Landau handles it with more respect and delicacy than her downtown work would have led me to expect. An opening video montage sets the era for us, cunningly integrated with the mock commercial for the answering service that is the show's locus of operations. Landau tends to rush, a little, over the low-comic affairs of Beth Fowler, as the heroine's cousin and employer, and David Garrison (a dapper, stylized performance) as the Hungarian con man who romances her. But she's plucked a comic triumph from Martin Moran, as the dentist with dreams of songwriting whom the heroine befriends. A twitching frenzy of elbows, knees, and excited yelps, Moran's turn is the most original piece of acting currently visible in a Broadway musical: Picture a complete cast of people up to his level, and you'll know what the form's great days were like. If Landau and Calhoun mean to call them back, I wish them the best. Though there's plenty wrong with Bells Are Ringing, starting with the figure at its center, you may be surprised how well the old thing functions.
Incidentally, the authors may have drawn a vague inspiration for their plot from the 1949 Lucille Ball movie Miss Grant Takes Richmond, in which a bookie ring hires the dumbest girl in a secretarial school as an innocent front for their operations; comparing play and film shows you both the skill with which Comden and Green worked out their distinctive variant, and how ingeniously, through their love of classical music, they personalized it. That personalizing is part of the work's principal charm: its genuine love for the spirit of New York, where impossibly wonderful things can happen, and for the wonderful, impossible people who inhabit it. That spirit still exists, despite all efforts by Giuliani and the realtors to extirpate it.
photo: Michal Daniel
Perez and Ortiz in References: Welcome to the Dalí house.
References to Salvador Dalí Make me Hot
By José Rivera
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Bells Are Ringing
By Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Music by Jule Styne
Broadway and 45th Street
Saint Lucy's Eyes
By Bridgette Wimberly
424 West 55th Street
The spirit of a smaller, more stratified city, Memphis just before the assassination of Martin Luther King, is one of the stimuli behind Saint Lucy's Eyes, a disjointed, discursive, but honorable work in which Ruby Dee plays a sympathetic kitchen-table abortionist, called "Grandma" by the terrified young women who come to her. Bridgette Wimberly, the author, approaches her explosive subject honestly but impulsively, sorting out neither the events nor the speeches, which are full of repetition and backtracking; this may partly explain why Dee occasionally has to grope for a line. She hews to the ones she finds powerfully enough to make her performance well worth seeing, but the play, tossing in issue after issue with minimal examination, leaves her little defined ground to stand on.