Agenda Bending


Spring is here, but the shortsighted gang of money-grubbing sadists who pompously call themselves the League of American Theatres and Producers, Inc., won’t let critical boys and girls go out to play, only to see plays. Every April, they jam their tiresome heap of retreads and imports into the few weeks before the Tony nominations close. When you think about it, the nominating committee should be far more offended than I am: the producers’ underlying assumption being that even the nominators will have forgotten, by May 1, any show that opens before April Fools’ Day. I’ve frequently offered my simple solution for this dilemma—”produce memorable plays”—but the producers never adopt it, confirming my suspicion that they hate the theater almost as much as the rest of America does.

They’ve certainly been doing their best to make everyone else hate it. After six nights of nonstop theatergoing—and I have an easier schedule than some of my colleagues—I’ve seen almost nothing I could call theater. Overpriced, overproduced, overhyped, and overexplained, the experiences crumble away in retrospect, leaving behind the memory of a few exciting moments, a clutch of interesting performers, and not much else. If I were a tourist on the same schedule, I doubt that I’d ever want to go into a theater again. And yet, people have been creating theatrical greatness for at least two and a half millennia. The art form isn’t all a fraud perpetrated by the League; it just looks that way at the end of a grim week. I can bear witness, too, that there are audiences Uptown, Downtown, and all over the country who sit through these parades of dismal, half-formed, or irrelevant commercial crap because they, like me, love the theater and want it to be great. Yes, they applaud indiscriminately, and they stand up at curtain calls when they think they’re supposed to, but not merely because they’re naive idiots. They do it as testimony to their willingness to be moved, while waiting for the event that will move them unaided by their own volition.

Instead, Broadway proffers works to which no direct response is possible, because they aren’t being put on for direct reasons. The love of the play and what it contains keeps being supplanted by other things: the work’s cachet, its point of origin, the ethnicity or nationality of its cast. Politics worms its discomfiting way in sidewise: The issues addressed matter less than the stance taken toward them, which isn’t what Brecht meant when he said the theater should take a stance on the issues it deals with. First, that implies, you have to deal with them; Broadway prefers to emphasize how they’re packaged.

Under such circumstances, it’s appropriate that the closest the week came to actual theater was in a pair of Noël Coward one-acts Off-Broadway, two-thirds of the centennial playwright’s last major work, the 1966 Swiss hotel trilogy he called Suite in Three Keys. The new production drops the farcical “Come Into the Garden, Maud,” replacing it with the local premiere of the somber “Shadows of the Evening.”

This made for an awkward imbalance: “Shadows,” a brief lesson in stiff-upper-lip-ness, is about an unflappable publisher showing his wife and mistress how to cope with the news that he has only a few months to live. “A Song at Twilight,” the main course, deals with a wealthy hack writer (allegedly modeled on Somerset Maugham) confronted by an old flame, down on her luck, who threatens to publish his letters to the one person he genuinely loved—another man, now dead. Skilled theatrician that he was, Coward would have been the first to see that two plays about death and lost love make a gloomy evening, despite all the glittery Coward witticisms bandied back and forth. A romp was needed.

That was the first of the evening’s two major flaws. The second, ironically, was that Paxton Whitehead, an actor best known for his rompish comic sense, was at a hopeless loss in “Shadows,” conveying about as much pathos, pain, and fear of death as a rubber duck. He pulled himself together with reasonable dash for “Song at Twilight”—though he then, inevitably, had trouble falling apart again for its conclusion. In both plays, however, he was flanked by a commendable performance and a really superb one. The commendation goes to Hayley Mills, especially touching as the writer’s boundlessly patient German wife; the plaudits belong to Judith Ivey, incisive, infallible, and a sheer delight from her panic-stricken first line in “Shadows” to her sad-but-triumphant final exit in “Song at Twilight.”

Coward wrote partly to offer audiences the pleasure of performances as fine as Ivey’s, but he also had higher aims in view. If “Shadows” is largely an exercise in actor display, needing elements that weren’t all on display here, its counterpiece is something bigger. Maugham’s notorious secretiveness about his sex life may have been the inspiration, but Coward lived and chafed (more flamboyantly, granted) in the same half-light. He seized the time to speak openly when it came round, and he spoke as a playwright, not a propagandist, weighing choices made and not made against each other. As a result, “A Song at Twilight” seems, if anything, more meaningful now—a fact which, in tandem with Ivey’s performance, should have given Suite in Two Keys at least a few weeks’ run. Instead, trampled by the Tony rush, it got its mixed reviews and shut its doors quietly, outshouted by events that are neither as serious nor as much fun.

Rose, at least, boasts an actress equal to Ivey in stature. Olympia Dukakis, frail of body but seemingly gigantic of spirit, has the instant authority to give any moment absolute conviction, and the canniness never to overplay her hand, so that the authority never becomes overbearing. Just as well, too—she needs every ounce of that conviction to sustain Martin Sherman’s script, a monologue recited to no one in particular, during which, as a self-proclaimed Jewish mourner sitting shivah, she’s glued to a wooden bench slightly left of stage center, with barely more than a few sound effects to dress the barren gloom behind her.

The substance of Rose’s lengthy solo is the history of the Jews in the 20th century, virtually all of which she turns out to have experienced personally, from a shtetl in the Ukraine threatened by marauding Cossacks to the devolution of a Miami Beach hotel into a trendy club. She misses the Nazi death camps—Sherman must feel he dealt with them sufficiently in Bent—by hiding out for two years, improbably, in the sewers of Warsaw. An unapologetic radical, secularist, feminist, and often a cynic, Rose would be a thoroughly fascinating figure if only her story had the touch of life that could make us believe it all. Instead, we sense the carpentry: each episode carefully wrought to dramatize this segment of history, to articulate that position on the relevant issues, to give Rose this precise degree of individuality.

Some of these segments are gorgeously written—Sherman’s neatness includes an eager thoroughness—and Dukakis seizes them with powerful effect. But so much painstaking effort, coupled with the absence of action, ultimately becomes maddening. An old-fashioned play, which would have compelled Sherman to contrive the episodes instead of merely narrating them, would at least have been a challenge. Instead, Rose’s tale either lulls you or rouses your suspicions till you start to pick holes in it.

Naturally, they’re there to be picked: One of her touchstones is the 1935 Yiddish-language movie Yidl Mitn Fidl (“Yiddle and His Fiddle”), starring Molly Picon, which Rose keeps insisting takes place in a shtetl. It is, however, a road movie: The heroine and her father are evicted from their shtetl home at the start of the film and become itinerant musicians; most of the climactic events take place in the same big city—Warsaw—where Rose is supposed to have seen the film. Rose’s misleading description is of a piece with other dubieties, like her ability to wander unchallenged through the Warsaw ghetto at night, or the statement “The first time I ate ice cream was in Atlantic City.” (By 1937, they had ice cream in Eastern Europe. Ask Bock and Harnick.) The pity is that Sherman has a great actress, a great subject, and no small ability to string words together. But making the words live and reverberate is a task he leaves to Dukakis; he elects to stake out positions on the play’s outline rather than dive for its center.

More secularized Jews are on view, along with wealthy cokeheads, bare-breasted vaudeville dancers, Harlem homosexuals, and a variety of interracial and intersexual couplings, in the season’s second version of Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 verse novel, The Wild Party. Longer and more elaborate than Andrew Lippa’s Manhattan Theatre Club rendition, the Wolfe-LaChiusa Broadway treatment is otherwise different only in having different high spots in its score and its cast; the basic material remains intractable. Egged on by a jealous ex-girlfriend, a sadistic vaudeville comic and his masochistic dancer sweetie push their hostility to a fatal breaking point, precipitated by the presence of the intrusive ex’s mysterious, sexy escort. March was said to have based these folk and their variously sordid cohorts on real people; the novel, first published privately, was a sort of extended blind-item column in loosely rhymed free verse.

Wolfe and LaChiusa try to make the story reflect both our own celebrity-fixated, deal-making era and the shifting social history of the 1920s, in which New York’s class barriers, as well as some of its racial barriers, were lowered to honor the frenzy of Prohibition and the Wall Street boom. Intriguing in itself, the idea conflicts both with March’s work (the point of which is the sordidness of a parvenu showbiz elite) and with the comparatively unbarriered quality of our own time. The behavior’s so open from the start that there’s no shock in the loss of respectability, and the casual mingling of black and white in the cast keeps making nonsense of lines about racial barriers and Uptown-Downtown discrimination. Worse, each of the team’s expansions throws the action further off kilter: The mysterious Mr. Black, as the novel’s unknown quantity, is fascinating; as the highly professional gigolo of the musical, he’s just another creep on this worm farm. (Even worse luck for Yancey Arias, who plays him, are the inevitable comparisons to Taye Diggs, who embodied the role perfectly in the Lippa version.)

When the authors, and Wolfe as director, try to inject moral comment, they go even further astray. In their version, Burrs, the sadist clown, is a blackface performer, who puts his stage makeup on for his fatal confrontation with beautiful Queenie and her newfound lover, Black. Is the idea that blackface equals murder (if so, Hitchcock beat them to it in Young and Innocent), or that you have to become someone else to kill? Either seems excessive for this simple, squalid event, though with Mandy Patinkin playing Burrs, excessiveness would inevitably ooze in. More puzzling is the thought process that makes Eartha Kitt into the evening’s prophetic voice of doom. Kitt is resplendent; she gets big laughs with only mildly funny gags, and lines out her it-tolls-for-thee number, one of LaChiusa’s weaker efforts, with a chilling ferocity.

There are, in fact, a lot of wonderful people and half a dozen pretty great musical moments scattered through the unfocused haze of this raucous orgy. Toni Collette, making her New York debut as beleaguered Queenie, is a real treasure: a beauty, with a vibrant stage presence, who can act and sing. Her results, in this context, are inevitably scattershot, but every moment is good in itself. Tonya Pinkins, as her jealous rival, and Norm Lewis, as the plastered prizefighter Eddie, do strong, sustained work with unrewarding material; Marc Kudisch, used in previous shows merely as a handsome, hulking object, turns out to have wonderful comic energy and inventiveness as the manic Jackie, whose character LaChiusa has captured in song with appalling accuracy.

A vaudeville show that conveys nothing about vaudeville, set by Robin Wagner in a vast gloomy space that suggests these two performers live in the Vanderbilt mansion, The Wild Party is saddening and frustrating: It neither gets the story down flat nor rises high enough above it to become something else. Shifting between the two levels, preoccupied with its own ideas about what it’s supposed to be, it keeps forgetting to let us know. Lippa’s version, with fewer peaks and fewer standout performers, had the big advantage of terseness, telling the book’s brute story and leaving it at that; like it or not, it felt complete. This one, in contrast, feels unwieldy and overlong (an hour and 55 minutes with no intermission), yet somehow unfinished. I can’t remember feeling less entertained at a show with so many good points.

The Real Thing, in David Leveaux’s newly imported Donmar Warehouse rendition, also has its good points—a double surprise to me. In Mike Nichols’s hands, decades ago, the play seemed a lopsided bad joke, while Leveaux’s previous New York productions—two ghastly O’Neill stagings and last year’s hideous Elektra—have been acts of criminal incompetence. With this play he’s on home ground and proves that he knows his business. The tone is dry, the lighting harsh, and the sets stark, but, hey, that’s England; the music—’50s doo-wop and rock standards from the hero’s collection—is cunningly chosen to comment on the action. And the cast is on target at every moment, especially Jennifer Ehle and Stephen Dillane in the leads.

These virtues add up to a substantive evening, but not, unfortunately, to a play. With its cuts restored, and liberated from Nichols’s canny audience-pleasing jocosities, The Real Thing is revealed as a coherent but badly bifurcated and undramatic work. Onto an old-style West End study of marital jealousy, Stoppard imposes a satire on welfare-state gentility that equates liberalism with bad faith. His hero, a playwright (always a danger sign), is both the source of the infidelity and the lone voice crying out against it, a paradox that the audience barely notices, since it’s far too busy keeping up with the hero’s endless rat-tat-tat monologues. Giving your writer-hero all the good lines while making him his own worst enemy is a recipe for a slapstick act, but not for a play. Thankfully, Stoppard learned better after he grew up; Arcadia is one of the best first plays ever written. From that vantage point, we can smile at The Real Thing‘s hopeless unreality.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 18, 2000

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