Monday, October 15, 2018

100 (2018-2019): Review: FINAL FOLLIES (seen October 14, 2018)

"Three by Gurney"

The late A.R. (“Pete”) Gurney was a prolific playwright best known for his satirical depictions of the decline of Northeast WASP society’s martini and sailboat set, as in The Dining Room and The Cocktail Hour. His plays are usually guaranteed to provide a pleasant evening of thoughtful chuckles, even when his jibes aren’t specifically poking fun at the elites of his own social class.
Colin Hanlon, Rachel Nicks. Photo: James Leynse. 

Several major Off-Broadway institutions, like Primary Stages (responsible for Final Follies and five previous Gurney productions), have found his work congenial enough to do them regularly. That’s why you see Gurney’s features on the Mount Rushmore-like lobby mural at the Pershing Square Signature Center or why one of the spaces at the Flea Theatre’s new home is called The Pete.

While most of Gurney’s over 60 theatrical works are standard length, he also composed nine short plays, or one-acts, as they’re typically called. One, “Final Follies,” completed not long before his passing last year at 86, gives its name to and gets its world premiere in this lackluster three-by-Gurney program at the Cherry Lane. David Saint has directed all three plays, with mixed results.

“Final Follies” is joined by 1965’s “The Rape of Bunny Stuntz,” one of the playwright’s earliest works, originally produced at the Cherry Lane itself, and 1969’s “The Love Course.”  On his website, Gurney claimed that the latter had received many amateur productions but never, to his knowledge, a professional one. Seeing it may tell you why. He also said he hoped it would eventually be produced with another of his one-acts, “The Open Meeting.” Primary Stages, of course, has ignored that request in favor of the other plays.

The program has its occasional pleasures, mainly because of several performances. Each play uses the same James Youmans set outlining false prosceniums in LED strip lights, with images projected on a central upstage wall, all of it well lit by Cory Pattek. I’m sorry to report, though, that neither Gurney’s ironically titled final play nor those from his salad days is particularly memorable.

For a play written so recently, “Final Follies” has a curiously naïve, even dated quality in its depiction of a handsome, well-dressed, but feckless, alcoholic young man’s desperate attempt to earn money by becoming a porn actor. The folly here lies in Primary Stage’s decision to stage this final Gurney play.

Nelson (Colin Hanlon), unable to hold any of the jobs his loving, very wealthy grandfather (Greg Mullavey) arranged for him, answers an ad for an adult film actor in the Village Voice (of beloved memory). He’s interviewed and auditioned by Tanisha (Rachel Hicks), a stunning former porn actress turned casting director and script writer. Soon, he becomes a star in the films that the company advertises for the therapeutic benefits they offer married couples (as if such a rationale was needed in today’s world of 24/7 internet access).

Nelson’s jealous, hypocritical, churchgoing brother, Walter (Mark Junek), hoping to bring his brother down, shows grandpa a DVD of Nelson in action. To Walter’s chagrin, the geezer gets a rise out his grandson’s spectacular performance.
Gregg Mullavey, Mark Junek. Photo: James Leynse.
Everything on view is childish and unconvincing, sounding more like a no-longer-with-it old dramatist’s fantasies than a knowledgeable satire on the pornography industry. Also, the play’s romantic setup and conclusion is further proof that Gurney should have quit while he was ahead.
Colin Hanlon, Rachel Nicks. Photo: James Leynse.
There’s little to rave over in the acting although Rachel Nicks does good work. She also gets to wear a formfitting blue dress that provides the most eye-catching feature of the evening. In fact, the clothes that designer David Murin has given the actresses in each play are among the show’s most visually interesting features.
Betsy Aidem, Deborah Rush. Photo: James Leynse.
The best performance of all belongs to veteran Deborah Rush in the vapid “The Rape of Bunny Stuntz.” Rush, playing the titular suburban club lady, presides over a meeting of an undefined organization but is unable to proceed when she can’t find the key to the small, metal box containing the papers she needs. Bunny keeps delaying the meeting as she tries to get the key by having the caretaker, Howie (Pitir Marek), go to her nearby home to retrieve it from her preoccupied husband.
Deborah Rush, Piter Marek. Photo: James Leynse.
Meanwhile, lurking in a red Impala in the close by parking lot is an unseen guy in a black leather jacket who has the key, forcing the obviously repressed Bunny to interact with him. She insists she has no idea who he is even though we realize the pair has some guilty connection related to a hotel room encounter.
Deborah Rush. Photo: James Leynse.
Bunny’s harried assistant, Wilma (Betsy Aidem), struggles to get the meeting back on track, but eventually leaves, while Howie gets drunk and parties with the attendees waiting in the basement for the meeting to resume. Left alone, albeit with enough of us present for her to address, Bunny’s words gradually evolve into a confession.

Rush, wearing a perfectly coiffed wig in classic 60s bouffant style, and a pretty, flowered frock, is terrific at maintaining Bunny’s forced positivity and crumbling self-confidence in the face of potential embarrassment. The play, which seems designed to expose the secret sexual longings of uptight suburban matrons, holds little interest beyond the opportunities it offers for the actress playing Bunny.

After a 15-minute intermission, the 90-minute show concludes with “The Love Course,” whose comic purpose is to explore the way in which the erotic lives of teachers are tied up with the subjects they teach. After playing the meeting participants in “The Rape of Bunny Stuntz,” the audience now figures as the imaginary class.
Betsy Aidem, Piter Marek. Photo: James Leynse.
The married Prof. Burgess (Marek) and the single Prof. Carroway (Aidem) have a popular team-teaching partnership in their course on the literature of romantic love. However, Carroway has been denied tenure and will be leaving for a position at Mt. Holyoke, while Burgess has been removed from the classroom to serve as an administrator. This is their last class, and the romantic tensions between them, which also involve Burgess’s jealous wife (unseen), bubble to the surface.
Rachel Nicks, Betsy Aidem, Piter Marek. Photo: James Leynse.
Also involved are two representative students, Mike (Hanlon, much better here than in “Final Follies”) and his girlfriend Sally (Nicks), sitting in the first row. Mike, an electrical engineering student with no interest in the subject, is there only because Sally is crazy about the course and its teachers. Their relationship, naturally, is tied to the content of the course.
Colin Hanlon, Piter Marek. Photo: James Leynse.
The emotionally volatile Carroway is dressed in another Murin highlight, a showily colorful silk robe, although it does tend to make her look more like Mme. Arcati in Blithe Spirit, an image Aidem’s amusingly eccentric performance does little to dispel. The more professorially garbed Burgess, with his mop of unruly silver hair, also behaves so broadly that we understand at once why the pair is known for their flamboyant theatricality.

As they work out their conflicts through readings from Wuthering Heights and Antony and Cleopatra, their excessive antics push the work so far into farcical territory that the work quickly loses touch with reality and runs out of comic gas.

Final Follies does nothing to further polish A.R. Gurney’s reputation. Here’s hoping the next Primary Stages staging of the playwright’s work will bring back the shine.


Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC
Through October 21