A wrong-side-of-the-bed comedy

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Ready or not, "Taller Than a Dwarf" is headed to Broadway next week.

Seeing it during a shakedown run at Boston's Wilbur Theatre, you feel it's still stumbling out of bed. But "Dwarf" seems to have enough star power (Matthew Broderick and rising comic actress Parker Posey) and pure entertainment value to eventually find its legs.

There's certainly a kernel of a good idea here. A 30-something couple is barely eking out a bland existence in a less-than-fashionable apartment in Queens, N.Y. The TV blares news of Internet millionaires and lottery winners. But the millennial boom somehow has passed Howard and Selma Miller by.

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Tony Walton's skewed set - there's hardly a right angle to be found - tips author Elaine May's hand. The equilibrium of the Miller household has been lost, from the moment the morning alarm clock fails to go off; and a series of mishaps is about to crescendo into chaos.

Broderick once played a character called "Mouse" (in the movie "Ladyhawke"). That describes his character here - until this day, when, nearing a midlife birthday, he finally snaps and takes to his bed. Suddenly, the milquetoast Howard is a hero in the eyes of his wife, parents, and boss when he refuses to go to work. They think he has a secret plan for escaping life's rat race. He doesn't.

Broderick's contorted physical humor in his bed/nest makes for the show's high point: Ignoring the ministrations of his wife, parents, and boss, he sings (seemingly nonsensically) an off-key medley of "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar," "Shortnin' Bread," and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" - mouthing the words with a blue-parrot hand puppet while being turned out of bed and onto the floor by his concerned family.

The play seems to rest comfortably on the shoulders of the ingratiating Broderick, who has theatrical laurels (two Tony awards) in addition to his active film career ("Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Glory," "Election"). He's on stage and pushing the action for nearly all of the intermission-less 90 minutes.

Despite attempts at topical references to Y2K, the Internet, and the new millennium, May (a gifted comic writer whose long list of writing credits includes the films "Heaven Can Wait," "The Birdcage," and "Primary Colors") has constructed a conventional comedy that seems as though it could have taken place anytime in the last half-century.

She apologizes upfront for the stereotypical nature of her characters by having them confess to the audience that, indeed, that is exactly what they are. Yet the gags, punch lines, and pratfalls are all here in sufficient quantity to provide a number of laugh-out-loud moments.

"Dwarf" doesn't have a lot on its mind, but it still provides far more food for thought than nearly any TV sitcom. Is simply being "taller than a dwarf" enough to ask of life? Or must we insist it yield up more? Do we jump into the unscrupulous game of fast bucks going on around us hoping that, perhaps we, too, will find happiness?

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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