Thursday, October 23, 2014

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

91. Review of ON THE TOWN (October 21, 2014)

1944 Playbill for ON THE TOWN.
1971 Playbill for ON THE TOWN.

1998 Playbill for ON THE TOWN.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: it’s my critical duty to inform you that a XXX-rated revival of Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green’s ON THE TOWN has opened on Broadway, and that those X’s stand for eXtraordinary, eXhilarating, and eXultant! Or should that be eXceptional, eXtravagant, and eXciting? Or maybe eXemplary, eXquisite, and eXuberant? Or . . . well, you can pick your own X words, but as long as they eXpress eXtreme eXcellence, you’ll be describing this eXpert resuscitation of a show that premiered during Christmas week 1944, ran 462 performances, and was later revived on Broadway in 1971 and 1998 (a production that began at the Delacorte in Central Park). The current production was born at the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

2014 Playbill for ON THE TOWN.
Since I agree with the many critics who, if they had ten thumbs, would have thrust them all skywards, I’ll comment as briefly as possible on the awesome elements that make this show so distinctive. Afterward, I’ll offer a little history lesson about the show’s premiere production. First, there’s the casting, which couldn’t be better, from the three sailors around whose exploits the show revolves, down to the glorious ensemble, which is required to play many roles, each with different costumes and wigs. I can barely imagine the controlled chaos that must prevail backstage.

From left: Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck, Clyde Alves. Photo: Joan  Marcus.
The three gobs on the town are in the hands, voices, feet, and hearts of three tremendously talented artists, each of whom can really act, dance, and sing; their dancing chops allow those scenes normally restricted to choreographed movement to soar into the terpsichorean blue yonder. Tony Yazbek is Gabey—the sweetly innocent gob who falls in love with a subway poster of Miss Turnstiles and gets his two buddies, Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Ozzie (Clyde Alves), to spend their 24 hours of wartime shore leave New York finding her; he gives one of those Broadway breakout performances that shout “a star is born.” Reeking masculine sex appeal (wait for his shirtless dream ballet), he not only dances like Baryshnikov but can sing like Brian Stokes Mitchell. Mr. Johnson is a deftly acrobatic and comedic Chip, while Mr. Alves, as the girl-hungry Ozzie, could give Gene Kelly a run for his money.


The divine Megan Fairchild plays Ivy Smith, the Miss Turnstiles Gabey longs for; Ms. Fairchild’s background as principal dancer with the New York City Ballet has prepared her for the show’s many dancing chores, which she performs with superlative beauty and grace (especially that stunning dream ballet), while Alysha Umphress as the burlesque-tinged, plumply pulchritudinous, erotically supercharged, brassily engaging taxi driver, Hildy, who hooks up with Chip, offers a hilarious counterpart to Ms. Fairchild’s ethereal loveliness. As Claire De Loon, the anthropologist who finds romance with Ozzie in the shadow of a Museum of Natural History dinosaur (which also gets to dance!), Elizabeth Stanley, makes her every moment on stage both sexy and sensational. Jackie Hoffman, in several roles, but especially as the alcoholic singing teacher Maude P. Dilly, exudes laugh-out-loud comedy from every gin-soaked pore. Allison Guinn as Hildy’s homely friend, Lucy Schmeeler, and Michael Rupert as Claire’s distinguished boyfriend, Pitkin, a gray-haired judge who “understands” everything (until he doesn’t), are equally seamless in their comic turns.

Megan Fairchild. Photo: Joan Marcus.
John Rando’s flawlessly rambunctious, consistently energetic, and dazzlingly inventive direction, supplemented by the remarkably fresh and creative choreography of Joshua Bergasse (who succeeds in matching, if not outdoing, the original choreography of Jerome Robbins), make this revival into something unexpectedly rich and vibrant. There are dozens of thrilling moments to relish but, if I were threatened with being run down by a speeding cab, I guess I’d choose “Come Up to My Place,” imagined as a wild taxi ride through the canyons of New York, captured in Beowulf Borritt’s brilliant projections, as Hildy steers crazily and Chip flies every which way, courtesy of a trick car seat that deserves an award for doing what you might have thought possible only in an animated movie. The original orchestration, best known for only a single song, “New York, New York,” (the Bronx is up, and the Battery’s down), played by a 28-piece orchestra with musical direction by James Moore (who also conducts), has never sounded better. Mr. Borritt’s gorgeously evocative sets and projections, the miraculous lighting of Jason Lyons, the vivid period costumes of Jess Goldstein, and the impressive contributions of so many others, make it imperative that you see this terrific revival. Did I like it? All of my ten thumbs are up!

On the Town - Show PHotos - 10/14 - Jay Armstrong Johnson - Alysha Umphress - Tony Yazbeck - Elizabeth Stanley - Clyde Alves
From left: Jay Armstrong Johnson, Alysha Umphress, Tony Yazbeck, Elizabeth Stanley, Clyde Alves. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Now for a little history. The 1944-1945 season already had a memorable parade of hits—including SONG OF NORWAY, ANNA LUCASTA, BLOOMER GIRL, I REMEMBER MAMA, HARVEY, THE LATE GEORGE APLEY, and DEAR RUTH—when ON THE TOWN arrived on December 28. It was the first Broadway show for the team of composer Bernstein and librettist-lyricists Adolph Green and Betty Comden, each of whom would become musical theatre icons. Their contributions here included such songs as the above-mentioned “New York, New York” and “Come Up to My Place,” as well as “Carried  Away,” “Lonely Town,” “I Can Cook, Too,” “Lucky to Be Me,” and “Some Other Time.” Comden and Green also proved their worth as performers, with the attractive Comden playing Claire de Loon and Green essaying Ozzie, whose dancing was limited (as in the 1949, film, where Jules Munshin played Ozzie, Frank Sinatra was Chip, and Gene Kelly was Gabey). The pair joined the show at Bernstein’s urging to replace the original lyricist, John Latouche.

On the Town - Show PHotos - 10/14 - Jay Armstrong Johnson - Alysha Umphress
Jay Armstrong Johnson, Alysha Umphress. Photo: Joan Marcus.
During the time the show was being written, Bernstein and Green needed operations, the former for a deviated septum, the latter for tonsillitis, so they saved time by going into the same hospital at the same time so they could collaborate in their room while recuperating. Wrote Joan Peyser in her biography, Bernstein: “It was quite a scene in that hospital room—rather like a Marx Brothers movie. Radios blared. Arguments accelerated over card games. Pieces of ON THE TOWN were sung full voice. But they did a lot of work.” Comden and Green were initially opposed to the show’s title and to its three-sailor theme, thinking the result would be too close to a grade-B movie.
Although ostensibly based on “Fancy Free,” a well-received 1944 ballet choreographed by Jerome Robbins and composed by Bernstein about three gobs on leave and trying to pick up girls in New York, the show used none of Bernstein’s melodies or Robbins’s dances from that piece, and the composer insisted that the two works were quite different, only the three sailors concept tying them together. The original cast had John Battles as Gabey (replacing the still unknown Kirk Douglas, of all people, because Douglas couldn’t sing—nor dance, it might be added) and Chip was Cris Alexander (better known as a celebrity photographer). Battles’s other major Broadway musical role was in ALLEGRO, which will soon open in a revival at the CSC, so perhaps someone should commemorate his contributions (he died in 2009).

The book was generally dismissed as insignificant but few denied its cleverness and effectiveness within the framework of the show’s premise. Much pleasure was gained from its frequent satiric sallies at aspects of New York life and culture. Lewis Nichols in the New York Times celebrated the show’s arrival by noting: “Everything about it is right. It is fast and is gay, it takes neither itself nor the world too seriously, it has wit. Its dances are well paced, its players are a pleasure to see, and its music and backgrounds are both fitting and excellent.” Much the same could be said of the current revival. John Mason Brown in the Saturday Review reveled in what he regarded as a masterpiece of innovation, a show that was to the urban landscape what OKLAHOMA! was to the rural.

As originally written, the script called for the scenes to be tied together by a prologue in night court, a locale to which the action would periodically return. The writers loved the concept but director Abbott hated it, and early on told them that the prologue and flashbacks would have to go. Green was enraged and he and Comden fought with Abbott to retain the material, to which he responded, says Peyser, with: “OK. I’ll tell you what. You can have either me or the prologue.” Abbott stayed, the prologue, etc., went, along with other cuts before the script was finished.

Especially noteworthy was how effectively Robbins had brought the art of ballet to Broadway dance (this was his Broadway debut as a musical comedy choreographer). His dances, said Rosamond Gilder of Theatre Arts, proved him “adept in the art of translating ordinary, insignificant events and gestures into the poetic idiom of the dance.” One of his most distinctive creations, Gilder declared, was the subway scene, with the movement of the throng of workers and gum-chewing secretaries gradually blending into dance. “The rhythm of the moving train, picked up by the music, is accentuated little by little in one swaying figure, then another, and finally bursts into a pattern of movement that embraces the whole stage, bursting the confines of realism and becoming an expression of all the weariness, hurry and passion for escape with which every clattering subway train is laden.” Robbins, quoted in Otis L. Guernsey’s Broadway Song and Dance, later commented: “One of the important things in the show that was not noted was the mixed chorus. It was predominantly white, but there were four black dancers—and, for the first time, they danced with the whites, not separately, in social dancing. We had some trouble with that in some of the cities we went to.” There are only two black dancers (Julius Carter and Tanya Birl) in the current revival, although there’s an Asian American dancer, Christopher Vo, and the black singer-actor Phillip Boykin makes a powerful impression in several supporting roles.

Bernstein’s music was not universally approved, but most critics would have agreed with E.C. Sherburne of the Christian Science Monitor: “The varieties of his rhythms, his satirical tonal embroideries, and the surprises offered by his vaulting rhythms leave the listener startled with the realization that he made it, like the man on the flying trapeze.”

Every principal actor came in for accolades, but most highly acclaimed was dancer Sono Osato as Miss Turnstiles. “She manages,” wrote John Mason Brown, “to combine the cool beauty of Sorine’s ‘Pavlova’ with a sense of humor subtler than Fannie Brice’s, but Brice-like in its contagious qualities. Miss Osato is a young person, arresting and brilliantly endowed, who is already a personage.” Despite being the daughter of a Japanese man and a woman of French-Irish-Canadian descent, she was cast in a Caucasian role, this being a daring example of early nontraditional casting, especially since it was right in the midst of this country’s war with Japan and while her father was in an internment camp. Ms. Osato, by the way, is still alive at 95, and one wonders if anyone will make the effort to bring her to the show, provided she’s able and interested. What a publicity coup that would be!

My theatre companion at the revival was my dear friend, Mimi Turque Marre, who in 1945 was a little girl from Brooklyn named Mimi Strongin playing the child’s role of Bessie in the original production of CAROUSEL, at the Majestic Theatre on W. 44th Street. CAROUSEL was produced when the original ON THE TOWN was still running at the Adelphi, ten blocks uptown; during its run ON THE TOWN migrated to the now gone 44th Street Theatre, just across from the Majestic, where it was that playhouse’s last production, before it moved on to the Martin Beck (now the Al Hirschfeld).

At the beginning of ON THE TOWN, a large 48-starred American flag is projected on a scrim and the audience stands to sing the national anthem. Mimi, a Broadway musical theatre veteran (FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN, etc.), let fly with a still thrilling voice that had spectators turning to see where it was coming from. I felt privileged to be singing alongside this part of Broadway history, and to see that Mimi’s still a helluva gal and ON THE TOWN’s still a helluva show!

 Note: The historical information in this review is based on material in my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1940-1950.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

90. Review of SIGNAL FAILURE (October 20, 2014)


Spencer Cowan, Sasha Ellen. Photo: Natalya Chagrin.
SIGNAL FAILURE, by Sasha Ellen, is a reasonably well-written but quickly disposable, hour-long British import about two lonely young Londoners finding love through social media, but not, interestingly enough, the Internet, the usual foundation for tales of romance in the age of technology. Now playing  at the Soho Playhouse, this is one of those plays that depends largely—although, thankfully, not entirely—on characters who tell you what they’re doing and thinking, rather than dramatizing it directly in action and dialogue. Recent examples include PORT AUTHORITY and BOYS AND GIRLS, not to mention A.R. Gurney’s LOVE LETTERS (in which all the lines are read from correspondence). Only about halfway through do the two characters, Lorna (Sasha Ellen, who also wrote the play) and Brian (Spencer Cowan), break into dialogue, after which both dialogue and direct address are heard. The play, reportedly a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is the kind of thing you’d expect to see in Theater C at 59E59 during its annual Brits Off Broadway series. On Vandam Street, though, it seems to be having trouble filling seats.
Brian’s a chef on late night duty who occupies himself while riding the Underground to and from work by watching how some passengers signal their potential interest in others, but endure the usual missed connections. He discovers a sort of personals column in a daily tabloid that prints messages from such people in the hope the people that they’re eying will read them and reach out. Still depressed by the loss of his girlfriend, whose fate is revealed later on, he begins to play Cupid by submitting messages to see—in a sort of proto-stalker way—how his meddling plays out. He’s thrilled when one of his matches succeeds, but wants to hide when those he’s encouraged encounter “epic” failures.  
Lorna’s a cute office worker, closely attached via the phone to her Mum, who’s equally interested in observing passenger behavior. When Lorna also discovers the column, she starts watching for the people she thinks are thus making contact, and even begins seeking a note that might be aimed at her. Brian notices her constant presence at the places where potential connections are to be made, suspecting at first that she may be a reporter on his trail. One thing leads to another, Brian and Lorna become lovers, she unwittingly learns more about him than she bargained for, the affair crashes, and then . . . well, you don’t need me to tell you what follows.
Ms. Ellen’s lines, with their occasional British lingo and references, are enjoyably bouncy, but her boy meets girl, etc., trope is predictable, the breakup is too contrived, and the secrets each lover has been withholding are not particularly original. The production is about as low-budget as possible, and, while one can accept a set used for multiple locales while composed only of two large boxes and a door-like board (to create a bed for the inevitable romps in the sack), the rather ugly, cheap-looking, canvas backdrop (no set designer is credited), showing graffiti-scrawled walls, should have been left at home. Fortunately, Sherry Koenen’s barebones lighting design makes the most of its limitations. 
Ms. Ellen and Mr. Cowan are personable and believable, each working their charm vibes to the max, although Mr. Cowan—vaguely reminiscent of a young Damian Lewis—tends to overdo his ingratiating smiles and tendency to run his hand through his unkempt hair. Their vehicle, however, mildly endearing as it is, lacks the sparkle and wit to stand out in a crowded New York season.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

87. Review of FOUND (October 16, 2014)



As I walked to the subway from the Linda Gross Theater, home to the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of the new musical FOUND, I had to restrain myself from picking up the stray pieces of paper spilling from the trash cans along Eighth Avenue. After all, I’d just seen a show whose raison d’ĂȘtre is the jottings on such detritus, be they napkins, postcards, notebook pages, Post-its, envelopes, letterheads, or even barf bags—that is, anything onto which pen, pencil, crayon, magic marker, lipstick, typewriter, computer printer, or whatever can leave a written impression.
FOUND is based on the experiences of Davy Rothbart, a Chicagoan who, in 2001, founded (no pun intended) a magazine called Found devoted to publishing just such found trash. These experiences have been turned by book writers Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree (who also directed, wonderfully)—with additional material provided by Story Pirates—into a semibiographical tale  about the magazine’s birth and growing pains, as well Davy’s personal dilemmas. Someone else will have to explain how much is truth, how much fiction.
From left: Andrew Call, Nick Blaemire. Photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia.
It all starts on a day during which Davy (Nick Blaemire, appealing) not only is fired from his job at an alternative newspaper but is also mugged and can’t start his car; then, thinking the paper on his windshield is a ticket, he sees that it’s actually a mistakenly placed note to and from total strangers:



Davy, unable to find a job, finds more discarded notes and he and his friends/roommates, Mikey D (Daniel Everidge, so good in FALLING, impressive), a bearish, bearded, gay guy, and Denise (Barrett Wilbert Weed, recently of HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL, memorable), a hip bartender, decide to self-publish a magazine devoted to their growing trove. Davy’s mantra is to find a job he loves doing, with people he loves, so the magazine fills a big hole in his heart and psyche, and provides a theme—hackneyed as it is—for all other unconventional strivers. Davy also discovers that reading other people’s most intimate thoughts makes him feel less alone in the world.
From left: Daniel Everidge, Andrew Call, Nick Blaemire, Orville Mendoza. Photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia.
A public reading of their discarded literary remains at Denise’s bar leads to the unlikely meeting between Davy and Kate (Betsy Morgan, spot on), an attractive wannabe TV producer who just happens to have been the writer of one of the notes Davy reads; the note, about her wish to bequeath her skull to a boy she loves, is something he found in a thrift shop book. Kate placed it there when she was in the seventh grade. (Hey, this is musical comedy, not Arthur Miller.)
From left: Daniel Everidge, Nick Blaemire, Betsy Morgan, Barrett Wilbert Weed. Photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia.
The readings grow into a tour organized by Denise, and soon there are radio interviews and, through the ambitious Kate’s machinations, a shot at a reality TV series—a la “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” But, as in so many plays, movies, and books about friends creating a mutual enterprise, disagreements arise, the air is fouled, and disappointment follows. Not to worry, things in musical comedy always work out for the best. As per the dramatic situations textbook, the play follows the formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl (or at least seems likely to), with the conventional inclusion of a femme fatale to make it even more familiar. Again, this is comfort theatre, not DEATH OF A SALESMAN.
The plot’s predictability, however, isn’t as important as the exceedingly clever way in which everything has been stitched together to create an evening’s divertissement. As Davy, Denise, Mickey D, and Kate move through their tale of triumph, betrayal, idealism, disenchantment, and redemption the many characters they encounter are splendidly incarnated by a perfectly coordinated ensemble of actor-singer-dancers in the versatile persons of Christina Anthony, Andrew Call, Orville Mendoza, Molly Pope, Danny Pudi, and Sandy Rustin.
The notes that form the show’s premise become subtextual messages that different members of the ensemble introduce by constantly popping in from the wings to speak them as the original scraps are projected just as they looked when discovered—bad spelling, garbled handwriting, quirky typography, and soiled paper notwitstanding. Notes that are often non sequiturs take on specific meanings when placed in the proper dramatic context; some are funny, some mildly amusing, and others little more than filler. Without the brilliantly imaginative, award-worthy projections of Darrel Maloney, which are often as animated as the performers, this show would lose half its charm.  
Not all the notes are used as commentaries on the action, by the way; one, mentioning a fifth-grade class’s misbehavior at a school performance of “Johnny Tremain,” about the Revolutionary War, is used as an excuse for a farcical reimagining of what that misbehavior might have been. A cassette tape with each number having something to do with “booties” gives rise to a funny, rap-influenced sequence.
Mr. Overtree’s seamlessly inventive and briskly-paced staging (not to mention the witty interpretations of the notes he elicits from the ensemble), combined with Monica Bill Barnes’s engaging and inventive choreography, make FOUND a constant pleasure to watch; still, in two acts running two hours and 15 minutes, the show stretches its thin material to the point of breaking.
Fortunately, the music and original lyrics by Eli Bolin are consistently listenable and likable, ranging in style through all the pop genres, from country to rock to hip-hop to standard ballad. Around half the 28 songs’ lyrics are original, the others taken directly from their sources. Mr. Bolin succeeds in taking words never meant to be sung and adding music to them in a way that makes them remarkably effective.
David Korins’s neutral set—a curving wall covered in scraps of paper, and separated into discrete sections for entrances and exits—provides the needed flexibility for an episodic story that ranges freely from locale to locale. Chairs and tables are quickly brought on and off as needed; the dark wooden floor has small pits—two at either side—for the musicians. Justin Townsend's terrific lighting marks him as someone to watch. 
Like all those notes it memorializes, it may not be perfect, but many will be glad they found FOUND.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

86. Review of GENERATIONS (October 14, 2013)

In less time than it takes to order, eat, and pay for a meal at the average restaurant you can ingest British playwright Debbie Tucker Green’s GENERATIONS, a 30 minute or so theatrical tone poem in which cooking plays a central role, served up by the Play Company in cooperation with the Soho Rep. Does it have some tasty parts? Yes. Is it well prepared and served? Yes again.  Did it leave me fully satisfied?  Not so much.

From left: Shyko Amos, Khai Toi Bryant, Ntombikhona Diamani. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
As usual at the Soho Rep, the space has been transformed (by designer Amulfo Maldonado) to match the play’s dramatic needs. Powdery red-brown earth resembling what you see on a baseball infield covers the floor; the seating is a wildly eclectic assortment of wooden, plastic, and metal chairs, benches, stools, and crates, which looks like it’s been assembled from some local junkyard. Nearly every inch of wall space is covered with red, orange, blue, and yellow sheets of corrugated metal to create a shanty-like South African house. (Of course, no actual home would be as spacious as the one created in the otherwise limited confines of 46 Walker Street.)

A soiled kitchen counter with cooking facilities and implements stands near the center, surrounded by the audience on three sides. An old refrigerator, shabby cabinets and shelves, and other domestic items (including vegetables in plastic bags) line the walls. Local music plays on the radio when you enter, and, if you’re thirsty, chances are you’ll be sipping a bottle of beer purchased in the lobby.

As the play begins, a choir of 13 splendid singers, seated in small groups amid the audience, suddenly rises and begins to sing a cappella (in an undisclosed South African language) and to move rhythmically under the excellent musical direction of Bongi Duma. The words are the names of various people who’ve died, followed by “Another leaves us, another has gone,” which, although not mentioned in the dialogue, alludes, I’m sure, to AIDS victims. (Considering the play’s subject matter and the vagueness of the writing, one could be forgiven for thinking they died of food poisoning.) The play’s music, although often rather lively, is referred to in the script as a “dirge.” During the course of the action, at various moments of emotional intensity, the choir heightens the effect by its chanted interpolations, underscoring the lines.

The acting itself, effectively directed by Leah C. Gardiner, has a rhythmic structure, with its combination of realistic and stylized behavior, as the actors speak Ms. Green’s deliberately repetitious, choppily truncated, elliptical, and often monosyllabic dialogue in which the word “cook” (and variations on it) holds pride of place. At several places, Grandma (Thuli Dumakude) says to Grandad (Jonathan Peck): “I was the cooker—you was the cookless—I was the cooker who coached the cookless. I coached you to cook.” To which he remarks: “You couldn’t cook.” Also important are references to memory, both what is remembered and what forgotten.

What the characters present are the interactions within a family of three generations, Grandma and Grandad; Mama (Ntombikhona Diamini) and Dad (Michael Rogers); and Boyfriend (Mamoudou Athie), Girlfriend (Shyko Amos), and Junior Sister (Khail Toi Bryant). As time passes, the lights (nicely overseen by Matt Frey) gradually go from bright to dim, leaving only kerosene lamps hanging on the walls aglow; what seem at first like minutes actually have been years. The bustling action of the early scenes gradually subsides, a melancholy mood seeps in, and only Grandad and Grandma remain.

What little plot there is circles around the family’s relationship to cooking, the thread that links one generation to another. As the Boyfriend wonders, over and over, about the Girlfriend’s cooking skills, the characters banter, taking up pages of dialogue, about who taught whom to cook, with the words circling back on themselves, emotions rising and falling; meanwhile, as food is prepared, the older folk reminisce about how cooking played a role in their love lives. The Boyfriend and Girlfriend disappear to the chanting of the choir, but the same basic repartee as before continues when they’re gone. Next to leave is Dad, who’s soon followed by Mama.

The final scene, with only the saddened grandparents, hints at the tragedy of AIDS, especially when Grandad says, “This thing. This dying thing. . . . This unease. This dis-ease,” which is about the play’s only specific reference to something other than cooking and eating in this family’s lives. But why and how this specific family succumbed is never addressed, making them instead symbolic of South Africa and not representative of any specific individuals. This, perhaps, is why the South African national anthem is sung by the choir at the end.

GENERATIONS is artistically evocative; however, its insistent ambiguity, which some have found a strength, left me hungry for something more.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

85. Review of IT HAS TO BE YOU (October 5, 2014)


Many people have had the experience of seeing a widowed, aging parent, whose assets they one day hoped to inherit, disappoint them by marrying anew, even perhaps at an age when many others are in their dotage or suffering from a fatal illness. Usually, such marriages, however they may affect the financial dreams of the children involved, are between people of comparable age, so the children, whatever their objections are on other grounds, can’t make much of a fuss about how old the new partner is.
Catherine Butterfield, Adam Ferrara, Peggy J. Scott. Photo: Kim T. Sharp.
If an elderly father were to marry a much younger woman, though, there would certainly be suspicions of gold-digging intentions on the lady’s part, but such situations are common enough not to raise too many eyebrows, unless the amount of money involved is egregious; remember the scandal when actress Anna Nicole Smith wed the billionaire J. Howard Marshall, when Ms. Smith was 26 and Mr. Marshall 89? On the other hand, for a wealthy woman in her 80s to marry a man younger than half her age is rather rare, which is why the late-life marriage of Oscar-winning actress Celeste Holm was news. In 2004, when celebrating her 87th birthday at Sardi’s, the still glamorous Ms. Holm shocked her guests by using the occasion to marry her 41-year-old, opera singer boyfriend, Frank Basile, whom she had met in 1999. Two years earlier, her worried sons began seeking ways to protect Ms. Holm’s $13 million in assets; after she died, in 2012, at 95, the costly legal battle that had begun between the sons and Mr. Basile centered on the sale of the late actress’s expensive Central Park West apartment.
Regardless of whether both parties were truly in love, with Ms. Holm’s money being secondary to Mr. Basile’s happiness, the subject of such a relationship—elderly woman and prime-of-life man—and its effect on the woman’s grown children, certainly raises interesting dramatic possibilities. Catherine Butterfield—the author of IT HAS TO BE YOU, the December-May romantic comedy at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre (in the Abingdon Theatre Complex)—says that Ms. Holm’s story was her inspiration, but that doesn’t mean the play is about the star. Further, there’s only a 27-year separation between the still hot-to-trot heroine, who’s a mere septuagenarian, and her gerontophile Romeo.
In the play, Mindy (Ms. Butterfield, the playwright), a Nyack realtor in her late 40s, and her brother Frank (Adam Ferrara), five years younger, who runs a failing New Jersey tuxedo shop, rush to the home of Dorothy (Peggy J. Scott), their well-to-do, well-preserved, 75-year-old, mother, when they learn from a neighbor that she’s been dancing naked on the balcony of her lovely Massachusetts home. They’re convinced that Mom is sinking into dementia and that it’s time to move her into a senior residence; although they love Dorothy, their concern about her is partly rooted in the selfish hope (based on real need, especially on Frank’s part) that they’ll share in the sale of her valuable home. When they arrive they discover the cause of her eccentric behavior is Burt (Peter Davenport), the good-looking, 48-year old piano tuner, painter, and gardening maven, with whom she’s been living. They insultingly call him a “gardener,” just as the Holm offspring dismissed Basile as a “waiter.”
The result is a lightweight play written with just enough wisecracking charm to keep you gently engaged during its 90 minutes, but one whose premise is never really convincing and whose performance doesn’t fully satisfy. Is Burt the gigolo Mindy and Frank accuse him of being, out to steal Dorothy’s riches from under them? Can he seriously be in love with Dot, as he calls her? Do Mindy and Frank have the right to deprive their mother of her happiness?
When Jed (Jeffrey C. Hawkins), Dorothy’s youngest (and favorite) child, a gay set decorator, arrives from Hollywood, things move in a new but predictable direction. Before the play ends, however, a broken heart will be mended and the famous Isham Jones-Gus Kahn tune referenced by the play’s title will, when sung at the piano, offer pleasantly sentimental solace to both those on stage and those in the audience.
Ms. Butterfield has a wholly acceptable idea in questioning the motives of otherwise fond children who can’t find happiness in their own love lives yet consider it perfectly okay to interfere in what gives their parent joy on the grounds of what they deem its unseemliness. However, the free-spirited Dorothy, who’s been making artistic studies of her nude body for years (to her children’s surprise), and is even now engaged in an art project involving taking pictures of herself every day at 3:00 p.m., must surely have behaved unconventionally before this. It’s a bit of a stretch to believe that her kids are so stunned by her current actions as to think they befit placing her in a home. be
There are other stretches, including the hokey resolution, but, let’s face it, you need stronger playwriting elastic—despite the example of the Holms-Basile affair—if you expect an audience to buy a torrid romance between a woman nearly three decades years older than her beau, especially one who’s spent nearly half a century in the closet. Older man, much younger woman? Fine. We see such stories every day. Older woman, younger man? Of course, as long as the gap isn't that large. It’s not hard to accept the 33-year-old Ben Foster being with the 47-year-old Robin Wright, or Hugh Jackman being married to a woman 13 years older, but the Dorothy and Burt romance doesn’t go down quite so easily, even with 19 years shaved off the Holm-Basile relationship. There’s certainly a lot of humorous potential in what goes on between such a couple in private, but barely anything of the sort makes its way into Ms. Butterfield’s comedy, which aims to build up sympathy for Dorothy’s late-blooming passion. Anyone who objects is just a geriatric-hating reactionary with no respect for old people’s individuality.
A woman of 75—even one with a youthful sparkle who dyes her perfectly coiffed hair blond, adds red streaks for highlights, and wears skintight pants and colorful chiffon ops (costumes are by Sherry Martinez) that make her look more like a denizen of Boca Raton than upscale Massachusetts—is a hard sell as an overripe cougar. Regardless of how annoyingly the obnoxious Mindy and the more hapless Frank go about sticking their nose into the affair, they definitely can be excused for finding the whole thing icky.
Perhaps the play might work better if it weren’t played so straightforwardly. The Strelsin Theatre is a tiny room seating 60 around a postage stamp acting area, here designed on  a shoestring by Ian Paul Guzzone, and lit by Michael Megliolia, to comprise several locales, but mainly Dorothy’s elegant home. Such an intimate space certainly needs a toned-down approach from director Stuart Ross, but too low key a performance is bound to dampen the spirited comic mood the piece requires; this, though, is essentially what happens. At the performance I saw, the pacing tended to drag, the smoothly professional cast (apart from the excellent Ms. Scott) failed to glow, and too many of Ms. Butterfield’s sprightly zingers were thrown away. I chuckled, but laughs were sparse; it was champagne without the fizz. Lacking more emphasis on its comedy, the play couldn’t survive its contrivances. Which is why, when the play ends, with Dorothy and Burt singing “It Had to Be You” to each other, they should be looking deeply into each other’s eyes, wondering if it’s really true.