These are miserable times. Our political scene is overrun by reactionary savages, our economy is being sucked dry by corporate greed, our democracy is menaced on all sides—and American theatergoers want to have fun. This isn’t as irresponsible as it may seem. Temporary escape from a miserable world can be healthy. The airier the escape, the readier you are to bounce back, energized, to confront and battle the misery. Yes, the theater also has other, deeper functions, but they don’t diminish the importance of this one. The puritan desire to make light entertainment morally preachy and deep is what trivializes it; artists who can make you feel that your feet are being tickled with a feather all evening long (the 19th-century critic Jules Lemaitre’s description of an Offenbach operetta’s effect) come closer to saving your soul.
That depends, of course, on their knowing how and when to apply the feather. Over the last two decades, our tradition of light entertainment has systematically been undermined, which is probably why our times are so miserable. Puritanism, Anglophilia, deconstructionism, and mass marketing have merged to produce the deplorable excuse for popular theater we mostly get today. Joy and lightness of touch aren’t unknown on the New York stage, but they’re far scarcer than they used to be, like quality goods that cease to be manufactured in a depression. Yet that’s precisely when they’re most needed. The idea of quality itself, enhancing the value of life, is one of the forces that sustain people through dark times: Those art deco movie designs that made 1930s audiences gasp weren’t merely exploiting class envy.
Both Pardon My English and Twentieth Century date from that dark time, having originally opened a month apart in the 1932-33 season, celebrations of glamour and foolishness in a New York full of vacant buildings, soup kitchens, and headlines moaning of labor troubles at home and upheavals abroad. Pardon My English unwisely chose the last as the base for its humor, setting its frolicsome story, about an amnesiac with two identities and a girlfriend for each, in a cartoon Deutschland just as the Nazis took over. (It closed the night of the Reichstag fire.)
Painful in 1933, the show’s mockery of buffoonish German policemen now seems merely overused, displaying the continuity of vaudevillian “Dutch” comedy from Weber & Fields to Mel Brooks, who only needed to add Hitler and stir. With unintentional aptness, the one weak link in Gary Griffin’s otherwise delightful concert staging was its comedy lead, Rob Bartlett, who came off as a coarse replica of some genuinely funny performer. For the rest, Griffin and choreographer Rob Ashford did witty, snappy work, animating David Ives’s ingenious compression of the show’s much doctored book. Brian d’Arcy James and Jennifer Laura Thompson exerted maximal skill and appeal; Emily Skinner came as close as this age can to evoking the adorable Lyda Roberti. These victories allowed Pardon My English to display its strong suit, a fascinating array of rare Gershwin songs, mostly in their original orchestrations. George’s score bristles with surprise syncopations and seductive chromatics; Ira’s lyrics jauntily cross-breed not only highbrow and lowlife, but English and German, rhyming “diagnosis” with “was los is.” Even dancing on the edge of the Holocaust’s volcanic crater, this featherweight work still offered some genuine tickles.
Precious few, though, are left in the Roundabout’s Twentieth Century. Hecht and MacArthur’s emphatically American farce catches only faint reverbs from the European volcano. Both originally and in Ken Ludwig’s lumpy new condensation, mega-producer Oscar Jaffe’s dream—to bring the Oberammergau passion play to Broadway, with his former star, Lily Garland, sexing it up as the Magdalen—just brushes, grinning gently, the mucky meld of Christianity and totalitarianism that paved the way for Hitler, and is probably doing the same in America today.
Such earnest matters are only peripheral to Twentieth Century, which tells how Oscar lures Lily back into both his contractual stable and his bed, despite antic interference from a parade of minor characters whom Ludwig has multitasked into a skeleton crew. Some of the cast, compelled to play several contradictory roles melted into one, solve the problem by drawing a blank. Julie Halston, Dan Butler, Tom Aldredge, and Stephen DeRosa, who get distinct roles, are the only players who register effectively. Director Walter Bobbie keeps the evening looking stylish and moving rapidly, but in a bland, humdrum fashion. Both of his leads, Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche, have some flair for physical comedy, but both lack the vocal color, variety, and bounce needed to keep this piece of fluff aloft; their monotonous, rapid-fire line readings have a lulling effect, like the hum of a speeding train.
Even fainter, though more frequent, are the tickles provided by the foolhardy attempt to musicalize Johnny Guitar, the 1958 Nicholas Ray film that’s a byword for Hollywood idiocy. (One wonders if Ben Maddow, who seems to have actually written the screenplay credited to Philip Yordan, knew what he was perpetrating.) The musical’s makers have worked painstakingly and honorably; they produce pleasant country-pop sounds and more than a few laughs. But they all knew the material was a joke when they started, and that’s fatal. As Oscar Wilde said about ignorance, “Touch it and the bloom is gone.” Only Steve Blanchard’s immaculately deadpan rendering of the title role preserves the joke in pure form.