We live, if you haven’t noticed, in an increasingly confused and confusing world. The difficulty of understanding others is only equaled, these days, by the difficulty of figuring out who we ourselves are. Values are fluid and language even more so.
No surprise, then, to find plays and musicals slipping their categories. But even in this unmoored world, A Catered Affair, John Bucchino and Harvey Fierstein’s musical version of the 1955 Paddy Chayefsky teleplay that later became a Bette Davis movie, looks paradoxical. A sweet, often lovely, but oddly wan event, it’s the first Broadway musical I can recall that seems to aspire toward Off-Broadway. An intimate, small-cast show, about the kind of ordinary folk who used to be referred to condescendingly as “little people,” it feels dwarfed even in the Walter Kerr, one of Broadway’s more intimate theaters, a feeling unwisely abetted by the multistory apartment-house wall of David Gallo’s set. The design’s mobility, with its multiple panels sliding on- and offstage while Zachary Borovay’s projections paint vivid low-rent urban landscapes across them, belongs to the Broadway musical’s traditional spaciousness; its small-scale story, telling of intimate family conflicts and their complexly tangled motives, seems to beg for a more cramped, low-ceilinged space. Bucchino’s quietly pleasing songs, sparsely dotting the compact 90-minute event, seem to demand no more than parity with Fierstein’s dialogue, edging the show toward that classically unstable designation, a “play with songs,” rather than a musical.
Characters in Broadway musicals traditionally have big, bold motivations. A Catered Affair‘s action has the uncertainty that goes with a more nuanced psychological sense. A young girl who just wants a no-frills civil ceremony reluctantly submits to her mother’s urge for a lavish wedding, with expectably painful results. The motives, like the emotions involved, are mixed: Far from being socially ambitious, the mother is driven in part by a guilty feeling of having neglected her daughter in favor of her son—whose recent death in the Korean War, though rarely mentioned, hangs over the thoughts of everyone involved as they try, with touching half-success, to please everyone else while not sacrificing their own wishes.
There’s a lot to this material: The show’s eeriest aspect is the sense it gives of a rich body that never fully emerges into view, like a brilliant dancer who prefers skulking in shadows. In its final chorus, and at one or two fleeting earlier moments, Bucchino and director John Doyle demonstrate how a more actively stylized approach might have energized the evening. But that might have meant giving up the powerfully rooted naturalism that grants the performance so much of its strength. Doyle gives Faith Prince, as the obstinate yet perplexed mother, long silent moments alone—seated at the kitchen table, or on a fire escape looking out into the moonlight—that literally make her seem like an anchor: If she suddenly got up and walked around, you think, the whole thing might fall apart.
The solidity of Prince’s performance—probably her best work to date—makes a polar opposite to book writer Fierstein’s appearance as her temperamental florist brother, the family flibbertigibbet and star boarder. Fierstein’s Jewishness looks odd in this decidedly Irish Catholic family, and his script makes the uncle openly gay to a degree that Chayefsky certainly wouldn’t have contemplated. The minority group that Fierstein embodies, however, isn’t Jews or gays, it’s vaudeville. Vocal limitations notwithstanding, he’s instinctively a song-and-dance man; his flamboyant interjections (along with what seems a half-fulfilled impulse to have the story seen through the gay uncle’s eyes) indicate yet another approach that the show tests tentatively and backs away from. A balance between the two extremes is only struck by the three other leads, all giving wonderful performances that manage to merge the Broadway musical’s impulse for out-front display with naturalism’s sense of reality: Leslie Kritzer and Matt Cavenaugh, as the bride and groom, hit with precision the slightly pallid charm of these overstressed outer-borough kids, while Tom Wopat, as Prince’s taciturn, tormented husband, invests the evening’s one dramatic show-stopper with devastating power—implying, paradoxically, that these seemingly small-scale emotions, handled differently, might have risen to the towering stature of opera.
Paul Rudnick’s The New Century, a string of four comic sketches that make a sort of play, much the way that three or four semi-related paintings make up a medieval altarpiece, shares Fierstein’s vaudevillian boldness, but wisely eschews any attempt at naturalism. His characters have their reality, especially when incarnated by actors with the blazing truthfulness of Linda Lavin and Jayne Houdyshell. Yet truth itself, for Rudnick, is primarily interesting as a source for jokes; if he wrote an allegorical play, the role of Reality would be intended for a stand-up comedian.
Here, the confusions of our time are precisely Rudnick’s material. Lavin plays an epically forgiving mother coping with her three children’s successively weirder sexual proclivities; Peter Bartlett, as on several earlier occasions, plays “Mr. Charles,” the world’s most obdurately traditional effeminate-gay stereotype; and Houdyshell plays a crafts-obsessed Midwestern depressive for whom the trauma of 9/11 has merged mentally with her gay son’s death from AIDS a few years earlier. In the evening’s last piece, all three—the local, the exile, and the out-of-towner—wind up, for tenuous reasons, in a Manhattan maternity ward, along with Mr. Charles’s two acolytes (Mike Doyle and Christy Pusz), and a happy ending of sorts is reached by solving nobody’s problems but having everyone achieve the American narcissist’s equivalent of heaven on earth—a niche on a cable show.
As always, Rudnick’s material, while thin as drama, is unremittingly and unashamedly funny. Nicholas Martin stages it brightly and aptly. He has some trouble with the Mr. Charles section, where Bartlett’s once-gemlike performance seems a tad rushed and mechanical, perhaps from overfamiliarity; you can practically see the actor’s eyes light up when he moves into the newer material. But with Lavin and Houdyshell so magisterially perfect, plus Doyle’s endearing mock dopiness, there’s nothing to complain of. Is it a play? That question may have to wait a few decades, till people start reviving early Rudnick.
Revival isn’t a fate likely to afflict Liz Flahive’s From Up Here, at Manhattan Theatre Club, another in the unending recent line of dysfunctional-family dramas that try to merge serious material with sitcom tone. But sitcoms at their best have the advantage of being able to amplify their material every week; we knew lots more about the Ricardos or the Kramdens after one season than we learn in one evening about Flahive’s implausible couple, and the troubled wife’s two troubled children by her first husband. Nor is it easy to see why we should care, though Leigh Silverman’s speedy, smooth production doesn’t skimp on acting power: Julie White and Aya Cash, as mother and daughter, register forcefully in roles very different than those we’ve seen them in before, while Tobias Segal, as the medicated son, is heartrendingly perfect.