As we prepare to carve the last Thanksgiving turkey of the thankless Bush era, the theater displays a trio of half-familiar works pondering American mores. They all, as you might expect, proffer more misgivings than thanksgivings.
Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Road Show, the long-gestated musical about the historical brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner, wants to be a parable of how Americans go wrong. Familiar to Sondheim aficionados from pre–New York outings under titles like Wise Guys and Bounce, Road Show arrives here in a stripped-down, 100-minute version, directed by John Doyle, that has a readers’ theater air. Ann Hould-Ward’s mostly gray costumes use color only in incidental touches; Doyle’s starkly abstract set, an arrangement of black cubes, recalls ancient Off-Broadway docudramas. This is America the crisply narrated, not America the beautiful.
Beauty, though, is what brother Addison (Alexander Gemignani) desires in life. Sondheim and Weidman make him a restless dilettante, uncomfortably gay, who finds both true love and his true vocation, as architectural fantasist to the wealthy, largely by happenstance: He meets a rich young man with utopian daydreams on a train to Florida. The authors call this fictional scion Hollis Bessemer (Claybourne Elder) and make him Addison’s key to happiness as well as to the society millionaires who commission his ultra-ornate mansions. In fact, the rich loved Addison Mizner’s epic-scale houses, about a dozen of which still survive in Palm Beach, because his self-indulgent whimsicality matched their own erratic, semi-cultivated sensibilities: It was Veblen’s theory of conspicuous waste brought to three-dimensional life.
The parallel courses of true love and true artistic vocation on which Addison sets himself don’t run smooth because of his brother Wilson (Michael Cerveris), whose chief function in the Road Show version of the Mizner siblings’ story is to louse up Addison’s life. While making Addison seem an untrained dilettante, the show ignores Wilson’s time as a writer on Broadway and in Hollywood. Granted, his credits are mostly schlocky, his celebrated witticisms mostly either plagiarisms or wisecracks, but onstage his purpose in life seems to be making his artsy brother take the rap for his con games.
This reduces the action to a sitcom-like repetitiveness: Addison finds a purpose for his life; Wilson arrives to mess it up. Unable to dig dramatic developments from this inherently undramatic setup, Sondheim and Weidman sensibly compress it to a bare minimum, then urge us to view it as an American allegory: The evening’s framed in a deathbed pronouncement by the boys’ father (William Parry), urging them to achieve greatness (“There’s a road ahead/There’s a land of opportunity”). But the cursory details and speeded-up storytelling never convince you that there’s anything typical about this oddball duo. Why did Wilson become a crook rather than join the legions of honest showbiz scribblers who enjoyed high life and playing the ponies? Why didn’t Addison, having found his niche, keep his welsher brother at arm’s length? The brothers became legendary precisely because they were so weird; they can’t be that and typical at the same time.
Fortunately, the show’s brevity and speed keep it from becoming laborious. The tone of Doyle’s production, harsh and monochrome like its color scheme, rarely enhances but also never hinders the story’s onrush. The four principals all mercifully escape the surrounding one-note frenzy. Gemignani’s Addison is his most capable performance to date; the infallibly resonant Alma Cuervo makes a haunting impression as the boys’ mother. Even better are Elder, who turns the befuddled, daydreamy rich kid into a nearly Chekhovian figure, and Cerveris, who builds Wilson into a mixture of soft-eyed seductiveness, go-getter mania, and desperate weaseling that very nearly fulfills the promise the writers don’t keep, creating an American prototype.
Then, too, there’s Sondheim, a master in the literal sense: His every song is polished with masterly skill, fitting masterfully into its exact place in the event. Masters can sustain such awesome technique while their inspiration fluctuates; Road Show comes from a lower shelf in Sondheim’s cabinet. But it still comes exquisitely, with the artistry of a man whose handiwork is never second-rate. Its two quirky love songs, “Isn’t He Something?” and “The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened,” will probably stay on theatergoers’ permanent-memory lists, as will the hilarious lines describing Addison’s Palm Beach mansions (“A happy fusion/Of Indonesian and Andalusian”). Road Show may disappoint; Sondheim never does.
Reliable American craftsmanship too marks Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, a reassuringly solid piece of theatrical furniture offering both regional style and moderate comic flair. Foote’s tragicomic tale of a land-poor Texas family’s fiscal woes now looks prophetic as well as quaintly sturdy. His America, as prone to greedy ostentation and flimflam as the Mizner brothers’, seems more strongly rooted: in place, in kinship, in tradition. If the strong roots now produce only weak offshoots, that’s just nature’s way. As played under Michael Wilson’s direction, everything onstage seems natural, especially Penny Fuller and Hallie Foote as the two bickering sisters. Only Elizabeth Ashley’s cane-thumping matriarch seems as exaggerated on Broadway as it did in the show’s Off-Broadway unveiling last season. But with Arthur French, James DeMarse, Devon Abner, and Maggie Lacey among those making memorable contributions to the family circle, there’s ample relief from Ashley’s artificiality. Foote, like the form he writes in, is aged; that doesn’t stop his lines from ringing true.
The text of Mamet’s American Buffalo rings true, too. This classic study of crooks undone by their competing ideas of successful business should still have seemed the best play on Broadway. This was not its best production, though: In director Robert Falls’s oddly mismatched cast, only Cedric the Entertainer, as pawnbroker and fence Donny Dubrow, conveyed the weight of potential menace that should infuse every minute. He deserved to be challenged by a far-scarier Teach than John Leguizamo’s bright, almost perky reading of this extraordinary role provided. Like Haley Joel Osment’s clean-cut Bobby, everything in Mamet’s dangerous pawnshop suddenly became far too tidy.