUE. Written and directed by James Lapine, inspired by Nathanael West's "A Cool Million." With Neil Patrick Harris, Elaina Davis, MacIntyre Dixon, Marge Redmond, Steven Goldstein, Adrianne Krstansky, Chris Bauer, Siobhan Fallon, Geoffrey Owens, Stephen Lee Anderson. Set by Derek McLane, costumes by Laura Cunningham and Martin Pakledinaz, lights by Donald Holder, music by Allen Shawn, with pianist James Bassi. Atlantic Theater Company, 20th Street west of Eighth Avenue. Seen at Saturday's preview.

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS - previously Doogie Howser, TV-teen M.D. - leaps nice and high. He also can take an extremely nifty pratfall, do a neat brave-trooper routine and look cheerfully optimistic while his all-American hero of a character is systematically mutilated by the misadventures of life.

What the buoyant and talented Harris cannot do in his New York stage debut, unfortunately, is make "Luck, Pluck & Virtue" fly with him at the Atlantic Theater Company.

James Lapine, the playwright and director whose collaboration with Stephen Sondheim has produced some of the most important musicals of our time, has written a minor and surprisingly shapeless 100-minute reverse-Horatio Alger fable.

Inspired by Nathanael West's 1934 Alger parody, "A Cool Million" (and first staged with Harris at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1993), this is a picaresque "Candide" of a story with an unrelentingly bleak center that never gets engaging enough or outrageous enough or persuasively dark enough to make its predictable contradictions shocking.

But Harris is perfectly cast as Lester Price, the hopeful cartoon-midwest boy who sets out to find success and save his mother's home from foreclosure. Follow your heart, he is told by Mr. Whipple (MacIntyre Dixon), apparent civic leader of the small Ohio town. Have a dream. Change your own circumstances. Be a Johnny Appleseed.

Of course, good old mom (Marge Redmond) is a catatonic who stares at TV all day and wants Lester to save her by working in the mines. And Mr. Whipple is a crook, and girlfriend Betty (Elaina Davis) gets raped by the town bully and turns up later, still full of pathetic encouragement, as a whore.

The episodes take hapless Lester, who dreams of show business, to exploitation in New York, Montana and Hollywood. He is unjustly imprisoned, duped into having his teeth pulled, loses an eye, then a leg, and, ultimately his scalp.

Despite all this - despite a Brechtian show-girl with titles, Americana-melodrama piano music by Allen Shawn and touches of Lapine's droll hand - the satire is soft and the fantasy monotonous. Lester's mother grumbles, "Nothing turns out like you expect." If only, for once, she were right.

Linda Winer, `Luck': Is There a Doctor in the House?. , Newsday, 04-05-1995

Thanks to Katie for this article.