Wednesday, May 12, 2021

558. WALK TOGETHER CHILDREN. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Vinie Burrows. 
WALK TOGETHER CHILDREN [Solo/Literary Anthology] AD: Vinie Burrows; C: Arthur McGee; M: Brother Ahh (Robert Northern); P: Ananse Productions; T: Mercer-Brecht Theatre (OB); 3/16/72-7/2/72 (89)

The remarkable Vinie Burrows, born in 1924 but still active onstage in her when the pandemic struck last year, adapted and starred in this one-woman, two-act anthology of Black American poetry and prose. It originally had been show at the Greenwich Mews Theatre, in 1969. The present version was not listed as a revival, so it is assumed the earlier one was given under Off-Off Broadway circumstances and wasn't technically considered an official premiere. The many authors included Sojourner Truth, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Imamu Amiri Baraka, and Nikki Giovanni

Wearing a red-orange gown, the attractive actress wove the materials together with her own narrative, providing an uplifting and moving event. Mel Gussow noted that the second half, however, conveyed great “bitterness” as modern Black history was rolled out.

In his 1968 review, Clive Barnes had written: "Looking handsome, like an African princess, . . . she lives a hundred lives, tells us of a thousand voices. . . . As an actress, Miss Burrows has the priceless gift of honesty. With nothing but a few lights and a bare stage, she sings and acts without any shadows of deceptions or veils of deceit. Even as everyone she is herself."

On June 2, the show reached its 68th performance and became the longest-running Off-Broadway solo show to date, bypassing Siobhan McKenna’s Here Are Ladies. Eventually, it totaled 89 performances.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here.

 Next up: The Waltz of the Toreadors

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

LEITER LOOKS BACK: FIVE REVUES OF 1925-1926

 

The Garrick Gaieties
For the latest installment in my series, Leiter Looks Back, please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

557. UNLIKELY HEROES: 3 PHILIP ROTH STORIES. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Michael Tolan, Lou Jacobi. (Photos: Henry Grossman.)
UNLIKELY HEROES: 3 PHILIP ROTH STORIES [Comedy-Drama/Jewish] A/D: Larry Arrick; SC: three Philip Roth short stories; S: Robert U. Taylor; C: Frank Thompson; L: Roger Morgan; P: Robert L. Livingston; T: Plymouth Theatre; 10/26/71-11/13/71 (23)

“Defender of the Faith” [Military]; “Epstein” [Family/Illness]; “Eli, the Fanatic” [Religion]

Anna Berger, Dori Brenner, Lou Jacobi.

Director-adaptor Larry Arrick, a strong proponent of the Story Theatre techniques of Paul Sills, used them to turn three 1950s Philip Roth short stories into one-act plays. The method allows the non-dialogue portions of the original to be presented as straightforward narrative by the actors, who sometimes refer to the behavior of their characters in the third person.

Rose Arrick, Lou Jacobi.

Many thought his approach intrusive and only occasionally workable for material that had the substance for what Walter Kerr called “full-bodied drama.” These one-acts failed to thoroughly embody the originals in theatrical terms, and remained, on the whole, too literary in conception. This was the chief objection to a production that, while it pleased several influential reviewers, failed to draw audiences and closed in three weeks.

Lou Jacobi, Alvin Kupperman.

“Defender of the Faith” tells of a conniving young Jewish soldier (Jon Korkes) in an Army training camp who uses his Jewishness to pry special treatment from his good-natured Jewish sergeant (David Ackroyd). After a while, the sergeant catches on to the soldier’s conman craftiness and insincerity.

“Epstein,” practically a monologue, concerns an aging Jewish man, a paper bag manufacturer (Lou Jacobi), bothered by domestic problems. Essentially virtuous, he lets himself have an extramarital fling, develops a crotch rash, is thought by his shocked family to have venereal disease, and ultimately succumbs to a heart attack from all the excitement.

“Eli, the Fanatic,” the most substantial piece, recounts the tale of an encounter between a successful young Jewish lawyer (Michael Tolan), who has lost touch with his Judaic roots, and Mr. Tsuref (Lou Jacobi), the head of a yeshiva for immigrant children that has opened in the largely Protestant suburb where the lawyer lives with other assimilated Jewish families. The local Jews have been embarrassed by a bearded, kaftan-garbed Jew (David Ackroyd) who has been hired by the school to do odd jobs. They have asked Eli to convince the schoolmaster to either move his school or get the bearded man to change his mode of dress. In the end, after discussing the matter with Mr. Tzuref, and getting the bearded man to wear Eli’s own suit, the guilt-ridden Eli himself dons the man’s religious apparel, beats his chest in lamentation, and acknowledges his ancestral faith.

Clive Barnes loved the “authenticity” of Roth’s treatments, the “often very funny” material, and the evening’s “oddity, charm, . . . literate wit and . . . sense of style, place and period.” These were “beautiful stories,” thought Julius Novick, that tended to lose their punch on stage, “but at the same time . . . become more vivid, more intense, and funnier.” However, he laughed too infrequently to praise Jones’s “not overly abundant” use of wit.

In his comments, Harold Clurman described the sorry state of Broadway at the time, citing how difficult it was to break a profit when it cost upward of $75,000 to produce a straight play (this was 1971, remember), $300,000 to do a musical, tickets cost $8 to $15 plus, and unemployment for actors sky-high. (As someone once said, the more things change, the more they remain the same.) He then noted how the unnamed Times critic (Clive Barnes) was prone to try helping the situation by overhyping shows he reviewed. “Wherever there is the least trace of merit, the slightest possibility of praise, he takes pains to emphasize it.” Finally, before he gets to his own review of Unlikely Heroes, he notes that one major symptom of exhaustion revealing Broadway’s desperation in seeking remedies for the slump in profitable productions is how, as in the present case, “much that is now offered is not original theatre material but adaptations and dramatizations.”

Clurman declares that it should not be necessary to extol as masterpieces plays that are “pleasant” but not “truly valuable.” “That such a notice is required to rouse people to see a play is itself evidence of a morbid condition.” In his own modestly positive review, he declares, “Unlikely Heroes is a nice evening in the theatre,”  “amusing, well written and intelligent, . . . well acted and suitably staged.” Of “Eli, the Fanatic,” which earned his warmest remarks, he concludes: “It is a fine concept; the story as story is a brilliant allegory. Though its meaning still remains inescapable, reaching beyond its specific ethnic framework, it becomes rather too concrete, and therefore not altogether credible and less poignant than it should be, when it is translated in realistic terms to the stage.”

Cast members included Tom Rosqui, Josh Mostel, Alvin Kupperman, George Bartenieff, Dori Brenner, Anna Berger, Rose Arrick, Lee Wallace, and others.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here.

Next up: Walk Together, Children

Monday, May 10, 2021

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

Walterine Ross, Samaki Zuri, David Gardner, Pamela Sweden, Raymond Wade, Danny Duncan. (Photo: Bert Duncan.)
UHURUH [Musical Revue/Race] B/M/LY/D/CH: Danny Duncan; C: Richmond Curry; L: Kueleza Furaha; P: Franklin Fried and Bert Wanier i/a/w City Center of Music and Drama, Inc.; T: City Center Downstairs (OB); 3/20/72-3/25/72 (8)

Uhuruh, performed in the intimate City Center Downstairs space, was an import from San Francisco completely crafted by Danny Duncan, who also performed in the show. The themes of the songs and sketches were mainly racial in character.

Martin Washburn thought them subtle, nonmilitant, and excellently done. Clive Barnes, however, was distressed by the “the relentless ;pace . . . , [the] strident tone and [the] cabaret-style vibrations,” all of which “eventually drift toward the monotonous.”

The overriding subject of Black militancy versus Negro complacency was expressed through numbers dealing with marijuana, welfare, the Black bourgeoisie, and Black Power, One routine was a courtroom debate between Mr. Black and Mr. Negro, pitting the former's revolutionary aims against the latter's gradualism. A plea on behalf of activist Angela Davis was one of the stronger moments. 

"Mr. Dnncan himself, with an enormous Afro haircut that looks like an enormous mushroom, is an attractive performer with a good voice and a fine way with a ballad. He is also a very able dancer," as were the other dozen performers, said Barnes. 

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here.

Next up: Unlikely Heroes: Three Philip Roth Stories.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

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

Robin Braxton, Demond Wilson, Noorma Darden, Sam Singleton. (Photos: Zodiac)

UNDERGROUND [Drama/One-Acts/Race] D: Walter Jones; S: Leo Yoshimura; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Ian Calderon; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Public Theater/Other Stage (OB); 4/18/71-5/16/71 (38)

“Jazznite” [Art/Crime/Drugs/Family] A: Walter Jones; “The Life and Times of J. Walter Smintheus” [Drugs/Hospital/ Prostitution] A: Edgar White

 “Jazznite,” the more appreciated of the two Black plays on this bill presented by the Cornbread Players, had a low-action plot presented in a style suggestive of a jazz improv. Dudder (Demond Wilson), who has risen from the ghetto to become a distinguished art professor at Yale, visits his slum-dwelling, married sister, whose husband has abandoned her and her half-dozen kids. The successful intellectual encounters there an interesting assortment of family members and acquaintances.

Clive Barnes observed, “‘Jazznite’ is a brief, fascinating and seemingly authentic vignette of black ghetto life. It has a beautiful feel for reality, a heightened sense of the world around it. Mr. Jones involves us with his people—their casual attitude to crime and drugs, their assertiveness for life at the level they find it and, in a few instances, their determination for life at a better, easier level.”

“The Life and Times of J. Walter Smintheus” deals with another intellectual, the title character (Dennis Tate), a man from a well-off Southern family struggling to come to terms with his racial identity. He is first seen as an amnesiac in a hospital, his life to this point being enacted in fragmentary flashbacks. The audience sees how his aloof, ivory-tower lifestyle did not prevent him from being drawn into physically and emotionally harmful relationships with a whore (Robin Braxton), who gave him syphilis, and Robert (Walter Jones, the playwright/director), a fellow student at Cornell. Robert is a drug addict who dies in prison. These and other issues resulted in his present zonked-out condition.

Robin Braxton, John Gallagher, Dennis Tate.

Barnes asked, “Could anyone be quite so uptight as Smintheus? Perhaps, but there is a naiveté to him that is difficult to believe. But Mr. White's play does offer an ironic comment on the rich black boy missing it in a white man's world.”

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here.

Next up: Uhuruh

Saturday, May 8, 2021

554. UNCLE VANYA (2 Productions). From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Thayer David, Julie Garfield.

UNCLE VANYA [Dramatic Revival] A: Anton Chekhov

1.

D: Gene Feist; S: Holmes Easley; C: Mimi Maxmen; L: Robert Murphy; M: Philip Campanella; P: Roundabout Theatre Company; T: Roundabout Theatre (OB); 1/13/71-2/28/71 (46); Cherry Lane Theatre (OB); 3/5/71-3/14/71 (8): total 54

Thayer David, Elizabeth Owens.

Chekhov’s 1899 drama of life and love among members of the Russian leisure class was seen in three revivals—an Off-Off Broadway one at the Classic Stage Company is not covered here—during our five-year window. The first was this interpretation decently directed by Gene Feist in what T.E. Kalem called “a lovingly fleshed-out revival.” The stage, Kalem said, came “to seem like an animated family album,” with what several others pointed to as an especially touching performance by Julie Garfield (John’s daughter) as Sonya, which earned her a Theatre World Award.

Clive Barnes, who also favored the production, thought it “an honest, fair reading of the play,” if not an especially illuminating one. For him, Feist’s staging was no more than “stolid.” Dick Brukenfeld found it conventional but acceptable, describing it as being in the traditional fashion of Russian gloominess. He added that it was nevertheless as effective as the wittier version then running OOB at the CSC.

Cast members included Ann Kingsley as Marya Voynitsky, Sterling Jensen as Vanya, Winston May as Astrov, Joni Ruth White as Marina, and Fred Stuthman as Telyegin. 

2.

Elizabeth Wilson, George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson. 

TR: Albert Todd and Mike Nichols; D: Mike Nichols; S/C: Tony Walton; L: Jules Fisher; P: Circle in the Square; T: Circle in the Square Joseph E. Levine Theatre; 6/4/73-7/28/73 (64)

Lillian Gish, Nicol Williamson.

Superstar director Mike Nichols assembled a superstar cast for this not particularly supercharged limited engagement. The reviews varied sharply in their estimations of what went right and what went wrong.

Some, like Walter Kerr, viewed the interpretation as deliberately dolorous, as if Nichols were trying to avoid capitalizing on his comedic gifts. “Plumping for earnestness instead—and letting occasional unavoidable titters fall where they just do fall—he may have taken much too literally certain remarks made by the despairing . . . figures of the piece.” John Simon, took the opposite position, claiming that Nichols had “seized on the comic side of Uncle Vanya, and kneaded it, orchestrated it, slapped it into absolute hilarity” while skimping on the more serious elements.

Elizabeth Wilson, George C. Scott.

Brendan Gill found all the right emotional ingredients in place, the sad as well as the funny, as “from one moment to the next we are swept by gusts of strong contrary feelings . . . and at the final curtain we are left . . . in a state of emotional dishevelment.” Harold Clurman, on the other hand, deplored the revival’s failure to achieve “aesthetic consistency because its elements are not integrated in a realization of Chekhov’s sense of life.” Kerr added that, in addition to Nichols being unable to find a single tone to the play, the acting was disunified and the characterizations dull.

Nicol Williamson, Julie Christie.

It was clear that the production offered a sort of acting contest between its leading male stars, Nicol Williamson, as Vanya, and George C. Scott, as Astrov. Simon called Scott “unbetterable. . . . Scott radiates controlled strength, boundless energy kept within bounds by a supreme feat of self-discipline, so that a whisper, a smile, a look, will emerge as a harnessed thunderbolt.” Williamson’s virtuosic Vanya was praised in equally potent language. Clurman saw this as “his most sympathetic performance. As acting it is first rate. His last moments . . . are truly moving.” Still, like one or two others, Clurman felt the characterization a bit too clownish. “We do not see enough of the man’s potential for honorable achievement, without which the play loses much of its point.”

Julie Christie, George C. Scott.

Of the other stars, Elizabeth Wilson’s Sonia was enormously skilled but the actress seemed too old and physically inappropriate for the role. Julie Christie was beautiful but bland as Elena, while competent but not particularly sterling work was turned in by Barnard Hughes as the Professor, Cathleen Nesbitt as Mrs. Voinitsky, Lillian Gish as Marina, and Conrad Bain as Telegin.

There were a number of grateful comments about Tony Walton’s designs, but a few argued tht one reason the revival failed to click for them was the long, awkward shape of the oval acting space. “The actors . . . are obliged to address one another from unnaturally long distances,” caviled Clurman.

Front: Cathleen Nesbitt, Lillian Gish, Elizabeth Wilson. Rear: Conrad Bain, Barnard Hughes, George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson, Julie Christie.

Scott and Williamson both received Tony nominations, Williamson won a Drama Desk Award, and Nichols got a Tony nomination.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here.

Next up: Underground

Friday, May 7, 2021

553. ULYSSES IN NIGHTTOWN. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Fionnula Flanagan, Danny Meehan, Beulah Garrick, Zero Mostel, and company. (Photos: Friedman-Abeles.)
ULYSSES IN NIGHTTOWN [Dramatic Revival] A: Marjorie Barkentin; SC: James Joyce’s Ulysses; D: Burgess Meredith; S: Ed Wittstein; C: Pearl Somner; L: Jules Fisher; M: Peter Link; DM: Swen Swenson; P: Alexander H. Cohen and Bernard Delfont; T: Winter Garden Theatre; 3/10/74-5/11/74 (69)

Zero Mostel, Tom Lee Jones.

In 1958, Burgess Meredith successfully staged this piece based on James Joyce’s Ulysses in a much admired Off-Broadway production. A pre-Fiddler on the Roof Zero Mostel played Leopold Bloom. Both men were represented in the same capacities in this 1974 Broadway revival, but the results failed to generate the interest of the original production. Whereas that staging was done on the cheap with only minimal trappings, this one was an expensive, circus-like extravaganza in one of Broadway’s larger venues, an approach Walter Kerr labeled “a tactical mistake.” He said, “Ulysses isn’t a play, it’s a cataract of whispers; we need to be immersed in it, not set in grandstands for a dress-parade.”

Fionnula Flanagan, Danny Meehan, Beulah Garrick, Zero Mostel. 

Most notable of the new visuals was the extensive nudity, in both the brothel scenes and for the famous Molly Bloom soliloquy, expertly performed by Fionnula Flanagan). A number of critics found the exposed flesh excessive, but some liked it as the lustiest part of the show. A typical response to the production itself was Brendan Gill’s: “I enjoyed it as a spectacle, [but] I was not convinced by it; it seemed to originate not in the Dublin of 1904 but in the New York of 1974.”

Zero Mostel, Swen Swenson.

The general opinion held that Marjorie Barkentin’s dramatization had failed at the admittedly impossible task of converting the sprawling novel into a viable dramatic work. Several noted that the theme of father and son between Leopold and Stephen Dedalus (Tom Lee Jones, before he became Tommy) was insufficiently explored. John Simon remarked that “the basic idea of concentrating on the Nighttown sequence, with only a few snippets from the book’s other episodes, is not just a misinterpretation but also an evisceration.”

Kevin O'Leary, Zero Mostel, Norman Barrs, Robin Howard, and company.

As a vehicle for Mostel, the play was more satisfying. Reactions varied, but most thought his Bloom “a remarkable creation,” as Gill described it. “Mostel’s sad and funny, tragic and triumphant incarnation . . . is something that should not be missed,” observed Jack Kroll. Simon, however, thought the usually rambunctious star too restrained, adding, “As the Irish Jew . . . he is, so far from being Irish as Paddy’s pig, inconceivable as kosher pork.” Flanagan was much liked, but the rest of the company met with reservations. The sizable company included W.B. Brydon, David Ogden Stiers, Danny Meehan, Gale Garnett, Swen Swenson, Kevin O'Leary, Beulah Garrick, and others.

Ulysses in Nighttown earned several Tony nominations, which went to the play, Flanagan, Mostel, and Meredith, as well as to Ed Wittstein for his sets, and Jules Fisher for his lighting. None won. Mostel did capture a Drama Desk Award, and Wittstein got a Joseph Maharam Foundation Award.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here.

Next up: Uncle Vanya (two revivals)