Oldies = Goodies

Still, the shortfall that can't be overlooked in real-life love affairs is easy to repair in the theater, where great acting transfigures a script's flaws. Nobody's bad in Nicholas Martin's production of Cuckoo—Adam Trese as Eddie, the jittery blocked artist, is particularly good—and greatness walks onstage with Debra Monk's Leona. Or to be more precise, Leona herself walks onstage, seemingly unaware that she is merely a role being played by Debra Monk. No acting process, no trace of Monk's own personality, is visible—just this resourceful, superficially self-possessed, but deeply distraught and lonely middle-class woman, from whom everyone you know would edge politely away. It's unfair, really: Laurents can tilt the play against Leona, knowing that he has first-quality help in making her an object of fascinated compassion.

Compassion's the one quality not to look for in any version of The Wild Party, in which all the Americans are as ugly as can be. The poet and screenwriter Joseph Moncure March had a knack for turning dark gossip into marketable tropes. Party riffs on the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and other nasty tales from the era's showbiz rumor mills, turned into choppy, mannerist sorta-poetry that gives the dirt a creepily refined air. Peculiar stuff, one would have thought, for not one but two new musicals. Still, writer-composer Andrew Lippa and director Gabriel Barre squeeze a fair amount of juicy diversion from it. That they squeeze too hard, though, is almost a given in today's tin-eared musical theater.

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


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

The Time of the Cuckoo
By Arthur Laurents
Lincoln Center

The Wild Party
By Andrew Lippa
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street

Eschewing most of the novel's digressions, Lippa leans on the love quadrangle at its center: Queenie, the beautiful vaudeville dancer, is trapped in an abusive relationship with the brutal clown Burrs; slutty Kate, who covets Burrs, plans to land him by arriving at their party with Black, a handsome, taciturn newcomer, as a consolation prize for Queenie. Too much passion gets into the plans; by the end there are beatings and bloodshed, and—big surprise—everybody loses. Despite his tremendous inventive resources, Lippa can't dig much emotional depth out of this story: His solos for the four principals, even merged in quartet, are the same reiterative hand-wringing. He rescues the event with the variety of his narrative music—everything from Jazz Age fox-trots to New Age percussive sounds—and his creative interruptions for the supporting cast. The best of these, the lament of a lonely lesbian longing for "an old-fashioned love story," is rendered by Alix Korey with an embittered perfection that reduces the house to frenzies of laughter and cheers.

Nothing else reaches that peak, though two of Lippa's up-tempo items, "Out of the Blue" and "Let's Raise the Roof," are worth rehearing, and the vivid flickers of Mark Dendy's choreography reveal, for once, a modern dancer with genuine theatricality, who knows how to bond dance to colloquial actor-movement. Barre's more conventional but workable staging has another strong ally in David Gallo's ingenious sliding set. The cast, nobly, knocks itself out to put the grim material over, but there are no big individual victories except for Korey's and that of Taye Diggs, as the tender-souled Black, his looks and voice equally elegant. I don't know how he escaped the go-for-broke shrillness visited on everyone else by Brian Ronan's sound design, which makes the two principal women and Brian d'Arcy James sound exactly like two dental drills and a jackhammer ratcheting away in unison. The past was never quiet, but it had more musical sensitivity.

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