That's Underattainment

Against these shortcomings, we get bright, clean-lined performances from those leads, John Lithgow as Hunsecker and Brian d'Arcy James as his quasi-parasite Falco, along with Kelli O'Hara and Jack Noseworthy as Hunsecker's sister and her musician beau, the loving couple broken apart by Falco's Hunsecker-inspired machinations. Guare's Susan Hunsecker is feistier and more hip than her movie equivalent, a change O'Hara seizes enthusiastically (in this version it's Sidney who starts out naive), while her boyfriend Dallas has evolved from a jazz drummer to a solo singer-pianist in the Bobby Short mode. Noseworthy, whose glittery pop-tenor vocal tone and corrupted-choirboy good looks make him the show's most interesting presence, has been rewarded with its closest thing to a good song, "One Track Mind." The hints the four principals give of what Sweet Smell might have been in more daring or imaginative hands are seconded in the brief flashes we get of two minor performances that ride only on Guare, without benefit of song or dance: Joanna Glushak as Hunsecker's tart secretary and Eric Michael Gillett as a seedy rival columnist. In scattered moments like theirs, you start to think that maybe Sweet Smell of Success might have made a tough, smart, scary new musical after all.


The legendary Sam Goldwyn might have produced such a musical, if he'd been interested in the theater as anything other than a place to shop for "properties." A born gambler, all he knew about art was what he liked (which is enough, if you're honest about it), and he had a fondness for sticking his neck out that led to some pretty good movies. And despite his boast that he only made family pictures, many of them—Street Scene, Dodsworth, Dead End, The Little Foxes—were based on the kind of realistic stage works that made other Hollywood moguls uncomfortable, bearing truths that were the moral equivalent of Harold Russell's absent hands in The Best Years of Our Lives, also a Goldwyn production.

Brian D'Arcy James in Sweet Smell of Success: nocturnal omissions
photo: Paul Kolnik
Brian D'Arcy James in Sweet Smell of Success: nocturnal omissions

Details

Sweet Smell of Success
By John Guare
Lyrics by Craig Carnelia,
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Martin Beck Theatre
Eighth Avenue and 45th Street
212-239-6200

Mr. Goldwyn
By Marsha Lebby and
John Lollos
Promenade Theatre
Broadway and 75th Street
212-239-6200

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Some of this Goldwynic reality, and some of the fundamental integrity behind it, are included in Alan King's performance of Mr. Goldwyn, although the patchy script, by two writers likely to remain obscure, has all the steady focus of a handheld camera operated by a team of chimps. Bits of Goldwyn authenticity, bits of Goldwyn myth (both pro and anti), sidebar chunks of Hollywood history and anecdote, running gags, hit-and-running allusions to historical events—like many patchworks, it makes a diverting if aesthetically dubious effect. King, carefully harmonizing his own joke-cracking presence with Goldwyn's stress-filled, careworn but cunning reactions at a pivotal moment (the Radio City premiere of Hans Christian Andersen), makes out the best possible case for the writing. He has some able assistance from Gene Saks's nimble, steady-pressure staging, David Gallo's spacious set, and Lauren Klein as Goldwyn's sternly supportive secretary. The better King is, though, the more you wish his script would face the historical facts straight on: A pro forma expression of indignation at HUAC only makes you wonder how Goldwyn dealt with the blacklist, and the constant phone calls from Farley Granger (a running gag) seem like coy allusions to a Hollywood story about which it's too late to be coy. (The curious can consult Arthur Laurents's version of Granger's Hollywood life in Laurents's recent autobiography.) Still, when the honesty hits home, or when King scores with an immaculately timed joke, it's hard not to be indulgent with Mr. Goldwyn. Where else in town will you hear a producer declaring that he hates writers because "they bite the ass that feeds them"?


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