Producer Tom has convinced Roy to try out a new puppeteer to take Marilyn’s place: 25-year-old Jodi, who has been the show’s biggest fan since childhood and has the ability to voice Frances accurately. (“I feel weirdly confident,” she announces, but her confidence may be misplaced.)
The overeager Jodi’s arrival stirs up all kinds of emotions for the reticent and withdrawn Roy (an empathetic, appealingly low-key Steve Brady), Tom (an equally strong Michael Storm as a gay man with domestic problems) and neurotic, longtime puppeteer Carol (whose avatar is the shy Carol the Pony).
Issues arise: Should the show continue without a Frances puppet, or be closed down altogether, and if so, how will Frances’ absence be explained to the youthful TV fans? Can Jodi get up to speed as a puppeteer? How does Roy’s mourning process affect his ambivalent attitude toward Jodi (Sarah Moser, trying too hard to be wacky and offbeat)?
There’s also the provocative idea of TV show regulars being subsumed by their imaginary characters in self-defeating ways.
Too-lengthy scenes of the gentle, retro TV show itself, with Jodi struggling to master the Frances puppet (and an initial flashback scene of the show in its earlier form, before the death of Roy’s wife), seem to be meant to appeal, in a nostalgic way, to a contemporary adult audience.
There was plenty of laughter in the house. But having grown up without TV, to me those silly scenes felt like filler, a replacement for a deeper investigation of the human characters, each of whom deserves more attention.
A long description of a nonsensical proposed screenplay, by the alcoholic, lonely and jealous Carol, also felt like filler, despite a hilarious, spot-on delivery by the always excellent Suzanne Grodner.
Still, there’s a sweet and at times comic poignancy to “The Great Pretender,” and enough restraint in the writing and in Stephen Brackett’s direction, to — for the most part — avoid sentimentality.
The Great Pretender
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 3
Tickets: $19 to $74
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org