An artist is a parasite," says one of S.J. Perelman's characters, "scratch any one of 'em, and what you'll find underneath is money from home." The culture that bases everything on money doesn't really have a social role for artists to fulfill. Identifying with the underdog while yearning for acceptance by the elite, they're our spiritual equivalent of the homeless. In the past, before our perceptions were shaped by the electronic media barrage, artists had the prospect of earning a modest living, and sometimes more, from their work alone. Today, no such luck. Unless they throw out their artistic sense and play by the media's money rules, the occupations that sustain most artists include everything but their art: teaching, clerking, catering, proofreading, dog walking. This is the world into which Richard Greenberg's comedies extend Perelman's cynicism about art and money. It was in a Greenberg play, after all, that a restaurant patron stopped the show by putting up his hand to summon a waitperson and calling out, "Oh, actress."
Greenberg's latest work, Hurrah at Last, raises the ante by making the artist's quest for money literally a matter of life and death. Laurie (Peter Frechette) is a well-respected but minuscule-selling novelist, the kind sympathetic colleagues call "a writer's writer." ("What's that?" his mother asks. "A failure," he explains.) Living from one tiny windfall to the next, Laurie is sustained in the longer gaps by his "comfortably off" parents and by his bubbly sister Thea (Ileen Getz), married to Eamon (Kevin O'Rourke), a wealthy stockbroker. Where Laurie is persistently negative, bitter, and resentful, Thea, with the usual contrariety of siblings, seems to live in a haze of heedless contentment. Inexplicably unable to present Eamon with a child an obsession that threatens to wreck their otherwise blissful marriage she busies herself by playing hostess at endless parties in their apex-of-chic loft, where the play's first act and epilogue take place, on Christmas and Easter respectively.
The circle of people around Laurie festers with problems, which everyone is happy to trot out for his delectation. Besides Thea's fertility crisis, Eamon has two woes: the hostility he gets from his daughter by his first marriage, and the perpetual begging of his shiftless old college buddy, Max. Laurie's father, Sumner (Larry Keith), makes futile, nearly mute efforts to assert himself, invariably quashed by Laurie's mother, Reva (Dori Brenner), who pours out her litany of marital complaints to Laurie, and her disappointment in the world at large to whoever will listen. (Her refrain is "I'm disgusted with everything.") Most disconcerting is Laurie's super-successful hack playwright pal, Oliver (Paul Michael Valley), whose gushing adoration is at once a risk-free outlet for his barely repressed queerness and the thinnest of masks for his ferocious envy of Laurie's honesty and genuine talent the first despite his marriage to an Italian soprano (Judith Blazer) who speaks no English (and whose instant fecundity makes Thea reel), and the second despite his having been hired to adapt Laurie's latest novel for the screen.
Laurie's desperate financial situation has him fixated on the screenplay. Blocked, cash-poor, and on the verge of eviction, he has no prospect of income unless the movie's green-lighted. Oliver, whose new play is a runaway hit (Laurie naturally loathes it) is presumably rolling in dough but refuses to discuss the subject. He'll do anything else to prove his friendship, like strip down and stand naked before Laurie; asked, while starkers, how much he's being paid for the screenplay, he replies, "Some things are private." None of Thea's other guests will talk about money either; they just tell Laurie he's "wicked" and change the subject. Meantime, as everyone's relations worsen and the Christmas party degenerates into a shambles, Laurie, who's been suffering what he thinks is a bad cold, collapses; Act Two opens in the hospital room where he is confined with an undiagnosable ailment.
While the first act made Laurie the skeleton at a high-comic feast of poseurs, in the sickroom the comedy comes out of pain-racked Laurie's misery and delirium. We can't be sure how much he's imagining and how much is actually being said. Horrifying truths get spoken, but it's deliberately unclear how horrified we should be by them once they've been mitigated by reality. Money here is at last a subject of conversation: who's helping whom out and who has enough to live on. In the Epilogue, the same crew assembles for Easter at Thea's, with Laurie now nursed back to health (he turns out to have "the most curable cancer known to man"), and everything else the same only different.
The dishonesties and illusions go on unabated. Art, which briefly in the hospital seemed to influence at least a few of the characters' lives, is again only there to pretty up the moral chaos; and money still reigns. The evening has been, to quote one of Laurie's quips about the hidden despair at Thea's Christmas party, "The Iceman Cometh in a three million dollar loft." If Laurie's role as the dark star of this emptily glittering cosmos owes something to The Misanthrope, Greenberg wittily alters Molière by cutting his hero in on the action at last, with no promise that this will improve his outlook on life.
Though darkly witty and compassionate in its writing, Greenberg's play is not without flaws, its sometimes annoyingly slipshod dramaturgy heavy on bumpy scene endings and omitted explanations. Luckily for Greenberg, the intelligence and emotional substance in his seemingly fluffy work makes it worth the days of post-performance rumination required to piece it to- gether. His script's shaky apects are matched by the unevenness of David Warren's production, which catches the high-comic tone matchlessly, but can't seem to find sufficient motion for the farcical climaxes or a visual life for the hospital phantasmagoria. Still, Neil Patel's set and Candice Donnelly's costumes paint the lush life of the party scenes gorgeously, and Warren's cast is a joy, with Frechette always inventive and varied in the taxing lead role, and Brenner a fierce if diminutive tower of dismissiveness as his mother. All this, plus Valley's nude backside and Blazer warbling Tre giorni son che Nina, should be enough to give any reasonable person a good time in the theater.
Laurie describes his parents' marriage as "an animated cartoon written by Strindberg," a description that could, regrettably, also be applied to Per Olov Enquist's The Image Makers, seen at BAM last week with its original Swedish cast, not because anyone has a high regard for the play but because it was staged by Ingmar Bergman. The Bergman stagings previously seen here have all been of masterpieces, with the arguable exception of Mishima's Madame de Sade, which is at least unlike any ordinary play. The moral to be drawn this time around was that mediocre material can no more inspire Bergman than it can anyone else; that the writer's alive, and eminent in Sweden, undoubtedly kept him from taking risks that could have made the event more exciting. As it was, the supposedly fabled encounter between the eminent novelist Selma Lagerlöf and the brilliant silent-film director Victor Sjöström was turned by Enquist into a pallid, all too familiar battle of the sexes and the generations, with the key role a young actress, Sjöström's current tootsie, who crashes the meeting, redirecting the eminent artists' attention to herself. Since Bergman knew and admired Sjöström (who played the old man in Wild Strawberries), his interest in this play, which virtually writes his great predecessor off as a character, is utterly baffling. His staging understandably seemed to lack enthusiasm; the acting was competent, with Carl-Magnus Dellow better than that as the nervous cameraman. But the one real distinction was the presence of Anita Björk, the towering mother of Madame de Sade and the exquisite Miss Julie of Alf Sjöberg's 1951 film. Here she was, half a century later, as a demure, cozy, but secretly haunted woman who couldn't be further from those two roles. Her still-thriving artistry was the evening's only strength.
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