Math About You

In part, she can risk going out on any emotional limb because she gets such strong support: The unbalanced father is one of Larry Bryggman's best performances yet, shifting focus with heart-stopping speed, giving the man a center even at his most dislocated. Johanna Day's work as the older sister is a gracefully executed rescue operation, softening with tact and warmth the one area of the script where Auburn tends to overstate his case. Ben Shenkman's performance as the student disciple, contrariwise, almost is a mathematical act—precise in behavior, in feeling, in gesture, and even in its slightly muffled hints of erotic interest. (The tension between him and Parker has an almost 18th-century seductive grace.) The most emotional presence of all, for a child of Chicago like myself, belongs to John Lee Beatty's set, which, even though I grew up on the North Side, I feel sure I could locate within a five-block radius in Hyde Park.


I haven't the foggiest idea, though, in what city or even in what decade you'd locate Enter the Guardsman. The plot turns and the theatrical trappings—borrowed from Ferenc Molnar's brilliant 1911 comedy, The Guardsman—seem to indicate Mittel Europa, circa 1910. The music, heavy on patter numbers, most often suggests British comic opera in the 1890s, post-G&S. Unfortunately, its appalling amplification —which shouldn't be allowed in a theater this small—along with much of the singing and the general onstage behavior, yells all too loudly and one-dimensionally that this is a work of our own time, when the nuances that tickle you into smiling your way through the contrived story have been brushed aside, and any wit the authors or composers have managed to work into the material will be stomped flat in performance.

Mary Louise Parker and Ben Shenkman in Proof: sum thing in the air
photo: Joan Marcus
Mary Louise Parker and Ben Shenkman in Proof: sum thing in the air

Details

Proof
By David Auburn
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street
212-581-1212

Enter the Guardsman
By Scott Wentworth and Marion Adler
Music by Craig Bohmler
Dimson Theatre
108 East 15th Street
212-239-6200

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All of which is particularly unfair, not only because Molnar's play is a wittily perfect caprice in itself, but because the authors and composer of the musical version have both respected his wit and on occasion added to it. Scott Wentworth is a very fine actor, but I suspect that a directorial eye other than his own might have kept his script from dragging without mutilating it; I'm sure I would think better of Craig Bohmler's score if I heard it on unplugged instruments; and with the miking removed, I might even be able to make out more than six words of every 10 in Marion Adler's lyrics, though the ones I heard fell aptly enough on the ear.

Unplugging, however, wouldn't suffice by itself; the right performers would have to be plugged in. All of the current casting is upside down and backwards. To start with, you have two leading male roles—The Actor, a dashing matinee idol, and The Playwright, one of nature's onlookers. Then you have Robert Cuccioli, a scruffy, restlessly contemporary actor with a croaky rock voice, and Mark Jacoby, an operetta bari-tenor with an exquisite profile. Guess who's playing the hero, and who the outsider? (The fans Cuccioli acquired in Jekyll & Hyde will now all write in furiously, screaming, "How dare you say he can't play a hero." Of course he can play a hero—in a different kind of play.) No wonder Marla Schaffel, as The Actress whose lover is a role invented by her husband, looks more than a little perplexed. She doesn't even have anyone to turn to, since Derin Altay, as The Dresser who is the sardonic voice of experience, seems neither cynical nor knowing. Rusty Ferracane (The Wig Master) and Kate Dawson (The Wardrobe Mistress) seem to know more about what they're doing than anyone else onstage. And quite the oddest aspect of the evening is that Cuccioli, when he makes up as the imaginary Guardsman, comes off far better than when he's playing the guy who puts on the makeup; the one thing Broadway actors don't know, in the year 2000, is how to be actorish. As Bernard Shaw always told his casts, "You can't be too stagy for the stage."

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