To Eire Is Human

If a sense of life ran through the story of Alfie's simultaneous struggle with his queer identity and the forces conspiring to undo his Art, these holes in its plausibility would seem minor. But except when Steven Pascuale, as the object of Alfie's adoration, leads him on a rowdy tour of "The Streets of Dublin," the show barely wakes up. Apart from one pretty ballad, in which Alfie advises his troubled leading lady to "Love Who You Love," the show is melodically drab, constructed tightly on a musical and lyrical palette of what seem endless shades of gray. There's a drizzle of subplots and a host of minor characters (finely animated, especially by Ronn Carroll and Patti Perkins), but there's no flair in the event, and little Irishness. (The bay over which Faith Prince's belted top notes echo is clearly Sheepshead, not Dublin.) Trying to make its characters real, everyday people, the show seems to signal us constantly not to expect too much from them. They'd have done better to start with the assumption that a city where bus conductors read poetry to the passengers is the most important magical place in the world.

Roger Rees (center) in A Man of No Importance: literary omnibus
photo: Paul Kolnik
Roger Rees (center) in A Man of No Importance: literary omnibus

Details

A Man of No Importance
By Terrence McNally
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty
Newhouse Theater,
Lincoln Center
212-239-6200

Say Goodnight Gracie
By Rupert Holmes
Helen Hayes Theatre
Broadway and 44th Street
212-239-6200

The Charity That Began at Home
By St. John Hankin
Mint Theatre
311 West 43rd Street
212-315-0231

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The love hasn't been left out of Say Goodnight Gracie, Frank Gorshin's 90-minute impersonation of George Burns; what's missing is its object. Gracie Allen, noticeably adored by the elderly audience to a degree that justifies all of the frequent encomia that Rupert Holmes's script has Gorshin lavishing on her, is only glimpsed in some film clips and heard in some sound bites (a few authentic, others mimicked by Didi Conn), but she's the evening's overpowering presence—and, inevitably, its aching absence. Without her, the show's just the not-very-interesting story of a successful straight man; the interest, like the laughs, belonged to the funny woman. George wrote a lot of Gracie's material, but we hear little about that process. Otherwise, the only arresting passages are his detailed recollection of childhood poverty on the Lower East Side (I was pleased that his better-off neighbors were the Feingolds), and his explanation of how the team's vaudeville act was structured. The evening's sole moving moment is Burns's description of how, before the first show in every theater they played, he went out onstage and lit a cigar: He had to know which way the drafts went, he explains, to know if he should stand on Gracie's right or her left—if he had blown smoke in her face, the audience would have killed him. The bulk of Say Goodnight Gracie's script is piffle, though Gorshin's rendering of the aged Burns is well done. But in its absolute weight of love (the audience's, for Gracie), that one moment roughly equals all of Romeo and Juliet.




Even St. John Hankin's 1906 comedy, The Charity That Began at Home, virtually a theorem about human nature in three QED acts, contains enough passion to make its action go amusingly haywire. Hankin's tactic is to show us what happens when a good-hearted highborn lady actually has to entertain and even employ the victims of her largesse. The ensuing upheaval, though carefully kept at a teacups-poised level of gentility, suggests Joe Orton with kid gloves on; even the irredeemable get their pretensions to wickedness stripped away. Gus Kaikkonen's production, a bold, crude woodcut of Hankin's elegant line drawing, nonetheless builds a sturdy bridge back to the era's museum-remote behavior. Harmony Schuttler plays her ladyship's pious daughter, to my relief, as if no one had ever told her that ingenues today are supposed to grate, whine, and generally behave like mall rats. Kristen Griffith and Becky London make some effect as her mother and her aunt, while Alice White supplies a droll cameo as the snootiest governess who ever resented a handout.
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