Revival of the Fittest

Old's Always Better; the Hard Part Is Making It New

Funny how issues get confused. Somewhere along the 20th century's twisting path, the need to keep great works alive, in the theater, got muddled with the desire to reinterpret them, which isn't at all the same thing. Making Hamlet come alive for the audience is a challenge to the actor playing Hamlet, whether the stage business is identical to that in previous productions or not. Doing the play full justice is standard operating procedure; revealing something new about Hamlet, or showing that he has some unexpected relation to our own time, is more like an extra treat. A "new" approach gives the reviewers something large and visible to hang their columns on, and gives the fashionable audience an added frisson: Let's make this the "dark" version, say, in which Pollyanna's revealed as a bipolar narcissistic bitch. The wearily chic will be spared the need to contemplate a familiar work more deeply, while the young, who never heard of Pollyanna, will take the darkness as newly definitive. Only people who already knew of Pollyanna's dark side, and who prefer seeing all her facets, may be a little dismayed.

I've deliberately chosen a worst-case example. But what's true for Pollyanna is equally true for Mama Rose, King Herod, or the four haunted Tyrones (next week for them), all six of whom turned up on Broadway just in time for the Tony deadline, in productions that are not exactly revivals and not exactly reinterpretations. This is Broadway's version of newness: a little standard stuff to reassure the codgers; a shpritz of update to keep the chic from feeling guilty about revisiting an old show; and a reliance on star power to sell tickets. Like the Broadway version of most things, it has only a tangential relation to the theater, the way star power has only an erratic relationship to acting. What keeps the productions alive while you watch is chiefly the greatness of the works themselves, which was there before questions of revival or reinterpretation ever arose.

An irony is built into this situation: The play does most of the work, but the audience won't come, at least not in large numbers, unless the evening's frosted with stars—who may or may not be the play's optimal interpreters. A musical of Gypsy's size is an expensive undertaking; the artists an aficionado might prefer to see in its daunting lead role are less sure bets at the box office than Bernadette Peters. On Broadway, everybody loves Bernadette, and why not? I love her too, and I love 70 to 80 percent of what she does as Mama Rose, the hard-driving backstage mother of all time. Rose is a monster of fabulistic proportions, determined to make her daughter into a vaudeville star. Being a fabulous monster is what makes her such a rich character: While we hate and fear her monstrousness, we love her for being fabulous. June flees, but Rose will make Louise a star. Vaudeville's dead, but Rose will make the best of burlesque, and even make Louise the star stripper who grows up to be Gypsy Rose Lee. Only the show's last tiny segment can properly be called Gypsy; the rest is the story of restless, ambitious, indomitable Rose. Its tragic crash comes when she finally realizes that Louise has become her own woman, and no longer needs a mother to bully her into stardom. Their cautious reconciliation at the fade-out sweetens the deal but doesn't solve the problem: A monster with no place to be fabulous is just a monster. Gypsy lives on because Rose is such a resonant symbol of all the vibrant human resources for which America can't seem to find a use.

Bernadette Peters in Gypsy: almost Rose to the occasion
photo: Joan Marcus
Bernadette Peters in Gypsy: almost Rose to the occasion

Details

Gypsy
By Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim,
music by Jule Styne
Shubert Theatre
225 West 44th Street
212-239-6200

Salome: The Reading
By Oscar Wilde,
translated by Lord Alfred Douglas
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street
212-239-6200

This is where Peters has a problem. She's precisely the gal you wouldn't fear to bring home to your own monster-mother, blessed with both the sweetness to charm and the gumption to fight back. Sam Mendes's direction uses her blessings to animate large chunks of Gypsy, sometimes in appealingly fresh ways. Never mind about Merman and so on; as Dogberry says, comparisons are odorous. Peters's Rose, with her marcelled '30s-bombshell look and her flirtatious pout, can be seductive, saucy, puckish, and a lot of other qualities not previously viewed as part of Rose's artillery. Since the bulk of Gypsy, including most of its songs, is stamped "property of Mama Rose," there's a lot to like, and I traveled through it happily with Peters until the last scene of Act I. Then the problem set in.

June and the "newsboys" have bolted. Rose is stuck in nowhere land, flat broke, with Louise and the doggedly faithful Herbie. For a Herbie, the producers have given this newly sexy Rose a handsome, forceful actor, John Dossett. Understandably, when Herbie begs Rose to settle down with him on a farm, the audience's eyes light up along with Louise's; this is the choice they want her to make. Instead, Rose chooses to make Louise a star, and sings "Everything's Coming Up Roses" to clinch the deal. Only Peters doesn't clinch it. The big top-register notes that nail the song arrive, but not without audible effort. Our sympathy vanishes: Rose seems uncertain, trying to convince herself, making it hard for her to convince us. It feels terrible not to be convinced—it's like seeing someone you've just gotten fond of fall off a cliff. Peters pulls herself back up, apparently not winded, for Act II, and then has an identical fall—which by now you're expecting and dreading—with "Rose's Turn." Nobody insists that a new Rose sound or behave exactly like Merman, but she has to sing out, at those big moments, with the equivalent of Merman's total assurance. Otherwise it isn't shocking and tragic when she stops.

The situation's especially discomfiting because Peters's charm, with a sizable assist from Dossett's, must carry the show. One can't judge Mendes's directorial concept (allegedly bare-stage and "dark," ho hum), which is widely understood to have been tampered with in previews. The staging includes a lot of bustle behind the main action, sometimes apt but more often just focus-stealing. As an instance of the way coarseness can spoil dramatic sense, Mendes has made Peters the first Mama Rose in history to shove the egg roll into Mr. Goldstone's mouth—not a good way to get booked on the Orpheum Circuit. The supporting players, like Anthony Ward's designs, are not bad but also mostly not notable. Tammy Blanchard, the Louise, sings flat but swaggers engagingly through her climactic star-trip. If the evening feels satisfying at the end—and it does—that's because the production's weaknesses matter less than the strengths of the writing. The hard part is getting an American audience to believe that the star of Gypsy isn't any performer or director, but Gypsy itself. The arguments that have raged over whether Peters is up to it are themselves the proof of its classic stature.


The classic stature of Salome, as far as the American stage is concerned, would be harder to prove; the current production has provoked denials that the work is stageable at all. Being by Oscar Wilde, it naturally has to be respected as a masterpiece—everything a master did is a masterpiece, right?—and the naysayers hardly seem aware that Wilde didn't write this play in English (though he did correct the worst slips in Bosie's translation), or that it was written for a theater which specialized in the very things that seem to make it unfeasible now. The Boulevard theater of Sarah Bernhardt's Paris loved above all else lavish orientalist "atmosphere" and speeches that were long multicolored prose poems.

Exotic atmosphere and multicolored prose poems aren't the first things one associates with the Actors Studio, where the current Salome began, but there are Studio actors who can live imaginatively in such things, as well as others whose instinct is to drag everything down into contemporary urban banality (which is not the same thing as finding the reality of a work). Estelle Parsons's production, conceptually compromised already in being a reading-that-isn't-a-reading, makes an equivalent stylistic compromise to match. Half the cast goes high, some successfully and some not; half goes low. Marisa Tomei's Salome tries both directions, handling calmer moments in a cool, crisp diction suitable for Judaean tetrarch's stepdaughters, but diving into rage or lust like a valley girl whose valley is not that of the kings. She should take a hint from her mother: Dianne Wiest's Herodias, far and away the evening's best performance, makes her anger and resentment sound truly regal, yet still urgent.

And then there's Al Pacino, at whose behest this whole charade apparently exists. Why does he want to play Herod? Lounging in his upstage-center chair, he looks and sounds like nothing so much as an old Brooklyn guy mouthing off in the corner bar. The Pacino whose struggles with roles like Brutus and Richard III were honorable failures, full of excitement, is here coasting on his fame. What he might want the role, or the play, to convey to audiences does not appear to be a part of the evening's plan.

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