Dramaturgy 90210

In other words, both Day's jokes and his lack of consequentiality belong to our own scattershot time, when everything's irrelevant; of the tension and frenzied secrecy that built up in the closets of the 1950s, there's not a trace. The ditz-brained secretary, who adores the star uncritically before their marriage, turns into a God-babbling slave driver afterward with a speed that suggests the couple spent their honeymoon at Don Pasquale. The Communist screenwriter, a working-class boy who's written a big novel about striking coal miners, casually admits to being gay as if it were no more important than the difference between jockey shorts and boxers. (As you might expect, he doesn't have much Communist doctrine to offer; he's strictly a sit-Commie.) And the absence of fear, though probably a wonderful sign of how we've progressed, invalidates the action from any point of view: Day simply doesn't convey any notion of how terrifying it was to be in the position of any of his characters, facing bankruptcy, betrayal, blackmail, blacklisting, gay bashing, police brutality, public execration, prison, and one's own sense of shame, guilt, and paranoia.

Day would be welcome to ridicule all this, to trivialize it, to turn it into a free-form fantasy, or to use any other approach that would tell the story he's attempting to tell. The one thing he can't do is leave it out: You can put together an automobile any way you want; the one thing you can't do is omit the engine—at least, not if you want the car to move. To which one might add, from a moral standpoint, that it's perfectly okay to make fun of a cause people died for, but you can't deny that they died. Hollywood homophobia and Red-baiting between them were responsible for a lot of corpses, and the failure to acknowledge their existence makes Day's harmless little comedy creepily dishonest, as well as nerveless, in its underpinnings. In which respect, of course, it's just like television, that ultracool medium with its don't-care random exploitation of everything.

Adopted poses: John Gallagher Jr. and Christine Ebersole in Current Events
photo: Joan Marcus
Adopted poses: John Gallagher Jr. and Christine Ebersole in Current Events

Details

Current Events
By David Marshall Grant
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street
212-581-1212

Straight-Jacket
By Richard Day
Playhouse 91
316 East 91st Street
212-307-4100

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Not—to be fair—that sitcomland is without its charms, at least in the area of laughs. If Day can't write a scene, he can write a tolerable string of jokes; when the latter are delivered by a comic actress with the sharp timing of Jackie Hoffman, as the star's tough-minded agent, even the weakest jokes on the string get loud guffaws. Day has compounded his script's flaws by directing it himself, in a lavishly clunky production—the one thing that really evokes the 1950s is set designer Ray Recht's use of twin revolving stages, a device that came in with My Fair Lady. Day can no more stage a scene than write one, but he's had the sense to cast likable people in his key roles, especially Hoffman, John Littlefield as the blandly narcissistic hero, and Ron Mathews as the tightly wound HUAC investigator pursuing him. Credit Day, too, with the discovery that Carrie Preston, liberated from the burden of Shakespeare, has great potential as a screwball comedienne.

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