The secret’s out: This week’s confluence of old things (restored or renovated) gave it away. We live in a great theatrical time. Why? Because when the present lets us down, we can get back the past—and we have the resources to make it look and sound terrific. Don’t be nostalgic; be gratified. In 2002, The Torch-Bearers will be 80; The Time of the Cuckoo will be 50. Just ponder what the reaction would have been, in 1922 or 1952, if someone had been brash enough to revive a play of similar age. I can tell you: They would have snickered up their sleeves at its quaintness, and never bothered to ask themselves what meaning its popularity in its own time might have for Americans half a century later. They would not have been interested in owning their own past, unless it came in the form of a familiar commercial “property” with retread marks all over it.
In a way, The Torch-Bearers doesn’t deserve revival because it’s naughty: It caters to the same suspicion of “culture” that makes Americans ignore their artistic past. Art, the play says, is a lot of hooey for the sexually frustrated and the eccentric; healthy American men ignore it, and their wives, if sane, will shun it to stay home and build them a nice nest. The action’s based on the cartoon notion that a married woman’s amateurish acting is enough to trigger, in her husband, instant cardiac arrest. The ineptitude of amateurs with pretensions is funny enough to make a full-evening skit but not a whole play. Like Shakespeare, who worked the same shtick from a different angle in “Pyramus and Thisbe,” Kelly knows better. His amateurs not only have their private pain—you’ll be staggered by the granitic agony that crosses Marian Seldes’s face when, as Mrs. Pampinelli, driving force of “The Players Club Little Theatre,” she mentions her late husband’s philistinism—but they also have a vivid, idealistic majesty that the sane characters can’t share. Not that we see any sane characters, except Fred Ritter (David Garrison), the second heart-attack victim. His predecessor’s widow has had to choose between her stage debut and her husband’s funeral, so sweet Mrs. Ritter (Faith Prince) must naturally step in.
Fred survives the performance, as does the Ritter marriage, once he’s driven the artsy interferers out. But we’ve seen too much—and Seldes’s grandeur has been too grand—for the complacency of the final curtain to ring true. As Mary McCarthy noted in the ’40s, there’s something empty and placeless about Kelly’s image of middle-class American life; he himself clearly is never sure that it’s such a great thing, though he respects it as the source from which audience dollars flow. Somebody has to watch in order for the flamboyant and disorderly to act out; more to the point, a household that closes its doors to the harmless drama of Mrs. Pampinelli is likely to find drama creeping back in more destructively, as the spouses in other Kelly plays learn to their cost. Ridiculing the klutzy capers of the pompous and untrained, Kelly shows their detractors as even worse off: heart-attack husbands who only respond to art deep inside, where no one can see but the cardiologist. The play’s title is funnier for being only half ironic. These idiots are bringing what light they can. But the businessmen are off making money—which, as Shaw remarked, “is not made in the light.”
Dylan Baker’s production solves the problem of Kelly’s uneasy tone by putting all its weight on the artists’ side: Garrison and Prince, warm and likable actors, make the Ritters a sweet-natured, bland couple who probably should never have been swept into art’s higher mysteries. They’re no match for Seldes, who endows the inept light-bringer with the whimsical fervor of her Isadora Duncan, the spitfire regality of her Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and for a finishing touch, an acid spray of Winifred Wagner. The forces at her command include droll Albert Macklin, zipping about like a prim weasel, big-eyed Judith Blazer, chirruping heedlessly, and Joan Copeland, a fitful tornado of hesitant interruptions. Not all the supporting parts are that well played, and Baker, actorlike, shapes performances better than he does scenes. But the slightly choppy results mix the script’s infallible laughs with enough somber, Seldesian dazzle to make you wonder exactly who’s being kidded.
Easy to tell who’s being kidded in Time of the Cuckoo—it’s those eternal ugly Americans, a raucous parade of blocked artists, whiny possessive wives, love-hungry spinsters, and brain-dead tourists who can’t tell a Tintoretto from a vaporetto. Italians, in contrast, are worldly-wise, non-materialistic, and generous-hearted—news to anyone who knows the inner workings of an opera house. Their antiques were churned out yesterday, and their romantic lovers all have a fat wife and six kids starving at home, but Italians know that life is a chancy banquet, so if you can’t get the steak you want, “eat the ravioli.” “I’m not that hungry,” says Leona Samish, Cuckoo‘s emotionally needy heroine; her author, instead of applauding, turns her into the evening’s villain, a greedy girl who won’t accept love unless it comes dangling garnets. The character’s convincing, but the indictment, like those fake 18th-century tourist goblets, somehow lacks authenticity.
Still, the shortfall that can’t be overlooked in real-life love affairs is easy to repair in the theater, where great acting transfigures a script’s flaws. Nobody’s bad in Nicholas Martin’s production of Cuckoo—Adam Trese as Eddie, the jittery blocked artist, is particularly good—and greatness walks onstage with Debra Monk’s Leona. Or to be more precise, Leona herself walks onstage, seemingly unaware that she is merely a role being played by Debra Monk. No acting process, no trace of Monk’s own personality, is visible—just this resourceful, superficially self-possessed, but deeply distraught and lonely middle-class woman, from whom everyone you know would edge politely away. It’s unfair, really: Laurents can tilt the play against Leona, knowing that he has first-quality help in making her an object of fascinated compassion.
Compassion’s the one quality not to look for in any version of The Wild Party, in which all the Americans are as ugly as can be. The poet and screenwriter Joseph Moncure March had a knack for turning dark gossip into marketable tropes. Party riffs on the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and other nasty tales from the era’s showbiz rumor mills, turned into choppy, mannerist sorta-poetry that gives the dirt a creepily refined air. Peculiar stuff, one would have thought, for not one but two new musicals. Still, writer-composer Andrew Lippa and director Gabriel Barre squeeze a fair amount of juicy diversion from it. That they squeeze too hard, though, is almost a given in today’s tin-eared musical theater.
Eschewing most of the novel’s digressions, Lippa leans on the love quadrangle at its center: Queenie, the beautiful vaudeville dancer, is trapped in an abusive relationship with the brutal clown Burrs; slutty Kate, who covets Burrs, plans to land him by arriving at their party with Black, a handsome, taciturn newcomer, as a consolation prize for Queenie. Too much passion gets into the plans; by the end there are beatings and bloodshed, and—big surprise—everybody loses. Despite his tremendous inventive resources, Lippa can’t dig much emotional depth out of this story: His solos for the four principals, even merged in quartet, are the same reiterative hand-wringing. He rescues the event with the variety of his narrative music—everything from Jazz Age fox-trots to New Age percussive sounds—and his creative interruptions for the supporting cast. The best of these, the lament of a lonely lesbian longing for “an old-fashioned love story,” is rendered by Alix Korey with an embittered perfection that reduces the house to frenzies of laughter and cheers.
Nothing else reaches that peak, though two of Lippa’s up-tempo items, “Out of the Blue” and “Let’s Raise the Roof,” are worth rehearing, and the vivid flickers of Mark Dendy’s choreography reveal, for once, a modern dancer with genuine theatricality, who knows how to bond dance to colloquial actor-movement. Barre’s more conventional but workable staging has another strong ally in David Gallo’s ingenious sliding set. The cast, nobly, knocks itself out to put the grim material over, but there are no big individual victories except for Korey’s and that of Taye Diggs, as the tender-souled Black, his looks and voice equally elegant. I don’t know how he escaped the go-for-broke shrillness visited on everyone else by Brian Ronan’s sound design, which makes the two principal women and Brian d’Arcy James sound exactly like two dental drills and a jackhammer ratcheting away in unison. The past was never quiet, but it had more musical sensitivity.