Wednesday, July 8, 2020

206. GOOD EVENING. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Dudley Moore, Peter Cook.

GOOD EVENING [Revue/British] A: Peter Cook and Dudley Moore; D: Jerry Adler; DS: Robert Randolph; P: Alexander H. Cohen and Bernard Delfont; T: Plymouth Theatre; 11/14/73-11/30/74 (483)

Peter Cook, Dudley Moore.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, original members of the highly popular, four-man British comedy-revue called Beyond the Fringe, which kept Broadway audiences in stitches after it arrived in 1962, here did without Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett to create another iconoclastic comedy-revue, with music, called Beyond the Fridge in its London production. Extremely successful, it had New York audiences laughing for over a year.  Clive Barnes rejoiced: “I started laughing at the beginning, and I ended laughing at the end. . . . These two men are mad, funny and truthful.”

Dudley Moore, Peter Cook.
The tall, lanky, serious Cook was a perfect foil for the diminutive, irreverent Moore as they raced through a series of sketches on a variety of zany subjects, all of which they had written themselves. Their bits included one about a one-legged actor auditioning for Tarzan; another about a man who runs a gourmet restaurant serving only frogs and peaches; and so on. John Simon said the duo “work together like clapper and bell, and what rings out is to laughter what Big Ben is to clocks.”

Peter Cook, Dudley Moore.
Moore, not only a gifted comic actor, but an excellent pianist, performed several highly diverting piano routines, including one where he was unable to end a concerto and pleaded silently for help from the audience. A couple of pieces did not quite work, but the show was otherwise very effective, providing satire of a decidedly adult nature. Cook and Moore played on a basically empty stage, notable only for a grand piano.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were appreciated enough to earn a special Tony for “a unique contribution to the theatre of comedy.”


205. THE GOOD DOCTOR. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Christopher Plummer.
THE GOOD DOCTOR [Comedy/Family/One-Acts/Russia/Sex/Theatre] A/LY: Neil
Simon; D: A.J. Antoon; S/C: Tony Walton; L: Tharon Musser; M: Peter Link; P: Emanuel Azenberg and Eugene V. Wolsk; T: Eugene O’Neill Theatre; 11/21/74-5/26/74 (208)

Rene Auberjonois, Christopher Plummer,
Neil Simon’s failed attempt to blend his New York urban humor with material suggested by the great Russian dramatist/short story writer Anton Chekhov was an evening of vignettes, based largely on Chekhov’s early stories. Some of the pieces were merely character sketches, others approached the one-act form. They all were linked by the presence of the “good doctor,” or Chekhov himself, as played by Christopher Plummer, who not only narrated the program, but acted in some of the scenes.

Among the nine sketches were “The Sneeze,” about a minor bureaucrat (Rene Auberjonois) who sneezes on the bald head of his boss (Barnard Hughes) and eventually dies from the anguish to which this leads; “The Governess,” in which a tightfisted matron (Frances Sternhagen) systematically makes ruthless deductions from her young governess’s (Martha Henry) salary; “The Seduction,” concerning a father (Plummer) instructing his son (Auberjonois) on how to deal with prostitutes; and “The Audition,” dealing with a young actress’s (Marsha Mason) tryout for Chekhov himself by performing a speech from The Three Sisters.

Marsha Mason, Frances Sternhagen.
The critics were annoyed by the split personality of the writing, which was never sufficiently Chekhovian or effectively Simonian. There were occasional delights in evidence: some of the jokes clicked, one or two moments were touching, and the acting, Plummer’s especially, was impeccable. However, The Good Doctor was unable to cure its maladies.

Chrisopher Plummer, Barnard Hughes.
Clive Barnes thought the best scenes “droll and enchanting,” the weak ones “labored,” and the work as a whole “too anecdotal, with most stories closing with the dramatic ring of a punchline.” To Walter Kerr, the combination of Simon wisecracks and Chekhov wisdom made for a “thin pot-au-feu” that, as theatre, was “strained” and devoid of “creative energy.” He attributed this to the poor selection of Chekhov material as much as to Simon’s stylistic distance from his inspiration. Harold Clurman put it in these terms: “Even in his lightest moments Chekhov is modest, gentle, above all delicate and, as it were, chaste when the material itself is crude. Simon, I am sure, appreciates this, but the New York touch is always a little crass, obviously nudging, without heart.”

Rene Auberjonois was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor, Play, Tony; Frances Sternhagen, won the Best Supporting Actress, Play, Tony; Peter Link garnered a Tony nomination for his score, and Tharon Musser one for her lighting.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

204. GOLDEN BAT. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Company of Golden Bat.

GOLDEN BAT [Revue/Nudity/Youth] B/LY/D: Yutaka Higashi; M: Itsuro Shimoda; S: Kenkichi Sato; C: Kiyoko Chiba; L: Barry Arnold; P: Kermit Bloomgarden and Arthur Cantor; T: Sheridan Square Playhouse (OB); 7/21/70-11/29/70 (152)

Company of Golden Bat.
 A non-book, revue-type, “Japanese Rock Celebration” about the universal trials and triumphs of youth, this enchanting Tokyo import, employing a company called the Tokyo Kid Brothers, mingled Japanese and English in a freeform presentation that captivated critics and audiences. It moved from an Off-Off Broadway venue at La Mama to Off Broadway, where its effective and skillful blend of music, dance, and song, conveyed with touching poignancy and rollicking humor, caused T.E. Kalem to praise it as “persistently entertaining and deftly professional.”

Reminiscent of Hair, like similar contemporary musicals, Golden Bat had elements of nudity, noted thusly by Harold Clurman: “When two of them take off their clothes, it is done with grace in no way related to sexual braggadocio.” It also satirized American and Japanese customs and included audience participation.

The Drama Desk gave its Most Promising Lyricist Award to Yutaka Higashi and its Most Promising Composer Award to Itsuro Shimada.

Monday, July 6, 2020

203. GODSPELL. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Stephen Nathan and company of Godspell

GODSPELL [Musical/Bible/Religion/Youth] CN/D: John-Michael Tebelak; M/LY: Stephen Schwartz; SC: the Gospel according to Matthew; C: Susan Tsu; L: Lowell B. Achziger; P: Edgar Lansbury, Stuart Duncan, Joseph Beruh; T: Cherry Lane Theatre (OB); 5/17/71-6/13/76 (2,124); Broadhurst Theatre; 6/22/76-9/4/77 (527): total: 2,381

One of several shows that profited enormously from the stylistic ambience inspired by Hair as a means of presenting a loosely structured, thematically cohesive program of rock music and youthful energy infused with a hippie-like aura. Godspell—like Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat—was also an excellent example of Biblical material being molded into a contemporary format of wide popular appeal to atheists and worshipers (some, at any rate) alike. It was a sort of rock minstrel or variety show based on the Passion of Christ as recounted in the Book of Matthew, an idea conceived as an MFA thesis at Carnegie Tech (as it then was called) by John-Michael Tebelak.

After an Off-Off Broadway showing at Café La Mama, it initiated what became the then third-longest run in Off Broadway history. Half a decade later it moved to Broadway and still had enough spirit to chug along for another year-plus of performances.

In Godspell, 23-year-old composer Stephen Schwartz’s music and 22-year-old Tebelak’s conception combined to effectively tell the familiar Biblical parables and events as expressed through the vaudeville-like antics of a crew of colorfully dressed and theatrically made-up flower children. Jesus (Stephen Nathan) was played as a young, longhair with white clown makeup, a red nose, a heart on his forehead, and tear-like patterns under his eyes. He wore red suspenders over a Superman shirt. The uncredited setting, a wire cage against a brick wall, resembled a school playground, and numerous colorful lighting changes offered visual variations.

This free-spirited realization of Jesus’s teachings was sung and danced with vigorous appeal that overcame any amateurishness the critics detected in the performers. Schwartz’s score, which John Beaufort praised as “expertly crafted and at times tenderly melodic,” was a stimulating blend of ragtime, rock, blues, ballads, and folk styles. It helped Schwartz—whose brilliant career would give birth to megahits like Wicked—go on to become one of the decade’s brightest musical newcomers. On the other hand, Godspell produced only one song that had legs with the public, "Day by Day."

Tebelak’s conception tied songs, dances, narrations, and sketches together with unflagging creativity, using a wide assortment of theatrical methods to convey the spiritual meanings. Many contemporary idioms were incorporated, including what Clive Barnes described as “cartoon—voices, the jolly rituals of TV panel games, strip shows, minstrel routines, and conjuring tricks.” Jesus and John the Baptist doing a soft shoe number to deliver the message of the beam and the mote was a representative example of the show’s choreographic inventiveness.

This “thing of joy,” as Jerry Tallmer called it, was in Beaufort’s words, “by turn comic, touching, rambunctious, quietly elegiac, pointedly moral, and withal innocently pious.” John Simon dubbed it “a frisky, exhilarating little show, full of ozone and lightheadedness . . . [,] a crackling musical funhouse.” He was, though, annoyed by the “awkward and anticlimactic ending,” as was Walter Kerr, who found its seriousness unrelated “to the antic puppetry of what has gone before it.” Also problematic was the opening sequence in which the words of such figures as Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Aquinas, Socrates, Buckminster Fuller, and others were mouthed. And Barnes, the least impressed major critic, was irked by showing Jesus as a regular guy, “coy and knowing,” while also being disturbed by the show’s naivetĂ© and tendency toward platitudes. In fact, he concluded, “I thought the whole thing rather nauseating.”

Schwartz trundled off with Drama Desk Awards as Most Promising Composer and Most Promising Lyricist, Tebelak (who died in 1985, not yet 36) got one as Most Promising Director, and Susan Tsu as Most Promising Costume Designer. Star Stephen Nathan, who played Jesus (the only actor credited with a specific role,) eventually became a successful TV writer and producer. 

203. GOD'S FAVORITE. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Nick LaTour, Rosetta LeNoire, Maria Karnilova, Laura Esterman, Lawrence John Moss, Vincent Gardenia, Terry Kiser.
GOD’S FAVORITE [Comedy/Bible/Family/Fantasy/Religion] A: Neil Simon; D: Michael Bennett; S: William Ritman; C: Joseph G. Aulisi; L: Tharon Musser; P: Emanuel Azenberg and Eugene V. Wolsk; T: Eugene O’Neill Theatre; 12/11/74-3/21/75 (119)

Maria Karnilova, Vincent Gardenia, Charles Nelson Reilly.
Neil Simon, whose comic mastery is often based on the sufferings of his central characters, selected one of the great sufferers of all times for his hero in the unsuccessful God’s Favorite. That, of course, would be the Biblical Job, but Simon transmuted the disaster-ridden gentleman into the character of Joe Benjamin (Vincent Gardenia), a wealthy, middle-class, Long Island businessman living in thoroughly tacky luxury and surrounded by a wacky family. They include his wife, Rose (Maria Karnilova), daughter, Sara (Laura Esterman), and two sons, Ben (Lawrence John Moss) and David (Terry Kiser). Each has a screws-loose personality.

Joe is visited by God’s messenger, an effeminate movie fanatic from Jackson Heights, Queens, named Sidney Lipton (Charles Nelson Reilly), who tells Joe that his faith in the Lord is to be tested. Consequently, Joe loses his factory in a conflagration, his home is converted to a smoldering ruin, he undergoes the torment of innumerable aches and pains and itches; and he loses his family when he refuses to give in and renounce God. In the end, he’s rewarded by the deity for his unflagging faith.

No matter how cruel the visitations on Joe and his world, gag lines keep flying, forcing the audience to laugh in the face of catastrophes any one of which could reduce a devout person to atheism. (Simon had lost his beloved wife, Joan, to bone cancer two years earlier, so one can imagine how it might have influenced his thinking.) One of Sidney’s lines popular with most critics states that the devil is a look-alike for Robert Redford. God jokes are present in abundance. At one point, Sidney dials God long distance; when he finally gets through, he has only reached God’s answering service.

Martin Gottfried was one reviewer who thought the play “offensive to anyone seriously religious.” He not only found it unfunny, he called it “two hours’ worth of a ridiculous idea.” Jack Kroll said that Simon had achieved his “greatest feat of trivialization by turning the Book of Job into a Simonic sitcom.” There was no “genuine humor,” complained Edwin Wilson, who also was distressed by the pasteboard characters and lack of insight shown. Clive Barnes opined that too many laughs were cheaply gained from mere mention of familiar brand names and TV shows. He also noted that the anticlimactic ending seriously hurt the play. Howard Kissel rejected the comedy as “the most abysmally emptyheaded play I have ever seen,” while John Simon dubbed it “abominable.”

A few felt otherwise. John Beaufort considered it “an uproarious morality play for a secular age,” and Douglas Watt believed it to be “awesomely funny. And rather sweet.  And healing. The work of a man of vision, tunnel vision.”

There were, even from the hostile camp, words of praise for Michael Bennett’s manic, swiftly tempoed staging, and William Ritman’s sets, which earned the designer a Tony nomination. Vincent Gardenia was his usual expert self as Joe, garnering all the laughs his role required while remaining believable and sympathetic.  Others in the cast included Rosetta LeNoire and Nick LaTour.


Rue McLanahan, Hanford Rowe, Ann Sweeny, Alice Drummond, Tom Ligon.
GOD SAYS THERE IS NO PETER OTT [Comedy-Drama/Family/Romance] A: Bill Hare; D: Leland Ball; S: David Chapman; C: Pamela Scofield; L: Judy Rasmussen; M: Arthur B. Rubinstein; P: Square Root Productions; T: McAlpin Rooftop Theatre (OB); 4/11/72-4/23/72 (8)

Avis (Rue McLanahan), eccentric, sharp-tongued, but likable, having gone through a half-million dollar inheritance, is reduced to running a Cape Cod guest house, where she is forced to put up the unwed but pregnant daughter (Ann Sweeny) of her hated brother (Hansford Rowe) and his wife (Alice Drummond). The brother owns the house’s mortgage. The girl’s rootless ex-lover, Peter Ott (Tom Ligon), a failed priest who is heir to a fortune, shows up, having decided to do his duty and marry her. The play deals with how he handles the complications that ensue when he finds himself attracted to Avis.

The reviews were mostly unpleasant for this quick loser. Clive Barnes'S pan pan said “it is not very interesting, its writing is obvious and its characterization so one-dimensional that it could make a cube seem like a square.” All in all, said Barnes, it played like “a run-of-the-mill television drama.” Of course, McClanahan would eventually make her biggest splash on that medium, in “Golden Girls.”


For the July 6 installment of ON THIS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER, please click on THEATER LIFE.