The time has come to get Broadway unplugged, and the new production of Guys and Dolls shows you exactly why. Here, after all, is the classic musical that every New Yorker would want to love, and that sums up the dream of New York tucked in the corner of every out-of-towner’s heart. Guys and Dolls is not the “real” New York: Damon Runyon’s tales of Broadway’s denizens were never “real.” He softened with playful warmth, to which the Frank Loesser–Abe Burrows musical added showbiz canniness, a lot of characters you probably wouldn’t want to encounter, in reality, in a dark alley at midnight. But Runyon’s woozy dream of New York—where gamblers confess their sins in song, and even mobsters with guns won’t welsh on a marker—is a magical place: noisy, grimy Manhattan with its harried citizens’ mores and phraseology sparklingly transformed, till even its gutters seem gold-filled.
At least, that was Guys and Dolls before Des McAnuff directed it. For all their romantic Runyonizing, the show’s book and score tell the tale of a humanly recognizable New York. McAnuff’s twitchy, incessant, visual blitzkrieg of a production makes it a tale of two cities: The characters may be rooted in midtown Manhattan, but the staging and design are pure Vegas—a Vegas that inexplicably screens a high-speed IMAX documentary of bygone New York 24/7. No scene is left unfidgeted with; even the title song gets interrupted by an elevated train rumbling overhead, though what Benny Southstreet and Nicely-Nicely Johnson would be doing on Third Avenue is anybody’s guess. And even at Sister Sarah’s shabby mission, the sign over the entrance is spelled out in Broadway lights.
McAnuff’s showbizzy busy-ness extends to unhelpful deconstructive gestures, too: A mute Damon Runyon stalks the main characters all evening, taking notes, like Will Chase in The Story of My Life. And what goes on at Joey Biltmore’s garage while he’s yakking with Nathan Detroit, I decline to describe; I’ll just quote Kenneth Tynan on an analogous piece of directorial charm-killing: “Thus can poetry, in one gesture, become irrevocable prose.”
Prosy, too, are most of the performances locked inside this overheated slot machine of a show: Oliver Platt’s Nathan and Lauren Graham’s Adelaide come across as dull replicas of some forgotten original; Kate Jennings Grant, who’s been charming in other contexts, turns Sarah Brown into a schizoid windup toy, half squawky spinster and half hard-sell chorine. Only Craig Bierko’s Sky Masterson, sporting a high-roller’s grin and the easy lope of a guy on a winning streak, supplies a few spoonfuls of the humanity on which Loesser and Burrows’s cockeyed fairy tale paradoxically depends. The multimedia clutter drowns out everyone else.
Lisa Loomer’s Distracted, as directed by Mark Brokaw at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, has to fight its way free of similar multimedia clutter, only here, the clutter’s intentional, a sort of negative objective correlative to the humane feelings at the play’s core. Loomer and Brokaw apparently think, like me, that we should all turn off the electronic dreck now threatening to engulf our lives and concentrate instead on what’s meaningful to us as humans.
Unhappily, they’ve chosen to view their premise from the reverse angle. Their multimedia games, topped by the deconstructive one in which the actors drop their roles to comment on the action, take up much of the onstage time. Meanwhile, Loomer’s little parable, about the travails of a couple whose six-year-old is diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, virtually has to get snuck into the event, threading its embattled way among the video screens and the audio blips. Brokaw handles the glitzy externals with tidy, inventive precision, but they tend, inexorably, to drown out the human story, which starts to feel both cursory and rather schematic as a result.
Partly, it’s been conceived this way to underline Loomer’s moral: that children with what’s called ADD are the inevitable products of a civilization fixated on distracting itself with electronic trivia. But Loomer’s eagerness to illustrate the point raises increasingly bigger questions about the life of this particular couple, who they are, and how they see themselves and their child. The actors have to struggle mightily to make them seem more than mere textbook illustrations.
Fortunately, Brokaw has actors who are apt for the task. Even trapped in a role that lets her show almost nothing but helpless perplexity, Cynthia Nixon carries truth and a touching vulnerability. Josh Stamberg, given stronger opportunities, nearly makes her doubting husband the evening’s hero. Peter Benson squeezes juicy fun out of an anthology of eccentric doctors, and Lisa Emery, as a Cassandra-like neighbor, projects a contained ferocity that could detonate far bigger plays than this.
Speaking of ferocity leads quite naturally to speaking of Dana Ivey, an actress for whom the phrase “a force to be reckoned with” might have been invented. Ivey can currently be reckoned with in Evan Smith’s The Savannah Disputation, at Playwrights Horizons, a short (90-minute), slight, but by no means negligible comedy about the theological collision of two Catholic maiden ladies (Ivey and Marylouise Burke) with the earnest, deeply confused young evangelical (Kellie Overbey) who invades their home, having been sent by her pastor boyfriend on a mission to convert Catholics to Christianity. The two sides being equally clueless about Bibliology, the sisters’ parish priest (Reed Birney) must step in to restore a modicum of sanity.
Smith makes much of this extremely funny, especially when Ivey, in a tantrum, attempts to practice self-excommunication. His script, however, shortchanges the deeper conflicts that lie beneath the doctrinal badminton. This makes Walter Bobbie’s mostly smooth but superficial production lurch noticeably from event to event, like a car hitting a series of speed bumps. Still, the pleasure of watching four such excellent actors at work gets you over the bumps pleasantly enough—Overbey’s performance is particularly touching, and Ivey’s more demented moments rank with the best of Bea Lillie.