Weird '(title),' witty show at Actor's Theatre

I remember laughing consistently at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte's "(title of show)," admiring the effervescent tautness of the acting ensemble and catching virtually all the in-jokes about Broadway flops. But marshalling my memories three hours later is like trying to carry a soap bubble across a wide room on a dinner plate.

The production is very much of the moment. It seems to be written literally in front of our eyes: The four characters walk downstage center to tell us "This is the last line of the show," and they mean it. The humor is the kind you hear from articulate, fast-talking people at cocktail parties and are unable to recall that night as you get ready for bed.

Leading men Hunter and Jeff (Ryan Stamey and Rory Dunn) stand in for book writer Hunter Bell and composer-lyricist Jeff Bowen. These characters have three weeks to whip up an entry from scratch for a theater festival, so they decide to turn life into art: They'll be two guys writing a show about two guys writing a show about two guys writing a show. They enlist close female friends, disgruntled office manager Susan (Susan Roberts Knowlson) and perennial chorus dancer/understudy Heidi (Allison Lamb), to get the work going.

Act 1 chronicles the creative process. Act 2 tracks the piece to an off-Broadway theater and then a Broadway house, ending with a hope of success. (The actual musical reached Broadway briefly in 2008; Bell's book earned a Tony nomination.)

You'll enjoy '(title)' more if you don't mind gay banter, if you know why John Cameron Mitchell and Kitty Carlisle Hart are minor New York deities, if profanity cannot shock you, and especially if you have ever experienced the frustration of pursuing an artistic idea that dances just out of reach.

Most of all, you must enjoy post-modern theater, the kind that not only breaks down the fourth wall of the playhouse but mocks itself affectionately. Singers shout "key change!" in mid-song to call your attention to a theatrical technique meant to ramp up excitement - and then make a key change. "Right now, we need to get out of this scene, because it feels a little long," says Hunter. Bang! A blackout follows at once.

The show even comments on its mixed reviews, jokingly noting praise for the clever structure but negativity toward its "forgettable songs." They're not, exactly; they're just indistinguishable, with two exceptions. The first, a mordant attack on those who tear artists down, is "Die, Vampire, Die!" The second, "A Way Back to Then," provides the lone memorable melody - and a sentimentality that is just what "(title of show)" generally mocks.

The cast delivers songs with zest and winks at them at the same time, not an easy thing to do. Director Chip Decker emphasizes the flippancy of the material, and music director Ryan Deal (onstage, as an eternally unsung music director) keeps the quartet afloat on a sea of music from a keyboard.

By the way, the characters never find a name for their festival entry. They submit it as "(title of show)," which leads to a cute running gag in Stamey's biography in the playbill. On this occasion, even the program notes are postmodern!