Theater archives

Sick of Fancy


Who was it that called the theater “the fabulous invalid”? In this millennial year, the invalid doesn’t seem so fabulous anymore. Its invalidism has moved center stage, to sit or lie abed, sulking, complaining, and endlessly rechewing its still indigestible past. Two of the plays under review feature invalid heroes; Cobb‘s is already dead. All three are splintered works, lumpy with data unconfronted by their heroes, and at times by their creators. In dramatic terms, little happens, nothing’s resolved that wasn’t settled before you walked in, and excitement is mostly either factitious or in short supply. Fabulous? Hardly. Invalided? Looks that way.

Alice James, the heroine of Susan Sontag’s Alice in Bed, is almost totally bedridden. In Ivo van Hove’s production, the flashes Sontag’s script supplies of her past and her dream-time are restricted to video fantasies, dialogues the bed-bound Alice carries on with taped voices presumably in her head. The advent of a three-dimensional intruder, late in the intermissionless 95-minute evening, virtually makes her jump off her mattress with excitement, and we empathize: Nothing van Hove and Sontag have shown us up to that point has excited us much, either. Sontag, whose brilliant essays can make ideas dance and clash in thrillingly dramatic ways, is hopelessly devoid of talent as an imaginative writer. As with her novels, there’s a faint echo here of someone else’s more interesting work on the same subject—in this case an earlier dreamlike play about Alice James, Joan Schenkar’s Signs of Life, produced by the Women’s Project in the early ’80s. (Sontag’s play was published in 1993.)

But one doesn’t need to allege borrowings to perceive that Sontag’s theatrical sense is entirely secondhand, an attempt to reproduce what sounds like dramatic dialogue rather than to create what a given character would say at some exact moment. Apart from Alice’s brother Henry, whose wanly condescending affection has some human distinctness, her people are as indistinguishable from each other by their diction as the speakers on a language-lesson tape; Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson, sharing a “mad” tea party with Alice, might as easily be Margaret Chase Smith and Emily Brontë. The other mild exception to this dead tonality is the intruder whose advent gets Alice out of bed, a young burglar whose speeches, in which Sontag attempts a vaguely Cockney vernacular, sound like Mayhew with the grammar muddied. They’re not improved in performance by the casting of a Belgian actor whose attempt at the accent turns them into mush.

Van Hove’s production is based on a cruelly accurate sense of the script’s solipsism. He’s stripped away all theatrical appurtenances. There are no scenes as such, no shifts in time or place, no entrances or exits, only what the title offers—Alice, in bed. Everyone else exists only on tape. Jan Versweyfeld’s design surrounds the bed with a constantly changing array of screens, all shapes and sizes, a pretty barrage of images that enchants you with its sense of mental complexity externalized—for roughly five minutes, after which it becomes just as monotonous as the text. The latter’s made more so by long stretches during which only the taped voices converse, while Joan MacIntosh’s Alice is condemned to writhe silently in reaction.

MacIntosh, one of the world’s best living actresses and surely one of its gamest, does everything that’s demanded of her and more. She inhabits the character, pinpoints meanings in the lines, gives them what animation she can. She growls, whimpers, moans, and in one extended section even sings a paragraph or two. She does it all with complete conviction. And it’s all wasted effort, aimed at launching a work guaranteed not to fly. The irony is that van Hove’s initial choice, in revealing the work for what it is, also reveals why neither he nor anyone else should have bothered to put it onstage.

In a much different atmosphere, uptown, Lonny Price bounces in and out of a sickbed as the late Ed Kleban, best known as the lyricist of A Chorus Line, whose songs and sufferings are the dual subject matter of A Class Act, coauthored by Price, who also directed, and Kleban’s longtime companion, Linda Kline. As hypersensitive as Alice James, Kleban had a gaudier array of ailments: Choosing between law school and a musical theater career put him in a sanitarium; his list of phobias, which included elevators and airplanes, was one of the longest on record; he was variously depressive, paranoiac, sexually compulsive, and workaholic; he owned a host of psychosomatic allergies; and he finally died of a form of cancer probably brought on by smoking rather than by his less three-dimensional health problems.

Despite all this, Kleban was able to function: He sustained a long-term job at Columbia Records; he had an extended and fulfilling relationship with Lehman Engel’s BMI Workshop, at that time the one place to offer any training for musical theater writers; he had at least two extended romantic relationships with women. And he wrote a lot of excellent songs, with first-rate, resourceful lyrics and pretty good, if not always first-rate, music, in a traditional Broadway mode, but none the worse for that. Kleban’s life and his songs, however, don’t necessarily merge to make a single class act. Undoubtedly, for people who knew and loved him, the story of his parade of illnesses is moving, perhaps even heroic; for the rest of us, it’s another showbiz biography, of somebody who wasn’t exactly a showbiz colossus. The excitement of watching Kleban self-destruct palls rather quickly.

His songs, on the other hand, are fresh to the ear, and the best ones are likely to stay that way. “Paris Through the Window,” “Next Best Thing,” and “Say Something Funny” will all probably become cabaret standards; they’re clues to the show Kline and Price might have assembled—one that would emphasize Kleban’s creativity rather than his inability to ride the elevator to the 25th floor of the CBS Building. A musical revue needs some structure, just as a closet full of clothes needs a crossbar to hang them on, but a songwriter’s life is rarely that structure. Besides, the points where you know the book writers are fudging their facts make you wonder how much they’ve fudged elsewhere; it’s hard to enjoy a good song with your suspicions aroused.

It certainly isn’t hard to enjoy the prime cast Price has assembled: Jonathan Freeman, Julia Murney, and Ray Wills make particularly strong contributions. Carolee Carmello, as always, is simple, warm, and infinitely moving as the girl who sticks to Kleban despite his craziness. Even better is Randy Graff, as the first love who stays on to attain best-friend status. Graff gets the evening’s finest song (“Next Best Thing”), but that’s only natural; I imagine good material moves naturally toward her, like iron filings to a magnet. Price creates Kleban with zest and detailed creepiness; at the press preview, his voice sounded worn, presumably from the stress of wearing three hats at once. Scott Wise has contributed some neat post-Fosse choreography, and Carrie Robbins some brightly funny costumes. I just wish the show told me less about Kleban’s ills, and delivered more of his goods.

Lee Blessing knows how to deliver the goods, and Cobb, which has the ring of an instructional pageant for young baseball fans, covers its subject very efficiently. Tyrus Raymond Cobb, an early hero of our National Pastime, haunts its Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in three versions, his old, young, and middle-aged selves endlessly bickering not only with each other but with the shade of Oscar Charleson, the “Black Ty Cobb,” who, having never been allowed to play against Cobb, now sticks to him like a nagging question. Kicking issues and sometimes sentences among themselves, the four voices from the grave give due praise to Cobb’s ballplaying achievements, but manage not to ignore his miserable home life, his racism, and his brutality: If you leave out baseball, it’s the story of an abused child who became a psychopathic bigot, more likely to slug bystanders’ heads than home runs.

Blessing doesn’t evade this story, but the compassionate discretion with which he treats it makes the play resemble a fast shuffle: a bit of neglected sports giant for the fans, a dab of vicious redneck bigot for the cynics. Since everyone onstage is dead, there’s no drama inside which the facets of Cobb can coalesce; it’s all arguing in a void. Joe Brancato’s production, smooth in its physical staging, gives the show away by opting for vocally violent Cobbs whenever possible; all four actors yell, Michael Cullen’s oldster almost continually. Clark Jackson, as Charleson, and Michael Sabatino, as the middle Cobb, get most praise for yelling least.

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