The Eisenhower Error


I am a sentimentalist. I miss the theater of my childhood and adolescence, having been one of the lucky ones who was taken to theaters (or snuck in on his own) during his childhood and adolescence. I miss the superficially naturalistic, tidily constructed plays in which some trifling problem was hinted at in the opening, blew into a storm for the first-act curtain, was capped by a bigger storm to climax the second act, and got mollified down to a mere tempest in a teacup by the end of Act III, so that audiences could exit smiling. I miss the comfortably wealthy, lavishly furnished domestic interiors in which most such plays took place, safe little worlds in which no gritty quotidian realities ever caused sufficient emotional distress to halt the placid, tennis-ball plick-plock of wisecracks being batted back and forth. There was fun in these plays; if their wisecracks were salty enough, they might even contain some intelligence, or a dash of satirical excitement. And Broadway had, over decades, mastered the art of putting them on: If they were any good at all, they looked, sounded, and felt perfect in themselves, containing nothing you would dream of questioning until at least 24 hours after leaving the theater, by which time everything about them but the memory of your laughter would usually have vanished.

I saw dozens of these plays in summer stock, and many more on Broadway. I acted scenes from them in school, and studied them as models of dramatic structure. Nowadays I reread them from a social-science point of view, searching for the ones most emblematic of their time, or most applicable to ours. But I always thought of them as period pieces, only revivable with a conscious awareness of the difference between their time and ours. Always, that is, until I saw Richard Greenberg’s A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, from which I have to conclude either that nothing has changed in America since the 1950s, or that Broadway and I are living in a time capsule, and should venture into the present a little more often.

Yes, here it was again, the spacious year-round house at a summer resort, built onstage with high-tech lavishness by John Lee Beatty. (What fun a ’50s director with an extravagant physical sense, like Joseph Anthony, would have had inventing weird ways for the actors to drape themselves over its long staircases and expansive landings.) And here they were, the ’50s family updated: nurturing but career-driven Mom; business-brilliant but amiably out-of-it Dad; the three hormonal grown-up kids (multiracial and adopted, it’s an update) whose problems send the parents spinning into where-did-we-go-wrong crisis land; the well-meaning neighbor (divorced these days) who barges in at all the immaculately wrong times; and the acid-tongued oldster (the neighbor’s mother-in-law this time around) who puts the necessary dash of bitters in this sweetly addling drink. Everybody was there but the cheerful, wisecracking colored maid; she declared her independence from this theatrical mode of domestic service decades ago.

True, incest and lesbian adultery, which would have been reserved for lip-trembling high melodrama in the ’50s, are now the pivotal topics of Greenberg’s comedy. But this puts him no further ahead of his time than his ’50s predecessors, who gave the Eisenhower-era affluent set mild frissons with troilism and babies out of wedlock. The topics may have changed but the I’m-OK-you’re-OK mind-set apparently still wafts through the American air—or at least through the atmosphere provided by the American Airlines Theater’s ventilating system. One never expected anything of substance from these comedies—even a substantial shock was viewed as taboo—and Greenberg upholds the tradition. His incest itself is only incest by a legal formula, since the siblings aren’t biologically related. Psychological repercussions? The characters would have to have some psychological reality first. It’s easier to believe in Ford’s Giovanni and Annabella, for all their feverish blank verse, than in Greenberg’s Thaddeus and Juliet.

Greenberg has used the theater of the ’50s as a reference point before: The American Plan, one of his most shamefully underrated plays, was a cunning subversion of a ’50s dramatic matrix; Night and Her Stars, less good but also unjustly undervalued, played out its ’50s story in a world that constantly evoked the era’s touchstone film scenes. But in both cases, there were artistic and thematic reasons for the choice; A Naked Girl on the Appian Way has no such defense. (Even typing its title summons up earlier titular girls: the one on the Via Flaminia, the one in my soup, the one in the Freudian slip.)

Granted, Greenberg writes the conventional nonsense in his own verbally elaborate style—what other playwright would have a father tell his bisexual son, “Sexual category has never been a hobgoblin with us”?—within which he produces as much fun as the old-time wisecrackers did in their way. But surely the writer who can create works like Three Days of Rain and Take Me Out has better things to do with his time than become the John Lyly of the Broadway sitcom.

And surely Doug Hughes has better plays to direct, including some by Greenberg. His production has a smooth, airy anonymity to it, like a Xerox of that old-style perfection. Except for Jill Clayburgh’s warmth, Ann Guilbert’s acerbity, and James Yaegashi’s touching forlornness, nothing human really registers, and nobody except Clayburgh, always hovering near the kitchen area, actually seems to be living on Beatty’s sumptuous Stairmaster of a set. I don’t mean the evening isn’t fun; I had fun. But then, I remember the ’50s, when the middle class was thriving and the Republican Party was not an active threat to the future of the planet. Even a sentimentalist like me knows that life is very different now.