Thursday, September 17, 2020

349. MERT AND PHIL. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Marilyn Roberts, Estelle Parsons, Rhoda Gemignani.

MERT AND PHIL [Comedy-Drama/Illness/Marriage/Sex/Women] A: aAnne Burr; D: Joseph Papp; S: Santo Loquasto; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Martin Aronstein; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Vivian Beaumont Theatre; 10/30/74-12/8/74 (41)

Marilyn Roberts, Estelle Parsons, Norman Ornellas, Beverly McKinsey, Michael Lombard.

A confused attempt to blend outrageous farce with painful subject matter that had Clive Barnes writhing in his “seat at both its coarseness and ineptitude.” It treats the domestic miseries of a lower middle-class married couple, Mert (Estelle Parsons) and Phil (Michael Lombard), following Mert’s mastectomy. The action concerns the ever more wretched state of the couple’s relationship in the wake of Mert’s traumatic operation. Unable to face the loss of sexual attractiveness represented by the loss of a breast, Mert grows increasingly despondent and alcoholic. Phil, a truck driver, fails in his attempts to provide consolation. I

Throughout, exaggerated comic characters intrude, including Mert’s senile old mother (Marilyn Roberts), who goes around in roller skates and a  headset and puts on a crash helmet so Mert can bop her over the head with a huge mallet. There is also a pair of visiting friends (Norman Ornellas and Rhoda Gemignani), the husband always lunging for his wife’s crotch.

The sordid air was unrelieved by the bizarre farcical intrusions. Barnes, for one, accused Mert and Phil of being “terrible,” “tasteless,” and “totally unconvincing.” Parsons and Lombard were excellent, but Anne Burr’s play, statically directed by producer Joseph Papp—of whom Walter Kerr said: “Mr. Parr is not an imaginative director”—displeased nearly everyone for its dreadful writing and dreary people. Of the latter, Brendan Gill avowed that “they are dead souls inside dying bodies.”

Mert and Phil was one of the plays produced during Papp’s reign at Lincoln Center on behalf of the Public Theater, and, along with a few other Papp choices, was considered one reason for the fairly rapid demise of his tenure there, since such plays were anathema to that venue’s typical audience. Lighting designer Martin Aronstein says in Kenneth Turan and Papp’s book (posthumous on the latter's behalf), Free for All, that it “was one of the worst things that I’ve experienced in my entire life. It made absolutely no sense doing those plays in that theater.” And star Estelle Parsons commented, “I think it was an extraordinary play, but the language was very rough, the truthfulness of it . . . was very rough, a little too honest for your upper-middle-class white Lincoln Center audiences. I thought it was much too strong to do in a subsidized theater.”