Wall Over

It would be misleading to claim that Gurney has been reborn overnight as a political dramatist. The play's criticism of Bush is generalized and anodyne at best. But the complaint is trivial, in the face of the innumerable American light entertainments that do not criticize a sitting president. There is going to be a lot of protest marching in the next two years; why should we object if a writer as distinguished and widely produced as Gurney marches with us? We can explain to him about political drama as we go, while he can return the favor by exercising his wit. He's perfectly welcome to bring along the jolly quartet that seems to be having so much fun helping him dismantle our old stage habits: the delightful Duncan, Susan Sullivan, Charles Kimbrough, and David Pittu. They'd better bring the piano, too: We're going to need a lot of Cole Porter to remind us that the American musical tradition is not conservative property.

If you want proof of that last assertion, you need only drop in on the Musicals Tonight! staged concert of Rodgers & Hart's 1928 curiosity, Chee-Chee. I don't mean that you'd enjoy Chee-Chee—no one liked it in 1928 and I doubt that anyone does now—but its peculiarity makes it an object of fascination on several fronts. First and foremost, it gives you a prime opportunity to shut up all the idiots who claim that pre-Oklahoma! musicals did not "integrate" book and score: Chee-Chee has a loosely written script, but every note sung in that script rises directly out of its dialogue and situation. The same bozos often suggest that, in musicals' subject matter, darker equals better, or more "mature" or some such nonsense. Well, Chee-Chee is a lighthearted, almost arrogantly frivolous '20s musical, and the humor is about as dark as it can get. Adultery, rape, flagellation, and castration are the principal sources of humor, with sidelines in bribery, hypocrisy, and decapitation ("We bow our heads in reverence/Lest we should feel their severance"). If Trevor Nunn had really wanted to stage a "dark" Richard Rodgers musical, he missed his chance when he chose a cheery cowboy whoop-up with one knife fight and one bad dream over this insouciant mix of Baudelairean schadenfreude, chinoiserie, and fox-trots.

Charles Kimbrough and Sandy Duncan in The Fourth Wall: a doll's deconstruction
photo: James Lensye
Charles Kimbrough and Sandy Duncan in The Fourth Wall: a doll's deconstruction


The Fourth Wall
By A.R. Gurney
Primary Stages
354 West 45th Street

By Rodgers & Hart, book by Herbert Fields
Musicals Tonight!
14th Street YMHA
344 East 14th Street

The musical's source, an ostensibly comic novel by one Charles Pettit called The Son of the Grand Eunuch, is a prolonged lubricious snigger about what a faithful wife is willing to do to preserve her husband's life. Summoned to join the band of castrated sages around his father, Li-Pi-Tchou runs away, taking his stunningly beautiful (and more than a little narcissistic) wife, Chee-Chee. As they bounce from one life-threatening situation to another, Chee-Chee constantly has to rescue her husband by giving herself to large, dangerous, charismatic men; Li-Pi-Tchou doesn't get murdered, but he always seems to end up getting flogged. Herbert Fields's woolly script for the musical tightens the screws on Tchou's misery by making his conniving father partly responsible. (The show's paternal authority figures are all either absent, vicious, or dishonest.) Mercifully, the adaptors also invented a second couple, consisting of the Grand Eunuch's Americanized daughter, Li Li Wee (her name a jokey allusion to a pseudo-Hawaiian Jerome Kern song), and the Emperor's neglected son. Outfoxing their elders, they get both happiness and the score's best songs. Director Thomas Mills and his mostly young cast have an understandably hard time focusing Fields's wayward dialogue, and the singing, except for the two female leads, is often below even Musicals Tonight!'s modest standards. But Chee-Chee is a work so distinctive and disturbing (not to say daring) that producer Mel Miller and his hardy shoestring troupe probably deserve more praise for this improbable venture than for all the rest of their commendable work put together.

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