Oldies = Goodies

The secret's out: This week's confluence of old things (restored or renovated) gave it away. We live in a great theatrical time. Why? Because when the present lets us down, we can get back the past—and we have the resources to make it look and sound terrific. Don't be nostalgic; be gratified. In 2002, The Torch-Bearers will be 80; The Time of the Cuckoo will be 50. Just ponder what the reaction would have been, in 1922 or 1952, if someone had been brash enough to revive a play of similar age. I can tell you: They would have snickered up their sleeves at its quaintness, and never bothered to ask themselves what meaning its popularity in its own time might have for Americans half a century later. They would not have been interested in owning their own past, unless it came in the form of a familiar commercial "property" with retread marks all over it.

In a way, The Torch-Bearers doesn't deserve revival because it's naughty: It caters to the same suspicion of "culture" that makes Americans ignore their artistic past. Art, the play says, is a lot of hooey for the sexually frustrated and the eccentric; healthy American men ignore it, and their wives, if sane, will shun it to stay home and build them a nice nest. The action's based on the cartoon notion that a married woman's amateurish acting is enough to trigger, in her husband, instant cardiac arrest. The ineptitude of amateurs with pretensions is funny enough to make a full-evening skit but not a whole play. Like Shakespeare, who worked the same shtick from a different angle in "Pyramus and Thisbe," Kelly knows better. His amateurs not only have their private pain—you'll be staggered by the granitic agony that crosses Marian Seldes's face when, as Mrs. Pampinelli, driving force of "The Players Club Little Theatre," she mentions her late husband's philistinism—but they also have a vivid, idealistic majesty that the sane characters can't share. Not that we see any sane characters, except Fred Ritter (David Garrison), the second heart-attack victim. His predecessor's widow has had to choose between her stage debut and her husband's funeral, so sweet Mrs. Ritter (Faith Prince) must naturally step in.

Fred survives the performance, as does the Ritter marriage, once he's driven the artsy interferers out. But we've seen too much—and Seldes's grandeur has been too grand—for the complacency of the final curtain to ring true. As Mary McCarthy noted in the '40s, there's something empty and placeless about Kelly's image of middle-class American life; he himself clearly is never sure that it's such a great thing, though he respects it as the source from which audience dollars flow. Somebody has to watch in order for the flamboyant and disorderly to act out; more to the point, a household that closes its doors to the harmless drama of Mrs. Pampinelli is likely to find drama creeping back in more destructively, as the spouses in other Kelly plays learn to their cost. Ridiculing the klutzy capers of the pompous and untrained, Kelly shows their detractors as even worse off: heart-attack husbands who only respond to art deep inside, where no one can see but the cardiologist. The play's title is funnier for being only half ironic. These idiots are bringing what light they can. But the businessmen are off making money—which, as Shaw remarked, "is not made in the light."

Marian Seldes and Judith Blazer in The Torch-Bearers: arms and the women
photo: Kate Raudenbush
Marian Seldes and Judith Blazer in The Torch-Bearers: arms and the women

Details

The Torch-Bearers
By George Kelly
Greenwich House Theatre
27 Barrow Street
212-541-8441

The Time of the Cuckoo
By Arthur Laurents
Lincoln Center
212-239-6200

The Wild Party
By Andrew Lippa
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street
212-581-1212

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Dylan Baker's production solves the problem of Kelly's uneasy tone by putting all its weight on the artists' side: Garrison and Prince, warm and likable actors, make the Ritters a sweet-natured, bland couple who probably should never have been swept into art's higher mysteries. They're no match for Seldes, who endows the inept light-bringer with the whimsical fervor of her Isadora Duncan, the spitfire regality of her Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and for a finishing touch, an acid spray of Winifred Wagner. The forces at her command include droll Albert Macklin, zipping about like a prim weasel, big-eyed Judith Blazer, chirruping heedlessly, and Joan Copeland, a fitful tornado of hesitant interruptions. Not all the supporting parts are that well played, and Baker, actorlike, shapes performances better than he does scenes. But the slightly choppy results mix the script's infallible laughs with enough somber, Seldesian dazzle to make you wonder exactly who's being kidded.


Easy to tell who's being kidded in Time of the Cuckoo—it's those eternal ugly Americans, a raucous parade of blocked artists, whiny possessive wives, love-hungry spinsters, and brain-dead tourists who can't tell a Tintoretto from a vaporetto. Italians, in contrast, are worldly-wise, non-materialistic, and generous-hearted—news to anyone who knows the inner workings of an opera house. Their antiques were churned out yesterday, and their romantic lovers all have a fat wife and six kids starving at home, but Italians know that life is a chancy banquet, so if you can't get the steak you want, "eat the ravioli." "I'm not that hungry," says Leona Samish, Cuckoo's emotionally needy heroine; her author, instead of applauding, turns her into the evening's villain, a greedy girl who won't accept love unless it comes dangling garnets. The character's convincing, but the indictment, like those fake 18th-century tourist goblets, somehow lacks authenticity.

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