Review: ‘Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson,’ Aiming for His Head

The cherry-red gumballs are fat round orbs, jumbo size, and if you drop them from a height onto an unyielding surface — a soundstage floor, say, or a movie star’s skull — some will split wide open, their dry white guts bared.

“They’re harder than golf balls,” Rob, a special-effects assistant, worries in Rob Ackerman’s new comedy, “Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson.” In what the script calls “a sort of true story,” the play is set on the day in January 2010 when the revered documentarian Errol Morris, shooting an AT&T commercial starring Luke Wilson, orders Rob to aim right at the actor.

“Hit his head,” this imaginary version of the director growls. “Hit him hard.”

The real-life ad series that this spot was part of landed on a Time magazine list of Top 10 Embarrassing Celebrity Commercials, so we’re not talking about great art here. And anyway, Mr. Ackerman — a longtime prop master for the “Saturday Night Live” film unit — is more interested in craft: specifically, the people whose job it is to realize an artist’s vision. Even if that vision is severely ill-advised.

Directed by Theresa Rebeck for the Working Theater, “Dropping Gumballs” stretches Mr. Ackerman’s anecdote over a very thin 75 minutes, during which the ad is shot and reshot. But the play does have a delicious villain in its Morris, played by David Wohl as a tyrannical perfectionist who thrills at his own gravitas.

Striding the soundstage in the Mezzanine Theater at A.R.T./New York Theaters, he delivers heightened monologues into a cordless microphone as if he’s narrating his own brilliance. (The set is by the brothers Christopher and Justin Swader, the tropical-palette lighting by Mary Ellen Stebbins and the sound design by Bart Fasbender.)

But as the star-struck Rob (George Hampe) comes to realize — and as the assistant director, Alice (Ann Harada), already knows — this Morris is a swaggering bully, given to berating and belittling the people under his command.

“You’re fat, you’re washed up, you’re a has-been, your brother’s a much bigger star than you are,” he tells Wilson (Jonathan Sale). “We tried to get him, but he turned us down.”

Wanting to goose the comedy, the play, too, is meaner to Wilson than it needs to be. In a show so concerned with working conditions that it sometimes feels like an industrial video, it’s peculiar to pick on a guy who’d rather not have objects dropped on his head — the hefty paycheck notwithstanding.

As written, Wilson is a cartoon, but at least he has charisma, which our hero, Rob, and his thinly drawn colleagues sorely lack. That’s not the actors’ doing; the trouble is in a script that wants to honor the characters’ toil but can’t locate the drama in it.

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

He’s right about that. And as we watch take after take of the commercial, seeing the gumballs hit and miss and hit, the pleasure that this play’s fabulous title promised evaporates.

Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson

Through July 6 at the A.R.T./ New York Theater’s Mezzanine Theater, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.