For installment #13 in my series, ON THIS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER, please click on THEATER LIFE.
For installment #13 in my series, ON THIS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER, please click on THEATER LIFE.
|(standing) Stacy Keach, James Naughton, Geraldine Fitzgerald, with Robert Ryan (seated)|
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT [Dramatic Revival] A: Eugene O’Neill; D: Arvin Brown; S: Elmon Webb, Virginia Dancy; C: Whitney Blausen; L: Ronald Wallace; P: Edgar Lansbury, Jay H. Fuchs, Stuart Duncan, and Joseph Beruh; T: Promenade Theatre (OB); 4/21/71-8/22/71 (121)
|James Naughton, Geraldine Fitzgerald.|
Critical reaction to this Off-Broadway revival of O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece (“the greatest drama ever written by an American,” according to T.E. Kalem) ranged from the blissful to the bilious. It was “perfectly cast,” exclaimed James Davis; its casting was “not perfect,” asserted Henry Popkin. The production was “sketchy,” asserted Stanley Kauffmann; it was “authentic, heartfelt, and thrilling,” responded Clive Barnes. Kalem described it as “done with loving care, solid characterization, highly skillful acting and a melancholy sense of life’s fatalities,” but Martin Gottfried was appalled by its misdirection, the miscasting of Robert Ryan as James Tyrone, and the fact that “just about all the power is gone.”
|Robert Ryan, Geraldine Fitzgerald.|
Geraldine Fitzgerald’s Mary Tyrone was acclaimed by most as one of her finest creations. “She is lovely,” wrote Kauffmann. “Her defensive web of smiles and her sense of being lost within the mazes of herself creates this sad woman for us.” It was felt that she gave a more sensitively appropriate portrayal than did Florence Eldridge in the original 1956 production, and Kalem even thought she took the focus from the others by the strength of her presence.
Few accolades accrued to Robert Ryan, a respected movie star, who was said to lack the commanding nature of a 19th-century classical stage star. Clive Barnes was part of a small minority that found his work overwhelming. Stacy Keach’s Jamie was acceptable, but several expressed reservations about his performance. Barnes, however, considered him “wonderful—one of the finest technical performances to grace New York in years.” James Naughton made an impressive New York debut as Edmund. An alternate cast of John Beal as James, Carol Teitel as Mary, Donald Gantry as Jamie, and Dan Hamilton as Edmund took over for matinees. Paddy Croft was Cathleen at all performances.
|Robert Ryan, Stacy Keach.|
The production reaped a Vernon Rice Award, while Geraldine Fitzgerald walked off with top honors in Variety's poll for Female Lead, Play. Stacy Keach won an OBIE for Distinguished Performance, and came n first in the Variety poll for Best Supporting Actor,.James Naughton led a Variety poll in the category of Most Promising New Actor, while also landing a Theatre World Award. And Arvin Brown was Best Director in the Variety poll.
This was the pla's first revival since the one of 1962, but the half-decade of this series also saw another one, directed by its cast, in a nine-performance workshop production of the Actors Studio, 12/10/73, with Will Hare as James, Vivian Nathan as Mary, J.J. Quinn as Edmund, and Jean-Pierre Stuart as Jamie. It appears not to have attracted much, if any, press.
|Polly Adams, Donald Sinden.|
|Donald Sinden, Anthony Pedley.|
One of a large number of British imports that dominated the 1974-1975 season, this hilarious revival of the 1841 hit comedy London Assurance, was written when its Irish, English, and soon-to-be American author was only 19. It was brought to the Great White Way well over four years after its successful London production by the RSC. The star and much of the 1970 cast were intact.
One or two critics dismissed the play outright as mid-19th-century balderdash, and its mounting as excessively campy. Martin Gottfried thought it a “plainly mediocre” comedy given a “self-conscious and cute” staging. Many more, though, said the show was a masterpiece of direction and performance, despite the shallowness of the writing, while still others claimed Boucicault’s play, especially in this modern adaptation, was, in John Simon’s words, “as disarmingly insouciant, cheerfully inconsequential a piece of horseplay as ever brightened one of our more trivial seasons.”
This is the tale of an aging, foppish, urban roué, Sir Harcourt Courtly (Donald Sinden), his rivalry over sweet, young, country heiress Grace Harkaway (Polly Adams) with his scapegrace son, Charles (Roger Rees), and his dalliance on the side with the married horsewoman Lady Gay Spanker (Elizabeth Spriggs). It was played to uproarious effect in a bright and clever interpretation in which every player contributed to the “superb acting ensemble,” said Jack Kroll.
|Bernard Lloyd, Roger Rees.|
Chief among the actors was Donald Sinden, making his New York debut, and acting his role with floridly roughed cheeks, outrageously blackened wig with spit curls, and troublesome dentures that kept coming undone whenever he said “devoir.” Sinden limned “a comic portrait of masterly detail which requires no retouching. His poses in the pseudo-Japanese manner, his pouter pigeon posturing, his disdainful stares, his ceaseless pretensions and creaky gallantry . . . , all these and more comprise the consummate caricature of a pompous ass,” observed John Beaufort. Each of the others was highly commended, as was Ronald Eyre’s richly detailed comic direction, which made the event “a triumph of style over content,” as Howard Kissell noted.
The production was rewarded with a Drama Desk Award for Theatrical Experience, Sinden got one for Outstanding Performance, Spriggs received a Tony nomination for Best Supporting Actress, Play, and Eyre was nominated for Best Director, Play.
LIZA [Musical Revue] B: Fred Ebb; ORIG. MUSICAL MATL: Fred Ebb and John Kander; D: Bob Fosse; CH: Bob Fosse, Ron Lewis; L: Jules Fisher; P: The Shubert Organization i/a/w Ron Delsener; T: Winter Garden Theatre; 1/6/74-1/26/74 (23)
“She has urchin hair, big gypsy eyes, good legs, lovely expressive hands, and a voice that can purr, whisper, snarl and roar. She is also very sexy,” wrote Clive Barnes appreciatively of the 28-year-old Liza Minnelli when she opened in this revue built around her talents. Barnes noted all her appealing abilities and traits, her “vitality,” “nerviness,” “total reality,” “ability to act in singing,” “delicacy,” and “vulnerability.”
On the extreme other hand, John Simon, often in the opposite corner from Barnes, described her as “a phenomenon as sad as it is garish, a tiny overeager talent given enormous electronic amplification, from under which emerges a shrilly desperate call for fame, for love, for help. She is one part memories of her mother [Judy Garland]; one part unsubtle appeal to the homosexual flock by campy travestying of what little femininity she has; . . . and one part jokes about her ridiculous looks.” (Folks, I’m not making this stuff up.)
Minnelli’s program allowed for her to sing and dance in 20 numbers, including a few original songs by Kander and Ebb. Among the old-time standards were “Mammy” and “Shine on Harvest Moon,” while more recent tunes included “Cabaret,” the title song of the movie that had made her an international star. Narrative bits of personal history were inserted between the numbers. A backup quartet of dancers (Pam Barlow, Spencer Henderson, Jimmy Roddy, and Sharon Wylie) shared several appealing Bob Fosse numbers with the star.
For her efforts, and in despite of John Simon, Liza Minnelli was presented with a Special Award Tony for “superior concert entertainment on the Broadway stage.”
|George Lee Andrews, Hermione Gingold, Judy Kahan. (Photos: Martha Swope)|
|Mark Lambert, Victoria Mallory.|
Broadway’s most innovative and successful team of musical theatre artists, Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim, together with their frequent design collaborators, Boris Aronson and Florence Klotz, as well as librettist Hugh Wheeler, came up with another winner in this visually exquisite and musically magnificent work supported by an Ingmar Bergman cinema masterpiece. A Little Night Music brought to the Main Stem a superb operetta, composed in waltz time, set in a gloriously romantic, turn-of-the-century Sweden. It was cast with an exceptionally attractive and gifted company, most of whom combined the seldom-paired skills of sensitive acting and accomplished singing.
Sondheim’s lauded twin talents as composer-lyricist were rarely so expressively successful, the critics without fail writing panegyrics to his creative genius. Hugh Wheeler’s book, while acceptable, if not delightful, to most, was nonetheless panned by a few outliers, including John Simon, who claimed it was an insult to Bergman’s screenplay.
The show was quite conventional in its heavy reliance on a completely plotted book; some, therefore, thought that Prince and Sondheim had taken a step backward in their continuing efforts to update and modernize the American musical through innovative methods. Other alleged weaknesses noted were the show’s practically non-existent dancing, despite the presence of a major choreographer; its strangely un-affecting, distanced tone that seemed to place the actors under glass; and what a few thought an extraneous chorus of five performers dressed in evening clothes and used to sing material that advanced the plot.
|Glynis Johns, Hermione Gingold.|
That plot concerns a middle-aged lawyer, Fredrik Egerman (Len Cariou), married to a delicious teenager, Anne (Victoria Mallory), for nearly a year without having once made love to her; the guilty attraction to this nubile youngster of Fredrik’s own son, Henrik (Mark Lambert); Fredrik’s search for solace in the arms of an former actress flame, Desiree Armfeldt (Glynis Johns); his rivalry for her with her pompous lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Laurence Guittard), himself married to a lovely countess, Charlotte (Patricia Elliott); and the gradual working out of these relationships at a villa on a summer weekend under the watchful eye of the actress’s grand dame mother, Madame Armfeldt (Hermione Gingold).
All the actors named (and several others, notably D’Jamin Bartlett as a sexy maid), received raves, but perhaps the most highly praised were Cariou, Gingold, Elliott, and Johns. The large cast also included such talents as Judy Kahan, Beth Fowler, Despo, and Sherry Mathis. Encomiums were couched in ecstatic language, as the critics expressed their gratitude for so lovely, elegant, and lustrous a production. It was called “heady, civilized, sophisticated and enchanting” by Clive Barnes; “the handsomest show in town, lovely to look and a pleasure to hear,” by Edwin Wilson; and “close to being the perfect romantic musical comedy,” by Brendan Gill.
|Barbara Lang, Benjamin Rayson, Teri Ralston, Beth Fowler, Gene Varrone.|
Of Sondheim’s contributions, Simon said he “has composed, to his customary, polished, easefully and richly rhyming lyrics, some of his best tunes so far.” Martin Gottfried added, “His melodies are strong and lyrical; his harmonies, as usual, are disarmingly grateful to Ravel; his dissonances are refreshing and effective . . . ; his music is always singable and theatrical.” These views were widely shared. Two songs, in particular, struck critical gold: “Send in the Clowns,” ultimately a standard, and “The Miller’s Son.” Among others in the 16-song score were “Now,” “Later,” “Soon,” “The Glamorous Life,” “Remember?,” “In Praise of Women,” “Every Day a Little Death,” “A Weekend in the Country,” “It Would Have Been Wonderful,” and so on.
|Glynis Johns, Laurence Guittard, Len Cariou.|
Wheeler’s book was strongly supported by many, but, as noted, Simon attacked it. He thought that, in place of Bergman’s dialogue, Wheeler was “obtruding his own effete drivel.” Gottfried observed that the writing had a “flaccid and undynamic tone.” In sharp contrast was Clive Barnes’s appraisal: “Mr. Wheeler’s book is uncommonly urbane and .witty. The jokes are funny, and the very real sophistication has considerable surface depth.”
|Patricia Elliott, Victoria Mallory.|
Florence Klotz’s period costumes were eulogized for their beauty and atmospheric appropriateness. Boris Aronson’s sets, making much use of silver birches on movable, translucent screens, received kudos as well.
As expected, A Little Night Music raked in numerous awards and nominations. It won the Tony for Best Musical, as well as the Drama Critics Circle Award in the same category. It also took home the Tony for Best Book, Best Score, Best Supporting Actress, Musical (Elliott), Best Actress, Musical (Johns), and Best Costumes, Musical. Its Tony nominations singled out Prince for Best Director, Musical, Cariou for Best Actor, Musical, Gingold for Best Supporting Actress, Musical, Guittard for Best Supporting Actor, Musical, Aronson for Best Scenic Designer, Musical, and Musser for Best Lighting, Musical. Wheeler was also awarded a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book; Sondheim got one for Outstanding Composer; and also for Outstanding Lyricist; Elliott and Johns got them for Outstanding Performance; and Bartlett, Guittard, and Elliott received Theatre World Awards.
|Patricia Elliott, Judy Kahan, Sherry Mathis, Laurence Guittard, Glynis Johns, Len Cariou, Victoria Mallory.|
The show has had numerous international revivals over the years, its first Broadway revival coming in 2009 in a production that originated at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory. Angela Lansbury was Madame Armfeldt and Catherine Zeta-Jones was Desiree, for which she won the Tony.
|Delphine Seyrig, Richard Benjamin.|
THE LITTLE BLACK BOOK [Comedy/French/Romance/Two Characters] A: Jean-Claude Carrière; TR: Jerome Kilty; D: Milos Forman; S: Oliver Smith; C: Sara Brook; L: Martin Aronstein; P: Arthur Cantor; T: Helen Hayes Theatre; 4/25/72-4/29/72 (4)
This was a French comedy by a well-known writer of novels and screenplays (who would later enjoy a major artistic relationship with British director Peter Brook), staged by a famous Czech movie director (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and starring two much-respected actors. Nevertheless, The Little Black Book, at least in its English version, was so weakly written that it was incapable of mustering enough support to run more than a week.
It tells of two characters: an attractive young Manhattan bachelor lawyer (the original is set in Paris)—A Man (Richard Benjamin)—who pursues and conquers good-looking women and keeps an account of them in his little black book—and A Woman (Delphine Seyrig)—a beautiful but mysterious blonde who arrives at his apartment unannounced, as if by mistake. Soon, though, she settles in to live with him. Before long, she is playing seemingly cruel love jokes on him, leading him to quit his job so as to seclude himself from the world with this woman he’s grown mad about. He then departs, promising to visit regularly.
The critics were bothered by the odd and sometimes baffling plot, the inconsistent characters, an inconclusive ending, and the lack of wit. “For a straight comedy, it does not have quite enough laughs; for a quasi-realistic play, it is a bit absurd; for real absurdism, it is too tame by half,” griped John Simon.
Simon and most others, though, were impressed by the polished performances of both stars, especially Seyrig, a French actress who had played the same role in Paris.
|Ken Howard, Diane Kagan.|
|Stefan Schnabel, Joseph Warren, John Christopher Jones, Gastone Rossilli, Diane Kagan, Edward Grover, Ken Howard.|
A tasteless, semi-absurdist, black farce about a household of New Haven Jesuits, taking place in 1968 on the day Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. “Little Black Sheep is a hate letter to Scully’s Catholic past,” commented John Simon of this sometimes incoherent satire In it, Anthony Scully introduces various stereotypical characters or, rather, caricatures, to underline his point that, as Edwin Wilson noted, “this world of religion, faith, decency and integrity is falling apart, and that these men are the Little Black Sheep of the Whiffenpoof Song.”
Among the dramatis personae are the alcoholic Father Superior Finley (Joseph Warren); Vinnie Caputo (Gastone Rossilli), a campy drag queen of a priest; Jack Hassler (Ken Howard), a great-looking, vain, seductive, phony of a priest; Sister Mary Charles (Diane Kagan), the sex-hungry Dominican nun he has seduced who wants to marry him and gets him to strip to the waist; Willie Schmidt (Stefan Schnabel), the Gestapo-like German housekeeper who runs the household as if he were Hitler; Michael George (John Christopher Jones), an idealistic, disillusioned young scholastic who becomes disgusted with the antics of his colleagues; Johnnie Rock (Edward Grover), a foul-mouthed, liberal-minded priest; and Henry Morlino (Pierre Epstein), a civil servant..
|Edward Grover, Pierre Epstein.|
They run around the House of Study frantically, occasionally dashing outdoors to administer last rites to auto crash victims who are always having accidents at the nearby corner, talking on the phone, and running up and down the stairs.
There was little absolution from the critics who splashed lots of unholy vitriol on Little Black Sheep for its lack of clarity over where it intended to get laughs, and where not; for its vague point of view “other than blind, unquestioning hatred,” as Clive Barnes described it; its shallow characters; and its indecisive style. Barnes called it an evening of “deadening triviality lost in a daze of pretensions.”
|Eva Marie Saint, Fred Gwynne.|
THE LINCOLN MASK [Drama/Biographical/Marriage/Period/Politics] A: V.J. Longhi; D: Gene Frankel; S: Kert Lundell; C: Patricia Quinn Stuart; L: Thomas Skelton; M: Ezra Laderman; P: Albert W. Selden and Jerome Minskoff; T: Plymouth Theatre; 10/30/72-11/4/72 (8)
|Eva Marie Saint, Fred Gwynne.|
Plays about Abraham Lincoln (or his wife) were part of the early 1970s zeitgeist, as witness, for example, The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, produced the same season as V.J. Longhi’s The Lincoln Mask, with Julie Harris, and Look Away, with Geraldine Page. The present play began promisingly, with a scene from Our American Cousin being enacted as if the audience were present with Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre the night he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth as he sat in a side box. What followed was a flashback to POTUS’s (Fred Gwynne) presidential career and his relationship with his troubled wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Eva Marie Saint, still with us at 96 as of this writing).
The distinguished stars, Gwynne and Saint, gave credible performances but The Lincoln Mask could not overcome the ennui induced by the playwright’s “almost total lack of talent and intelligence,” as Brendan Gill asserted, in having concocted what Clive Barnes dismissed as a “most worthily inconsequential” drama.
The rail splitter’s character, we are told, was inadequately developed, the material was occasionally inaccurate, and the play, like its hero, was put to rest.
|Reisl Bozyk, Ben Bonus.|
|Reisl Bozyk, Leon Liebgold, Lili Liliana, Ben Bonus, Mina Bern, Seymour Rexite, Miriam Kressyn.|
An all-Yiddish Broadway show, with sporadic English narration, Light, Lively and Yiddish was part comedy and part variety show. In the first half, Hershele (Ben Bonus), the helpful jester of Ostropolis, gives aid to a young shtetl couple in love. In the second, the problems of assimilation into American culture of Old World Jews are addressed.
The program was pleasing, but standard fare for such offerings. One of the performers was the young Diane Cypkin, a fine singer-actress and Yiddish-theatre specialist, who continues to be active as a singer of nostalgia-scented songs.
|Burt Rodriguez, Eddie Mekka.|
Lt. William Calley, a name that will live in infamy, was an American soldier who gained notoriety during the Vietnam War for ordering and participating in the massacre of My Lai, a village of innocent people, while on a “search and destroy” mission. This shocking atrocity was the core of The Lieutenant, a sung-through rock opera (no dialogue) developed at the Queens Playhouse in Flushing Meadows, Queens, before ending up on Broadway.
The Lieutenant attempted to explore the background to Calley’s callous act by showing how the Army calculatedly turned innocent men into killing machines, a subject previously handled in George Tabori’s Pinkville. The unnamed officer (Eddie Mekka) was thereby shown as a scapegoat while American militarism was denounced as the villain.
|Jim Litten, Tom Tofel, Eddie Mekka, Jo Speros.|
Played on a bare state with an eclectic score using non-rock styles as well as rock, this “shattering anti-recruitment poster” of a show, as Douglas Watt called it, was staged and choreographed with “seamless and unfaltering” smoothness. “The dancing is sensationally innovative and well-executed,” claimed Brendan Gill. Clive Barnes called Dennis Dennehy’s choreography “tough, taut and explosive.” Watt thought the score by Curty, Scharfman, and Strand “lacking in distinction,” but Barnes found it “attractive and supportive.” Less enthusiastic critics included John Simon, who wrote that the show’s “satirical yet earnest material” was created by “well-meaning but uninspired individuals,” while Martin Gottfried demeaned the entire enterprise as amateurish and on “a summer camp level.”
Its several positive good reviews notwithstanding, The Lieutenant, possibly because of its unpleasant subject matter, failed badly at the box office and was gone in a week. Musical competition on Broadway was very thin that year, which is surely why the show was nominated for a Best Musical Tony, a Best Book Tony, a Best Score Tony, and a Best Actor, Musical, Tony for Eddie Mekka," The latter's biggest claim to fame would be the role of Carmine Ragusa on TV’s “Laverne and Shirley.
LIBERTY CALL [Drama/Homosexuality/Military/Race/Sex/Ship/Trial] A: Burial Clay; D: Anderson Johnson; L: Sandra Ross; P: Negro Ensemble Company; T: St. Marks Playhouse (OB); 4/23/75-5/4/75 (8)
Note: no photo is available for this production.
The Negro Ensemble Company produced this play as part of a month-long series of new plays limited to eight performances each, under the general title “A Season-Within-A-Season.” It concerned a proud Black man, Boatswain Mate 1C John Wilheart (Samm Williams), on board a Navy ship in Southeast Asia who befriends a wealthy, young White sailor, H.O.B. Rothschild III (Michael Jameson), only to discover the latter has fallen in love with him.
Willing to do anything for money, the heterosexual Black has sex with the gay White, an act that eventuates in the latter’s suicide. The boatswain is then tried for sodomy and manslaughter, thereby coming in contact with a Black Navy lawyer, Lt. Priest (Ramon Raffur), assigned to defend him. The action is recounted in flashbacks, and is set on the ship, a brothel, a bar, ,and a shower room.
“[T]oo much lumpy and needless exposition” got in the playwright’s way, declared Edith Oliver, but he nonetheless managed to provide “playable” scenes and a “dramatic” plot. “[T]he playwright’s writing is rich with barracks humor,” noted Mel Gussow, but melodrama intruded where it should not have. This workshop production was well presented and Samm Williams (a.k.a. Samm-Art Williams, who wrote the successful play Home) gave a strong performance.
|Kathryn Cation, Sheryl Sutton.|
Leading avant-garde director-designer Robert Wilson presented this phantasmagorical Dadaist piece (previously seen in Paris) in the unlikely environs of Broadway. The critical confusion he engendered did much to cut his projected limited run of four weeks down to two. He called the work an “opera,” though it was more spoken than sung. It also contained some unusual whirling dances.
Unlike his earlier, silence-oriented works, this one was an experiment in language usage, an attempt to capture the pictorial and linguistic imagination of an autistic boy’s mind. 15-year-old Christopher Knowles, brain-damaged boy with whom Wilson had been engaging in therapeutic work, was a featured performer.
|Christopher Knowles, Sheryl Sutton.|
The language seemed random and abstract, never discursive, and impossible to follow in a rational way. It was fragmented, imagistic, and often spoken by several people at once in what sounded like gibberish. Screaming was also a dominant vocal approach.
Visually, Wilson’s taste for strange, fantastical tableaux and images made a strong impression. However, the work seemed less gorgeous than earlier Wilson events, and often seemed to strain for effects. Following the images for a thematic consistency was doomed to failure, as one vision succeeded the other in dreamlike progression without links.
|Sheryl Sutton, Cindy Luhar, Scotty Snyder.|
One representative scene described by several commentators is given here in T.E. Kalem’s words: “The backdrop carries the words CHITTER CHATTER printed several hundred times. Half a dozen or more couples are seated in silence at small café tables. Simultaneously, they all begin gesticulating and making high-pitched gibberish conversation.”
In another scene, as Edwin Wilson described it, “a group of four figures wearing army fatigues and World War I pilots’ helmets with goggles” was seen. “There is a strong crosslight which casts deep shadows on the stage. The four figures range themselves in a striking pose. The lights go out and then come on again and the four are arranged differently. Once again, and the four are on the floor.”
The critics were mostly appreciative of the evening’s bizarre beauty and enigmatic themes, even though they had to struggle valiantly to communicate the nature of the experience. Many found themselves mesmerized for the full three hours. The clue to watching, said several, was to get rid of preconceptions, stop thinking, and allow the effects to reach the subconscious where they could set off sparks of aesthetic enjoyment. Given his maverick proclivities, it was not surprising that critic John Simon chose not to follow his colleagues. Instead, he struck out at Wilson as an artistic pretender and his play as “The season’s scandal.”
Wilson was given the Joseph Maharam Foundation Award, and Alan Lloyd received a Tony nomination for Best Score.
|Ray Colbert, Tuesday Sommers.|
|Christine Rubens, Steven Alex-Cole, Jim Rich.|
If you think that the title of this show means what you think it means, you're right! Let My People Come was, perhaps partly because of its provocative title, an impressively successful Off-Broadway revue that ran for two and a half years at a small theatre, had numerous touring versions, both national and international, and eventually moved to Broadway, even though the critics weren’t formally invited to review it. Those who went did so on their own or their outlets’ initiative.
Song titles included “Whatever Turns You On,” “Give It to Me,” “Fellatio 101,” “Poontang, “Come in My Mouth,” and “The Cunnilingus Champion of Company C,” to cite some of the more obvious examples. The numbers covered a wide variety of sexualities,"straight, gay, bi, pansexual," as Paul Tenaglia, who later joined the show, informs me. (An earlier version of this entry noted that only "a smattering" of the show deviated from a heterosexual orientation into bisexual material.) Tenaglia notes that songs like "I'm Gay," "And She Loved Me," and "Take Me Home with You" explored alternative sexual orientations.
Complete nudity was greatly in evidence, and the naked cast greeted the spectators at the exits as the audience left. Filthy words were spoken and simulated sex acts were performed, although with a “gingerly” touch, according to Mel Gussow.
|Steven Alex-Cole, Marty Duffy.|
Gussow enjoyed the “ingenuousness and adolescent giddiness,” but he thought the score—by the son of one of New York’s best-known gossip columnists—derivative and the straight comic skits not up to even the less-than-acceptable bits in Oh! Calcutta!. That 1969 show, of course, is the one that opened the floodgates for products like Let My People Come to rush into the mainstream. The cast was considered merely “adequate.”
|Tuesday Sommers, Robin Charin, and others.|
Let My People Come was the center of several controversies. One was when the State Liquor Authority asserted that the Village Gate’s liquor license was in jeopardy because of the theatre’s mixing nudity and booze. Another came when protests emerged from members of the New York League of Theatre Owners and Producers, who were unhappy with the presence of a semi-pornographic show in a respectable Broadway theatre just when they were struggling to remove from the Times Square area the blight of porn and prostitution.
|James Broderick, Sandy Dennis.|
LET ME HEAR YOU SMILE [Comedy/Childhood/Marriage] A: Leonard Thuna and Harry Cauley; D: Harry Cauley; D: Harry Cauley; S: Peter Larkin; C: Carrie F. Robbins; L: Neil Peter Jampolis; P: Michael and Barclay Macrae; T: Biltmore Theatre; 1/16/73 (1)
|Sandy Dennis, James Broderick.|
Let Me Hear You Smile “was pointless, sad and totally unmemorable,” grieved Clive Barnes over this one-night catastrophe starring Broadway notables Sandy Dennis and James Broderick (Matthew’s dad). Douglas Watt referred to it as “static” and “foolish.” “[M]ild and placid, never offensive but emphatically not stimulating,” was Richard Watts’s gentle opinion, while Martin Gottfried, who found some redeeming virtues in it, ultimately had to dispose of the play as unfunny and confusingly staged.
Dennis and Broderick played a couple seen first in their late 30s, then as prepubescent kids, and finally as old folks. In the first act, the pay treats the wife’s difficulty with facing her 40th birthday and her threatening to leave home and husband. In Act Two, the first-grade children reveal their growing awareness of sex and their fear of moving into the second grade. In the third, the aged husband, having sold his hardware store, wants to move to New Zealand, but his wife objects.
Broderick’s acting was liked, and Dennis was, as often, chastised for her mannerisms but appreciated nonetheless for her quirky comic charms. A third actor involved was Paul B. Price.
|Paul Lieber, Warren Meyers, Robert Weil, Joe Silver, Jane House, James Wigfall.|
This play based on the life and career of the late standup comic Lenny Bruce was heavily assaulted by the critics, but the actor in the title role, Cliff Gorman, shot to stardom—albeit not long-lived—for his stunningly energetic portrayal. Bruce had lived a tortured existence in his last years, suffering from constant legal harassment because of his, for the times, extraordinarily outspoken language and radical ideas.
The shift in social values from the time, only a few years earlier, when his publicly-spoken obscenities were likely to land him in jail, to 1971, when a hit Broadway show could dramatize his troubles and use the very same routines that contributed to his downfall, was amazing, and not without a heavy dose of irony. Unfortunately, the structure of Julian Barry’s biodrama was considered negligible, and the depiction of Bruce himself was thought prurient, sensationalistic, tiresome, overlong, and shallow.
|Cliff Gorman, Jane House.|
Richard Watts called Lenny “a very dull show that did nothing to explain [Bruce] or justify all the furor he caused. . . . [H]is monologues no longer appear witty or relevant,” a thought some who have seen the recreation of Bruce’s routines on TV’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” might share. To Martin Gottfried, “good intentions do not make good theatre,” especially when the subject was historically close in time to the production about him. Jack Kroll added that the play’s portrait of Bruce was “incomplete,” and that it was “interesting and ultimately unsuccessful.”
On the other critical hand, Clive Barnes’s positive notice was instrumental in helping the show succeed commercially. This, he said, was “a dynamite shtick of theatre,” a powerful work that would offend some but—despite a “whitewashing” of Bruce’s character—remained totally compelling
Cliff Gorman’s raves reached a plateau he never again achieved. Walter Kerr wrote, “Mr. Gorman, in the demanding and virtually exhausting title role, wasn’t truly a shtick man; he was no master of swiftly slipped in Yiddish or Irish. But he was surely an actor of range and intelligence; he was himself likable; and, in one of the rare moments when we were able to see Bruce at a loss, he was moving. Fumbling with his prepared defense brief, then losing himself in a terrible tangle of recording tapes as he knelt in bewilderment on the floor, he suggested the play that might have been.”
Tom O’Horgan’s hyperbolic staging competed for attention with Gorman’s acting. The consensus was that O’Horgan had travestied the material. In Kerr’s words: “Mr. O’Horgan’s work was visually more disciplined than usual; stage compositions were sharp, movement was generally well focused. But intellectually the director was bent on pandering, pouring gratuities and question-begging devices over the stage with a lavish, leering hand. Ceiling-high puppets of Orphan Annie, the Lone Ranger, Dracula, and John Kennedy dangled in space to no great purpose; the granite heads of four recent presidents loomed in Mount Rushmore solidity to less. . . . When Mr. O’Horgan offered a nude Jesus and a nude Moses at the end of Act One . . . the effect was merely naïve.”
The director’s camped-up, ritualistic methods, using huge effigies, gross images, and lots of flesh, did nothing but call attention to themselves without in the least aiding the script. Still, Barnes loved the “phantasmagoric style,” and its vision of “an American nightmare.”
The large cast, in which many actors played multiple roles, included Jane House as Rusty, Joe Silver in seven roles, Erica Yohn as Sally Marr, Lenny's mother. Sandy Baron succeeded Gorman as Lenny during the run.
It should be added that the show almost failed to open because of a variety of lawsuits brought against it by a number of litigants claiming the rights to the Bruce material.
Gorman won the Tony for Best Actor, Play, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance. Joe Silver was nominated for a Supporting Actor Tony. O’Horgan managed to get a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Direction, while Robin Wagner won one as Outstanding Scene Designer.
Postscript: My friend, theatre writer Ron Fassler, author of the charming Up in the Cheap Seats, about his teenage theatregoing, when he wrote reviews of 200 shows that he kept in a journal, saw Lenny with both Gorman and Baron. His carefully preserved comments note how enormously taken he was by Gorman, but also how surprised he was at Baron's portrayal, especially now that he knew and understood the script better. It actually came as something of a big surprise, as he had thought Gorman's performance "unmatchable." "Here it was--matched! True, Baron may have seen Gorman and mimicked a little. . . . But Baron had all the power that Gorman had and I was very impressed."
For the latest installment in my series, Leiter Looks Back, which covers five revues of 1922-1923, please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.
|Joe Masiell, Lynn Gerb, Yolande Bavan, Scott Jarvis.|
LEAVES OF GRASS [Musical Revue/Literary Anthology] AD/M: Stan Harte, Jr.; SC: Walt Whitman’s poems, Leaves of Grass; D: Stan Harte, Jr, Bert Michaels; DS: David Chapman; P: New Era Productions; T: Theatre Four (OB); 9/12/71-10/24/71 (49)
An intimate little show that offered a mildly entertaining concoction of songs based on 21 Walt Whitman poems set to a wide variety of pop musical styles, excluding rock. Much like the popular review Jacques Brel is Alive and Well . . . in manner, it didn’t offend anyone, nor did it excite anyone either. It was “short, modest and quietly likeable,” wrote Richard Watts; “a more or less pleasant evening,” decided Martin Gottfried; but a show that “never takes fire,” in Clive Barnes’s opinion.
Whitman’s poetry was the major problem, as it (as transmuted into lyrics) lacked diversity and qualitative consistency.. The four-actor cast consisted of Joe Masiell, Lynn Gerb, Scott Jarvis, and Yolande Bavan, at least three of whom made their mark on New York theatre.
|Julie Harris, Brian Farrell, Leora Dana, Kate Wilkinson.|
The Last of Mrs. Lincoln was an old-fashioned vehicle for star Julie Harris in which she portrayed the wife of the 16th president during the 17 years following his assassination. This allowed her the opportunity to demonstrate Mary Todd Lincoln’s aging process through makeup and demeanor. James Prideaux’s approach to dramatizing Mrs. Lincoln, a woman generally believed to have been a nagging, neurotic, was to reveal the less well-known, but pleasanter, aspects of her personality, as well as her unfairly exaggerated faults.
Complimentary comments came from Clive Barnes, who recognized the problems of the drama's “episodic” and “patchy” construction, but valued its “spotlit moments of valid melodrama,” and called it “a respectable example of its genre.” Brendan Gill was even more approbatory. To him this was a superior soap opera “with good acting parts.” Both critics enjoyed the staging of George Schaefer. John Simon, however, was one of many who loathed the play, terming it “crassly commercial, slick without being clever, dramatically and humanly dishonest, [and] lacking in any kind of talent except for cutting and pasting.”
|Julie Harris, David Rounds.|
Simon also abhorred the performance of Julie Harris, one of Broadway’s most revered artists, who received accolades from his colleagues. He thought her “monotonous” and “with a certain pious self-righteousness . . . that may suit the character but hardly heightens her stature.” However, most agreed with Barnes, who noticed how “she grows with her story and quite dominates the play, as she must. There is a real woman here—a little theatrical, softly flamboyant—and yet lovable and moving.”
Of the other respected performances, David Rounds’s Robert Lincoln and Leora Dana’s Elizabeth Edwards were among the most widely mentioned. Other notables involved included Maureen Anderman, Ralph Clanton, and Kate Wilkinson.
A Drama Desk Award went to James Prideaux as Most Promising Playwright, and another to Julie Harris for Outstanding Performance; she also won an Outer Circle Award. Leora Dana snared a Tony as Best Supporting Actress, Play, and Brian Farrell, who played Lewis Baker, was given a Theatre World Award.
|Lisa Richards, Stephen Collins.|
THE LAST DAYS OF BRITISH HONDURAS [Drama/British Honduras/Politics/Prison/Science-Fiction] A: Ronald Tavel; D: David Schweizer; S: Paul Zalon; C: Timothy Miller; L: Ian Calderon; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Pubic Theater/Other Stage (OB); 11/5/74-12/15/74 (12)
Ronald Tavel’s “mystic mystery play,” as Clive Barnes dubbed it, proved “a curious farrago” to critics like John Simon. British Honduras forms the background to this work about a jailed American archaeology/astronomy student, Danyon Paron, Jr. (Stephen Collins), whose interests in thought transference are linked to the author’s wish to explain how the twelfth-century Mayan civilization of 53 million souls managed to mysteriously disappear without a trace.
The action is set in 1970, just before the plebiscite is taken to establish national independence. It moves around freely from Danyon’s prison cell to a tree house to a jungle to a village tavern. A variety of characters appear, including a Black prisoner named Rabbit (Don Blakeley), who can be in two places at once; Joseph Austin (Norman Matlock), a Black politician with dreams of power; Ali Balam (Marc Vahanian), a Mayan from outer space; Suzanne (Sheila Gibbs), a village waitress; and Danyon’s girlfriend, Lornette (Lisa Richards), held hostage in the jungle by Ali Balam.
Barnes thought the play lacked credibility, and said it was “clumsily constructed and its various levels of political intrigue and philosophical melodrama not well meshed together.” Simon called it “pretentious” and took Tavel to task not only for his “ludicrous aspirations,” but for his predilection—in this and other plays—for giving his characters awful puns to speak. Barnes cited the following as an example of Tavel’s “oddly convoluted” wordplay: “I cannot love the ground unless you are the grounds upon which I love it.”
Notable actors involved included Daniel Hedaya and Frankie Faison.
|Joseph Wiseman (center) and cast of The Last Analysis.|
THE LAST ANALYSIS [Dramatic Revival] A: Saul Bellow; D: Theodore Mann; S: Marsha L. Eck; C: Joseph G. Aulisi; L: Roger Morgan; P: Circle in the Square; T: Circle in the Square (OB); 6/21/71-8/1/71 (46)
Director Theodore Mann attempted with this Off-Broadway revival to bring new life to a play that had failed quickly in its original 1964 Broadway production, although several critics argued it deserved another try. Saul Bellow’s reputation as a novelist had soared in the intervening years, but his name and the innate comedic qualities of his play were not enough to save it from Mann’s misdirected, miscast grasp at resuscitation. Bellow had made numerous helpful revisions. However, they could not compensate for the production’s drawbacks.
Clive Barnes happily responded to The Last Analysis as still being “one of the funniest comedies written during the last few years.” Nevertheless, John Simon wrote that its plot about the retired, old-time, standup Jewish comic Philip Bummidge (Joseph Wiseman)—a blend of Milton Berle, Jack Carter, and Buddy Hackett—and his preoccupation with Freudian self-analysis, was more telling for a 1964 audience than one seven years later. In the role misplayed by Sam Levene in the original, an even unfunnier portrayal came from Joseph Wiseman, a serious actor out of his depth in Bellow’s farcical circumstances.
Noteworthy cast members included Grayson Hall and David Margulies,