In August 1959, an ad in The Village Voice defiantly announced that the Living Theatre’s The Connection— by then 27-year-old playwright Jack Gelber—was “not one of the regular Broadway, county-fair-type, spun-sugar musicals that both the expense-account trade and the critics” adore. One wonders what credulous theatergoer would confuse The Connection with blue ribbons and cotton candy. At the play’s opening, a producer and playwright enter a decrepit apartment setting and declare that since “sensational stories about narcotics” are all the rage, they’ve hired some addicts to improvise on the playwright’s themes. The audience, the producer, and two cameramen watch as an all-male assemblage of junkies wait agitatedly for their man. A jazz quartet, helpfully present, provides musical interludes.
While The New York Times dismissed the initial production as “nothing more than a farrago of dirt, small-time philosophy, empty talk, and extended runs of ‘cool’ music,” critics for the weeklies lauded it. Jerry Tallmer at the Voice praised its “misery and stasis and permanent total crisis,” awarding the production three Obies. A cause célèbre, The Connection ran for 722 performances. Rumors that the play featured real addicts and real junk abounded; the Living Theatre’s artistic director, Julian Beck, liked to claim that at least 50 men had fainted or fled the theater at the sight of an actor inserting a hypodermic.
Fifty years on, the Living Theatre has revived The Connection, and though the play bears little resemblance to a “spun-sugar” musical, it will not cause anyone to faint. Time, it seems, has blunted the needle’s edge and dulled all sensation. Gelber’s formal experiments—framing devices, apparent use of improvisation, the dissolving of the fourth wall, plotlessness—weren’t new in 1959 (he borrows from Odets, Beckett, Pirandello, and Shakespeare). And they’re older now. A couple of the young men give engaging performances, and Judith Malina has a mazy charm in the role of a muddled Salvation Army sister, but the boundaries of false and real remain unrattled.
As the play’s avant-garde elements no longer startle, one is forced to concentrate on Gelber’s language. If not precisely the “small-time philosophy” and “empty talk” of the Times review, its unstudied exchanges and passé slang don’t bear much examination. Yet Gelber has a sense of rhythm that still renders him distinct. His writing aspires toward the quality of jazz—high notes, low notes, improvisations, syncopation, broken time, melodic lines abandoned and then revived. The interplay between the language and music (courtesy of the Rene McLean Quartet) remains instructive. Underneath the idle dialogue and junkie haze, you can hear the welcome strains of hard bop and cool jazz.
The Judgment of Paris, a dance-theater piece, reaches past the 1950s, past the 1850s, and into the murk of prehistory. It recounts that ancient beauty pageant in which Prince Paris bestowed an apple upon the victorious goddess Aphrodite. Troublesome snack, those apples. This particular bit of produce wins him the love of Helen and launches that dreary Trojan War.
Writer-director Austin McCormick draws upon baroque dance, French operetta, and much of the oeuvre of Marlene Dietrich to animate this tale. Six dancers combine pirouettes with boogie-woogie, arabesques with can-can kicks. As the cast strip down to mere corsets and strike indecorous poses, it’s all meant to appear ferociously erotic. Yet, while the production and its actors look marvelous, the mood’s more tedious than titillating. Independently, the choreography, songs, and text amuse, but they don’t work well in concert. The speech clutters up the dancing; the musical numbers interfere with the story. McCormick and his corps have labored considerably, but—that apple aside—their work bears too little fruit.