Agenda Bending

Rose, at least, boasts an actress equal to Ivey in stature. Olympia Dukakis, frail of body but seemingly gigantic of spirit, has the instant authority to give any moment absolute conviction, and the canniness never to overplay her hand, so that the authority never becomes overbearing. Just as well, too—she needs every ounce of that conviction to sustain Martin Sherman's script, a monologue recited to no one in particular, during which, as a self-proclaimed Jewish mourner sitting shivah, she's glued to a wooden bench slightly left of stage center, with barely more than a few sound effects to dress the barren gloom behind her.

The substance of Rose's lengthy solo is the history of the Jews in the 20th century, virtually all of which she turns out to have experienced personally, from a shtetl in the Ukraine threatened by marauding Cossacks to the devolution of a Miami Beach hotel into a trendy club. She misses the Nazi death camps—Sherman must feel he dealt with them sufficiently in Bent—by hiding out for two years, improbably, in the sewers of Warsaw. An unapologetic radical, secularist, feminist, and often a cynic, Rose would be a thoroughly fascinating figure if only her story had the touch of life that could make us believe it all. Instead, we sense the carpentry: each episode carefully wrought to dramatize this segment of history, to articulate that position on the relevant issues, to give Rose this precise degree of individuality.

Judith Ivey and Hayley Mills in "Shadows of the Evening": Suite while it lasted
photo: Joan Marcus
Judith Ivey and Hayley Mills in "Shadows of the Evening": Suite while it lasted


Suite in Two Keys
By NoŽl Coward
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street (Closed)

By Martin Sherman
Lyceum Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street 212-239-6200

The Wild Party
By Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe
Virginia Theatre
Broadway and 52nd Street 212-239-6200

The Real Thing
By Tom Stoppard
Barrymore Theatre
Broadway and 47th Street 212-239-6200

Some of these segments are gorgeously written—Sherman's neatness includes an eager thoroughness—and Dukakis seizes them with powerful effect. But so much painstaking effort, coupled with the absence of action, ultimately becomes maddening. An old-fashioned play, which would have compelled Sherman to contrive the episodes instead of merely narrating them, would at least have been a challenge. Instead, Rose's tale either lulls you or rouses your suspicions till you start to pick holes in it.

Naturally, they're there to be picked: One of her touchstones is the 1935 Yiddish-language movie Yidl Mitn Fidl ("Yiddle and His Fiddle"), starring Molly Picon, which Rose keeps insisting takes place in a shtetl. It is, however, a road movie: The heroine and her father are evicted from their shtetl home at the start of the film and become itinerant musicians; most of the climactic events take place in the same big city—Warsaw—where Rose is supposed to have seen the film. Rose's misleading description is of a piece with other dubieties, like her ability to wander unchallenged through the Warsaw ghetto at night, or the statement "The first time I ate ice cream was in Atlantic City." (By 1937, they had ice cream in Eastern Europe. Ask Bock and Harnick.) The pity is that Sherman has a great actress, a great subject, and no small ability to string words together. But making the words live and reverberate is a task he leaves to Dukakis; he elects to stake out positions on the play's outline rather than dive for its center.

More secularized Jews are on view, along with wealthy cokeheads, bare-breasted vaudeville dancers, Harlem homosexuals, and a variety of interracial and intersexual couplings, in the season's second version of Joseph Moncure March's 1928 verse novel, The Wild Party. Longer and more elaborate than Andrew Lippa's Manhattan Theatre Club rendition, the Wolfe-LaChiusa Broadway treatment is otherwise different only in having different high spots in its score and its cast; the basic material remains intractable. Egged on by a jealous ex-girlfriend, a sadistic vaudeville comic and his masochistic dancer sweetie push their hostility to a fatal breaking point, precipitated by the presence of the intrusive ex's mysterious, sexy escort. March was said to have based these folk and their variously sordid cohorts on real people; the novel, first published privately, was a sort of extended blind-item column in loosely rhymed free verse.

Wolfe and LaChiusa try to make the story reflect both our own celebrity-fixated, deal-making era and the shifting social history of the 1920s, in which New York's class barriers, as well as some of its racial barriers, were lowered to honor the frenzy of Prohibition and the Wall Street boom. Intriguing in itself, the idea conflicts both with March's work (the point of which is the sordidness of a parvenu showbiz elite) and with the comparatively unbarriered quality of our own time. The behavior's so open from the start that there's no shock in the loss of respectability, and the casual mingling of black and white in the cast keeps making nonsense of lines about racial barriers and Uptown-Downtown discrimination. Worse, each of the team's expansions throws the action further off kilter: The mysterious Mr. Black, as the novel's unknown quantity, is fascinating; as the highly professional gigolo of the musical, he's just another creep on this worm farm. (Even worse luck for Yancey Arias, who plays him, are the inevitable comparisons to Taye Diggs, who embodied the role perfectly in the Lippa version.)

When the authors, and Wolfe as director, try to inject moral comment, they go even further astray. In their version, Burrs, the sadist clown, is a blackface performer, who puts his stage makeup on for his fatal confrontation with beautiful Queenie and her newfound lover, Black. Is the idea that blackface equals murder (if so, Hitchcock beat them to it in Young and Innocent), or that you have to become someone else to kill? Either seems excessive for this simple, squalid event, though with Mandy Patinkin playing Burrs, excessiveness would inevitably ooze in. More puzzling is the thought process that makes Eartha Kitt into the evening's prophetic voice of doom. Kitt is resplendent; she gets big laughs with only mildly funny gags, and lines out her it-tolls-for-thee number, one of LaChiusa's weaker efforts, with a chilling ferocity.

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