José Rivera’s new play is a simple one-scene confrontation between two people who love each other; a standard-issue naturalistic playwright could have polished it off in 40 minutes. But Rivera, a trickster poet, can’t resist a juicy aesthetic complication: His title is only the first in a string of intellectual sleight-of-hand maneuvers. The references that make this author hot, dramaturgically speaking, are not to Dalí but to the painter’s unrequited lover, the poet García Lorca. The Moon, a key character in Lorca’s Blood Wedding, plays an even bigger role here. But Lorca’s Moon, being Spanish, is female, la luna. Rivera, an American of Hispanic heritage, makes his lunar inhabitant a man in the moon, who wants to get into the heroine’s pants.
The horny moon is part of the painterly scene with which Rivera surrounds Gabriela, a young Army wife stuck miserably in a military town at the edge of the California desert, waiting for her husband, Benito, to come home on leave, so that she can—what? Make love to him, murder him, tell him she’s leaving, or battle out with him everything about their marriage that’s driving her crazy. There’s a lot of the latter, from his service in an armed force that steps on people she identifies with to the frustration of her own entrapment as a housewife in a nowhere town. A third-world-conscious Doll’s House in olive drab fatigues: Rivera’s material doesn’t lack density. When the lovers come to grips with it all, in the play’s long and ferociously powerful central scene, you may start to think the poetic trappings are so much needless decoration. Do we care that the Moon lusts for Gabriela, or that her pet cat allows itself to be pleasured by one of the locally marauding coyotes, which duly gets killed and comes back as a ghost? Two people, deeply in love with each other, have found ways of driving each other to the edge of insanity and murder, for reasons deeply bound up with your life and mine; after that, who needs talking coyotes?
In a way, these Lorcan anthropomorphic figures with their metaphysical rhapsodies are Rivera’s badge of alienation, worn all the more proudly because it doesn’t match the play’s basic outfit. Children of the Latino Bronx who lapse easily into Spanish when excitement or memory takes over, his characters are first-generation norteamericanos, the offspring of immigrants, equally desperate to mingle in the melting pot and to retain the cultural distinction that keeps them from melting down into it. Like most Americans, they’re never wholly certain who they are. The time’s not long after the Gulf War, and Rivera carefully plants the shock of our hearing a Nuyorican soldier talk about “ragheads” or inveigh against “welfare queens.” The marital argument is also a conservative-vs.-liberal political argument, about everything from government funding to the educational system. In the long run, it may also be as metaphysical as the cat’s remembered love for the ghostly coyote: At the very end, Benito, who has come home midway through the first act, seems to be arriving for the first time once again; and Gabriela is again waiting for him, the confusions of the play’s debate still in her head and the household gun in her hand. Maybe things are, Dalíesquely, not so simple as they seem—or so real. And maybe without the stasis of the peripheral decorations, the intense middle scene wouldn’t weigh in so urgently.
Or maybe the disparity’s a production problem: Awkward with ghosts and anthropomorphs, Jo Bonney’s production ignites as soon as Gabriela and Benito lock horns. Michael Lombard makes an elegantly lewd Moon, and Kristine Neilsen a wry, slyly complacent house cat, but their cohorts on the periphery seem to be overemphasizing in a void. John Ortiz and Rosie Perez, at the center, have no such jitters, sailing into the material with secure, angry authority. My only regret is that Perez doesn’t have a lush, resonant voice to match her stunning physical presence. All media-star nonsense aside, she clearly has the emotional chops and the sensibility, as well as the beauty, for the most demanding kinds of stage work. With good voice training she’d be unstoppable.
I like Faith Prince’s voice—a mellow, slightly quavery mezzo—except when she blats out her top notes or belts at the bottom of her range, both of which make her normally pretty tone turn ugly. I’d gladly overlook those lapses if I could just find something else to like about her, but I can’t. Her personality never reveals itself onstage, yet at the same time she never submerges herself wholly in a role. In Bells Are Ringing, she takes center stage like someone who’s been told to move there; she does the bits of choreographed business in her solo numbers like an obedient understudy copying what the star did last night.
The star’s absence is a pity, too, for Bells Are Ringing doesn’t look so bad these days, despite the inevitable shortfall, a result of the musical theater’s decline in the 40-odd years since its premiere. Don Sebesky’s no Robert Russell Bennett, but the new orchestration has a good, gutty, swing-band sound, and David Evans conducts it with gusto. Yes, Riccardo Hernandez’s design, with its grim steel frame, evokes a later, blander New York; Tina Landau’s staging has its bumpy moments; and Jeff Calhoun’s choreography offers a roller coaster’s worth of ups and downs. But the ups, which include the snappy “I Met a Girl” and the sweet-silly rendering of “Mu-Cha-Cha,” are high enough to carry you through the low spots, and some of Landau’s cast do the rest of the toting with zesty appeal. Marc Kudisch, as the blocked playwright who’s the heroine’s secret crush, leans a little too realistically on the panic button in his early scenes, but that beats unreal romantic vapidity any day, when abetted by his strong presence and stalwart baritone. Toward the end, when two of Jule Styne’s great tender songs, “The Party’s Over” and “Just in Time,” have helped Prince center herself somewhat, the love machinery that the authors built up with such careful professionalism starts to do more than merely click into operation, making you see that, if Bells Are Ringing is no masterpiece, it’s very sagely built on the matrix of one, and rewards sympathetic treatment.
Landau handles it with more respect and delicacy than her downtown work would have led me to expect. An opening video montage sets the era for us, cunningly integrated with the mock commercial for the answering service that is the show’s locus of operations. Landau tends to rush, a little, over the low-comic affairs of Beth Fowler, as the heroine’s cousin and employer, and David Garrison (a dapper, stylized performance) as the Hungarian con man who romances her. But she’s plucked a comic triumph from Martin Moran, as the dentist with dreams of songwriting whom the heroine befriends. A twitching frenzy of elbows, knees, and excited yelps, Moran’s turn is the most original piece of acting currently visible in a Broadway musical: Picture a complete cast of people up to his level, and you’ll know what the form’s great days were like. If Landau and Calhoun mean to call them back, I wish them the best. Though there’s plenty wrong with Bells Are Ringing, starting with the figure at its center, you may be surprised how well the old thing functions.
Incidentally, the authors may have drawn a vague inspiration for their plot from the 1949 Lucille Ball movie Miss Grant Takes Richmond, in which a bookie ring hires the dumbest girl in a secretarial school as an innocent front for their operations; comparing play and film shows you both the skill with which Comden and Green worked out their distinctive variant, and how ingeniously, through their love of classical music, they personalized it. That personalizing is part of the work’s principal charm: its genuine love for the spirit of New York, where impossibly wonderful things can happen, and for the wonderful, impossible people who inhabit it. That spirit still exists, despite all efforts by Giuliani and the realtors to extirpate it.
The spirit of a smaller, more stratified city, Memphis just before the assassination of Martin Luther King, is one of the stimuli behind Saint Lucy’s Eyes, a disjointed, discursive, but honorable work in which Ruby Dee plays a sympathetic kitchen-table abortionist, called “Grandma” by the terrified young women who come to her. Bridgette Wimberly, the author, approaches her explosive subject honestly but impulsively, sorting out neither the events nor the speeches, which are full of repetition and backtracking; this may partly explain why Dee occasionally has to grope for a line. She hews to the ones she finds powerfully enough to make her performance well worth seeing, but the play, tossing in issue after issue with minimal examination, leaves her little defined ground to stand on.