Sunday, August 2, 2020

258. IN PRAISE OF LOVE. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Rex Harrison, Julie Harris.
IN PRAISE OF LOVE [Comedy-Drama/British/Death/Illness/Family/Literature/Marriage] A: Terence Rattigan; D: Fred Coe; S/L: Jo Mielziner; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; P: Arthur Cantor; T: Morosco Theatre; 12/10/74-5/31/75 (199)

Julie Harris, Peter Burnell.
An old-fashioned tearjerker in the “well-made” mold that sent several critics to their hankies. In Praise of Love was basically “a salute to that key organ of the British ethos, the stiff upper lip,” commented John Simon. A vehicle for stars Rex Harrison and Julie Harris, it may have been based on Harrison’s own experience with his late wife Kay Kendall, who was ill with leukemia but was not told by her husband that she was going to die from it.

Sebastian Cruttwell (Harrison), an acid-tongued Marxist book critic, has been married for 28 years to Lydia (Harris), an Estonian refugee and Nazi victim. Sebastian, out of touch with his deep-lying love for her, learns that Lydia is dying of a rare disease and strives to keep the news from her ears. She, however, aware of the seriousness of her condition, resolves not to let him know of it. The situation ultimately brings the pair more closely together than they’ve ever been.

Martin Gabel, Julie Harris, Rex Harrison.
The drama also introduces their TV-writer son, Joey (Peter Burnell), with whom Sebastian continually disagrees on political and other topics, and a successful novelist friend, Mark Walters (Martin Gabel). Sebastian, himself a failed novelist, is jealous of Mark’s success at writing sexy books.

This was the first play in a decade by Sir Terence Rattigan, one of England’s most solidly established old-guard playwrights. It met with mixed reviews, but enjoyed a relatively decent run because of the popularity of its accomplished stars. John Beaufort and Martin Gottfried thought it “touching,” and John Simon said it was “very good indeed” of its kind, but harsher opinions prevailed. Clive Barnes criticized it for being sentimental, predictable, implausible, and slick. Howard Kissell noted Rattigan’s failure to differentiate the tone of each character’s dialogue, and pointed to how Rattigan had cheaply manipulated the audience’s emotions by a speech recounting the heroine’s experiences with the Nazis. T.E. Kalem called this “a soap bubble of a play,” while Douglas Watt thought it a work of “artifice.”

Some quarreled with Harris’s Estonian accent, but most concurred with Gottfried: “Julie Harris, looking exquisite, survives her character’s demands for two acts of nobility without becoming an annoying martyr. . . . Harris creates an individual as well as a palpable and believable relationship with Harrison.” The latter received the best notices, being described by Jack Kroll as “a rare master, the Olivier of light comedy. . . . His lubricious squint, his wrinkled face, like the map of a rake’s progress, his seemingly spontaneous, chirping arabesques of speech are parts of an acting arsenal as sophisticated as anybody’s in the English language.”


257. IN NEW ENGLAND WINTER. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Tony Major, Mel Winkler, Norman Bush, J. Herbert Kerr, Jr.
IN NEW ENGLAND WINTER [Drama/Crime/Mental Illness/Race/Romance] A: Ed Bullins; D: Dick Williams; S: Pedro Lujan; L: Buddy; P: New Federal Theatre; T: Henry Street Playhouse (OB); 1/26/71-2/7/71 (24)

Ed Bullins wrote In New England Winter as the second in a projected 20-play cycle in which many of the same characters would reappear. In the Wine Time was the first in the series, and several others followed in the 1970s, mainly Off-Off Broadway.

The subject of In New England Winter is Steve Benson (Norman Bush), a young Black man, whose experiences in two locales—a New England house in1955 and a city apartment in 1960—are recounted. Both are set on stage at the same time. In the New England home, he is seen having emotional difficulties with Liz (Gloria Edwards), the girl he loves, who is verging on insanity. In the apartment, his problems are with Cliff (Mel Winkler), his half-brother, with whom he plans a theft. Eventually, he winds up leaving each place for good.

Critical disapproval was aimed largely at Bullins’s nonlinear, rambling, loosely assembled style. A tape-recorded narration was used to tie the threads together. As Walter Kerr noted, “he wants some form, any form, a fusing principle that will gather up oddments.” To Edith Oliver, the disconnected plotting was puzzling, but secondary to the deeply felt and often poetic thrust of Bullins’s often profane dialogue. Black critic Clayton Riley praised the writing, but lashed out at the mediocrity of the production. Bullins, he wrote, “is a conjurer, Black musician-magician, a compelling weaver of moods—composites of danger, menacing, murderous intuitions.” John Lahr was similarly appreciative, albeit put off by “a sloppy, ill-conceived production.”

Bullins was awarded an OBIE for distinguished playwriting. Among the eight cast members was future SNL star Garrett Morris.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

256. IN GAY COMPANY. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Gordon Ramsey, Ann Hodapp, Robert Tananis.

IN GAY COMPANY [Musical Revue/Homosexuality] M/LY: Fred Silver; D: Sue Lawless; DS: Michael J. Hottopp, Paul dePass; P: MCB Company; T: Upstairs at Jimmy’s (OB); 4/4/75-4/13/75 (13)

A promising Off-Off Broadway show (at the Little Hippodrome, October 29, 1974) prompted an Off-Broadway move for this “try-sexual musical revue,” but, despite decent notices, it was gone before two weeks passed. Called simply Gay Company in its first appearance, the show had a definite appeal even though its subject matter limited its audiences to what Howard Thompson described as “intelligent adults with a sophisticated sense of humor who are fed up with sex exploitation and somewhat shabby counterparts to this show.”

Reviewing the Off-Off version, Thompson said the four-man, one-woman entertainment, which commented on male same-sex relationships within a program of 16 songs, was “tasteful and stylish,” and “lances social taboos with deadly irony.” The cast consisted of Rick Gardner, Bob Gorman, Ann Hodapp, Gordon Ramsey, and Robert Tananis.

The numbers each had a dramatic/comical core, as in the effective song that showed how aghast a quartet of macho Irish fire fighters would be if the fire department hired gay men. In another routine, two aging gays encounter each other after many years and fondly reminisce about their first meeting “At the Matachine Society Masquerade.”

Fred Silver’s two-piano score was “brilliantly conceived,” thought Thompson. John Simon also liked it, but found the sentimental ballads wanting. He commended the show, however, for handling its subject “without attitudinizing or special pleading.”


255. IN CASE OF ACCIDENT. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Michael Shannon, Joseph Boley, Fay Sappington, Henderson Forsythe, Patricia Elliott, Terry Kiser.

IN CASE OF ACCIDENT [Drama/Art/Friendship] A: Peter Simon; D: Ted Cornell; S: John Scheffler; C: David James; L: Marc B. Weiss; P: William Craver; T: Eastside Playhouse (OB); 3/27/72-4/2/72 (8)

Some topflight acting talent was aboard this sinking ship that went down after its first week. Nearly every critic agreed that dramatist Peter Simon was a Harold Pinter copycat, but without the British master’s talent to sustain the style. As John Simon, himself no Pinter fan, cracked, “If there’s anything we do not need in the theatre it is pint-sized Pinter.”

In an upstate New York farmhouse, an ill young artist (Michael Shannon; no, not the current star of that name) has been seeking refuge for the past two months from the emotional and social frictions of his city environment. An old couple (Fay Sappington and Joseph Boley) are caring for him. Three of his New York friends—his girlfriend (Patricia Elliott), a former school teacher (Henderson Forsythe), and an effete art dealer (Terry Kiser)—find him out and try to get him to return home. Finally, following a car accident in which the friends are involved en route back to New York, he agrees to leave for the city.

The “play is about as inviting as a gin-and-bitters with a spoonful of Ivory Flakes added,” sneered Michael Feingold. Clive Barnes commented on the “stilted” quality and its pretentiousness, while Simon attacked the “meaningless conversations” and “painstaking outlandishness” of this “inscrutable concoction.”


Friday, July 31, 2020

254. THE IMMACULATE MISCONCEPTION. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


William Kelsey, Mary McGregor, Gwen Mitchell, John Swearingen.

THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION [Comedy/Death/Fantasy/Marriage/Religion/Sex] A: W. Randolph Galvin; D: William E. Kinzer; S: William  E. Kinzer and W. Randolph Galvin; C: Mary Lou Harvey; L: Lee Goldman; P: W. Randolph Galvin; T: Cherry Lane Theatre (OB); 10/27/70 (1)

Frank Borgman.
As the ubiquitous name in the credits suggests, this one-performance disaster was largely the work of one man. Mel Gussow bellowed, “It is a work that does not even merit the title vanity production. Whose vanity does it assuage?” This critic considered the backstage life, glimpsed through gaps in the amateurish scenery, more interesting than what was transpiring in the play. “Misconception, yes,” commented Jerry Tallmer, “Immaculate, not quite.”

At the start, an old millionaire (Frank Borgman) converses with God—a Celestial Memory Bank—and asks for a review of his past deeds to see if he deserves his fate after he dies. It turns out he had planned to leave his man-hating daughter (Mary McGregor) and her husband (John Swearingen) six million dollars, but the will revealed that they could collect only if they had a baby. Since they dislike each other too intensely to have sex, it is suggested by the devious Dr. Zaharako (William Kelsey) that they talk a black servant (Gwenn Mitchell) into being artificially inseminated so she can bear the child for them. The doctor actually stands to gain the estate himself for his research institute if no child is forthcoming. And so on . . . 

253. THE ICEMAN COMETH. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

James Earl Jones,, Patrick Hines.

THE ICEMAN COMETH [Dramatic Revival] A: Eugene O’Neill; D: Theodore Mann; S: Clarke Dunham; C: Carrie F. Robbins; L: Jules Fisher; P: Circle in the Square; T: Circle in the Square Joseph E. Levine Theatre; 12/13/73-2/24/73 (85)

This was the second major revival of O’Neill’s great 1946 barroom drama—the first (also produced by the Circle in the Square) starred Jason Robards, Jr., in 1956—about the value of pipe dreams versus the harshness of reality. Unlike the earlier revival, memorably directed by Jose Quintero, the present one had superb design elements, but only intermittently distinctive direction, with a hodgepodge company of name actors that nonetheless lacked the necessary ensemble quality. Even the star presence of the red-hot James Earl Jones failed to find wide approval.

James Earl Jones.
Walter Kerr found the work in serious need of cutting, especially because the prolix, four-and-a-half hour play tended to dissipate the impact of the central character, Hickey (Jones), when he was offstage. John Simon thought the work miscast and poorly acted, Edwin Wilson felt the direction was “mechanical,” and Martin Gottfried griped about the lack of coordination among the disparate elements. One of the few who thought the show worked was Douglas Watt, who called it “an absorbing revival of an enthralling play.”

James Earl Jones, Walter McGinn.
Watt was especially strong in his defense of Jones’s Hickey, which he called a “superb” performance of one of modern drama’s most demanding roles. This was Jones’s “most striking performance to date,” he crowed. Wilson felt similarly, and was astonished at how easily the black actor stepped into a role written for a white one, although this was something Jones already had done on a number of significant occasions. “Mr. Jones is so magnetic and dynamic a performer that he totally transcends any question of color.” Unfortunately, the majority of reviewers felt otherwise. T.E. Kalem thought Jones’s Hickey “overwrought, a manic-morose-evangelist given to bouts of hysterical joviality.” Jack Kroll said “he jackhammers the role into a shrapnel of moments and mannerisms.”

Michael Higgins stood apart from the rest of the company for his universally praised portrayal of Larry. On stage with him were respected actors such as Walter McGinn, Patrick Hines, Joseph Ragno, David Margulies, Stefan Gierasch, Arthur French, Stephen McHattie, Jack Gwillim, George Ebeling, Tom Aldredge, Rex Everhart, and Lois Smith (as Cora).

Carrie F. Robbins walked off with a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Costume Designer.


Thursday, July 30, 2020

252. I LOVE THEE FREELY. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Janet Kapral, Gregory Abels.
I LOVE THEE FREELY [Drama/Biographical/Literature/Romance/Two Characters] A: Benjamin Bernard Zavin; SC: works of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; D: Moni Yakim; S/C: Don Jensen; L: Ian Calderon; P: The Candlelight Company; T: Astor Place Theatre (OB); 9/17/73-10/7/73 (23)

A documentary dramatization of the famed love affair of 19th-century British poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, as expressed through a performance of their love letters. Clive Barnes summed it up as “A quiet and unsurprising evening, full of good taste, good sense, but lacking in dramatic substance.”

The acting—by Gregory Abels and Janet Kapral—was acceptable, the sets attractive, and the characters “interesting.” However, the effect, for Barnes, was “predictable” and with “more charm than depth.” Richard Watts felt it was “entirely without dramatic interest and suspense,” and Dick Brukenfeld wrote that it was “the kind of experience that drives people away from theatre.”

Several critics noted that they would much have preferred to see the established theatrical treatment of the love affair, the once popular, 1930 period drama The Barretts of Wimpole Street by Rudolf Bessier. In that somewhat musty drama they at least could have appreciated the character of the poetess’s tyrannical father, who is completely absent from the letters.