Tuesday, September 22, 2020

357. MOONCHILDREN (2 productions). From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

James Woods, Cara Duff-MacCormick, Christopher Guest. (Photos: Martha Swope).


MOONCHILDREN [Comedy/College/Friendship/Illness/Sex/War/Youth] A: Michael Weller; D: Alan Schneider; S: William Ritman; C: Marjorie Slaiman; L: Martin Aronstein; P: David Merrick i/a/w Byron Goldman and Max Brown b/a/w Martin Rosen, in the Washington Arena Stage Production; T: Royale Theatre; 2/21/72-3/4/72 (16)

James Woods, Edward Hermann, Stephen Collins, Maureen Anderman, Jill Eikenberry, Christopher Guest, Kevin Conway.

Although written by an American, Michael Weller, Moonchildren was first produced at London’s Royal Court Theatre, where it was called Cancer (because one of its characters has a mother dying of the disease). After its British success, it moved to Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage under the title by which it is now known. In New York, it received raves from the Times and several others that should have propelled it to hit status. Surprisingly, it played to empty houses and folded in two weeks, creating great consternation among its supporters. A year later, mounted Off Broadway, with an entirely different company, it clicked.

Henry Hewes, who liked the play, suggested that the reason for its Broadway flop was its lack of “stars, music, plot intrigue, sensation, romantic theatricality, or sustained painless laughter,” ingredients that appeal to the “wealthier playgoers” who fill Broadway’s large playhouses.

The comedy concerns a group of seven mildly radical college students in the mid-1960s, five men and two women, all of them vibrant with life though self-destructive. They share a shabby apartment during the year they are scheduled to graduate from their Midwestern school. The friends live their lives on a diet of fantasizing, contemptuous wisecracking, put-ons, self-deceptions, and cynicism. Sex, school, war, cancer, and peace marches are their chief conversation subjects.

Their story is loosely structured and made up of a succession of comic scenes. “[C]onstant activity is engaged in but nothing happens,” wrote Harold Clurman. It is the friends’ relationships with one another and the world around them that forms the dramatic nucleus rather than a conventional plot.

Moonchildren was adored by Walter Kerr as “one of the most moving and one of the funniest plays of the decade,” an opinion shared by Clive Barnes, who called the play “a bitterly funny and funnily bitter” work that is “an epitaph for its time.” “[F]ull of zest and authority,” it would, said Barnes, disturb some, but others would find it enlightening. Various reviewers believed that it perfectly captured the spirit and language of mid-60s college life among a certain segment of the student population, a belief best expressed by Julius Novick: “It . . . depicted, better than any play . . . I have come across, the strange combination of yearning good will, deep suspicion, envy, fascination, and wonderment with which the middle-aged generation regards those mysteriously privileged creatures, ‘the kids.’”

Among strikingly opposing voices was that of Arthur Sainer, who trashed the play as “callous pandering to the box-office” and “just so much bullshit.” Brendan Gill thought it “a lifeless little patchwork of a play,” with an uninteresting assortment of characters. And John Simon resented Weller’s “tricks,” his dishonest manipulation of plot devices and character reactions, his inaccurate “tone” in presenting his dramatic “data,” and his “infelicitous” attempts at steering the comedy into the paths of “significance.”

The most admired performances were those of Kevin Conway as Mike, James Woods as Bob Rettie, and Cara Duff-MacCormick as Shelly, a shy girl who spends much of her time seeking shelter under a table. The sizable cast, with many noteworthy names, included Maureen Anderman as Ruth, Edward Hermann as Cootie, Stephen Collins as Dick, Christopher Guest as Norman, Jill Eikenberry as Kathy, Robert Prosky as Mr. Willis, Louis Zorich as Bream, Salem Ludwig as Uncle Murry, Michael Tucker as Milkman, and so on.

Anderman won a Theatre World Award; MacCormick, who also received a Theatre World Award, was nominated for a Tony as Best Supporting Actress, Play; Woods landed another Theatre World Award; and Weller was given the Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Playwright.


[Dramatic Revival] D: John Pasquin; S: William F. Matthews; C: Mary Warren; L: Joseph Dziedzic; P: Steve Steinlauf i/a/w Jay Kingwill b/a/w Lucille Lortel Productions, Inc.; T: Theatre de Lys (OB); 11/4/73-10/20/74 (394)

Rene Tadlock, Michael Sacks, Jim Jansen.
Only a year and a half after its dismal Broadway experience, Moonchildren was an Off-Broadway hit in this entirely new version that ran for nearly a year at the Theatre de Lys. Produced by 19-year-old Steve Steinlauf, the show received even stronger notices than its earlier production. Clive Barnes, for example, thought this “a better production.” “John Pasquin’s staging,” he went on, “is exemplary." John Simon admitted that the revival was “considerably more compelling than its Broadway version,” which he now confessed to having “thoroughly underrated.” Pasquin—who would have a successful TV and film directing career—won an OBIE for Distinguished Direction.

Jim Jansen, Kenneth McMillan, Elizabeth Lathram, James Seymour.

Walter Kerr, however, criticized the director for letting an air of “self-pity” intervene in the second half. He also pointed out that a striking feature of the Broadway mounting, a Christmas tree of over 800 stacked milk bottles, was missing. Another change, noted by Simon, was the improved scene-shifting approach that did without a curtain so as to allow the actors themselves to move the props around in dim lighting, doing so rhythmically in ways that commented on their characters. The acting was highly effective, especially in the hands of Richard Cox as Bob Rettie, James Seymour as Mike, Jim Jansen as Cootie, and Kenneth McMillan as Mr. Willis. Few of the actors had the reputations, then or later, of those in the Broadway company (McMillan and Michael Sacks, who played Norman, were probably the best known).