Monday, November 30, 2020

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 From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Dick Latessa, Leila Martin. Photos: Robert Alan Gold.
PHILEMON [Musical/Religion/Period/Prison] B/LY: Tom Jones; M: Harvey Schmidt; D: Lester Collins; C: Charles Blackburn; P: Portfolio Productions; T: Portfolio Studio (OB); 4/8/75-5/18/75 (48)

The team of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, so fortunate in their collaboration on Off Broadway’s longest-running hit, The Fantastics, was responsible for a number of intimate musicals seen in Off-Off Broadway workshops at their tiny Portfolio Studio, but only Philemon was given a regular Off-Broadway mounting. It recounted the supposedly true historical tale of an out-of-work Greek street clown (Dick Latessa) in 278 A.D. When he is arrested in Antioch for a petty crime, he is convinced by a Roman official (Howard Ross) to go to prison under the guise of being a revered Christian bishop named Philemon.

Dick Latessa, Charles Blackburn, Howard Ross.

In prison, he is to spy out and report on the secret Christians and Jews. In return, he will be given passage home to Athens. He ultimately sympathizes with the persecuted prisoners and truly becomes the man is impersonating, a development that leads to his martyrdom and sainthood.

“[E]normous taste and inventiveness” marked this chamber piece, averred Clive Barnes, who enjoyed the simplicity of the staging and the “good score lovingly sung.” A feature Barnes and others appreciated was the use of the colorfully lined capes worn by the actors as the principal scenery. Edwin Wilson found the music “particularly successful” in its relevance to the story. “The honesty of the work, together with the expertness of the presentation,” he said, “makes for a rewarding experience.” 

Most of the other critics chimed in with similar encomiums, but Douglas Watt, who like parts of Philemon, said it “resembles nothing so much as a detail from a Cecil B. DeMille epic.” Severer still was John Simon, who sneered at the “amateurishness” of the writing, the unoriginality of the “humorless, mawkish tale,” and the “continual, irritating backing away from platitude into pretension” of the music.

Dick Latessa’s widely approved clown was an alert and vital performance, moving from buffoonery to tragic depth. His efforts won him an OBIE for Distinguished Performance.

Sunday, November 29, 2020


Alfred Lunt and Clare Eames in Ned McCobb's Daughter.
For Novembe4 29,  the latest in my series, ON THIS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER, please click on THEATER LIFE. 


Alec McCowen

THE PHILANTHROPIST [Comedy/British/Romance/Sex/University] A: Christopher Hampton; D: Robert Kidd; S: John Gunter; C: Sara Brook; L: Lloyd Burlingame; P: David Merrick i/a/w Byron Goldman and Michael Codron i/a/w the Royal Court Theatre; T: Ethel Barrymore Theatre; 3/15/71-5/15/71 (64)

Alec McCowen, Jane Asher.

A largely British cast played this verbally rich intellectual British comedy with great finesse. The Philanthropist was a clever modern-day version of Molière’s The Misanthrope, with Philip (Alec McCowen), its eponymous hero, a reverse image of the bitter Alceste. Philip, a self-effacing philology professor, indiscriminately likes everybody and hates to make anyone unhappy. Among other things, his basic ineffectuality leads Celia (Jane Asher), the clever and pretty young woman he loves to leave him. (Beatles' fans may remember Jane Asher as Paul McCartney's ex-girlfriend.)

Several critics noted that the play’s two acts were in varying styles, the first being a charming sex comedy, the second a verbose round of discussions. Also suggestive of the author’s indeterminate purpose were elements of extreme violence inserted into the plot, including a shocking opening scene in which a young playwright blows his brains out on stage, splattering a wall with gore. Hampton’s purposes in using such material were not always clear.

Among very positive responses to this often graceful and amusing comedy, which Martin Gottfried called “lesser Noel Coward,” was Jack Kroll’s that it “has the authentic dazzle, the sense of surprise and control, that marks the real thing, the artist.” Clive Barnes called it “a good, funny, literate and literary play,” possessing a structure “both belligerent and apt.” But Douglas Watt saw “no play at all” and John Lahr termed it “a clever phony. . . . The play’s clumsy construction and facile intuition of pain are galling since it chooses to pass itself off as serious comedy.”

All agreed that McCowen’s marvelous performance was largely responsible for whatever delight the work provided. T.E. Kalem reported that “He has a feel for the role that is as sensitive as a safecracker’s fingertips. . . . At one point, he is the bemused, absent-minded professor, at another the twinkling champion of verbal ping-pong, and at still another, an anguished human with a parched heart.”

McCowen was rewarded with a Tony nomination for Best Actor, Play, and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance. Hampton won Variety’s poll as the Most Promising New Playwright, and Ed Zimmerman, who played Donald, was nominated for a Tony in the Best Supporting Actor, Play, category.

Company members included Victor Spinetti, Caroline Lagerfelt, Paul Corum, and Penelope Wilton. My friend, Sara Brook, who did the costumes, recalls that the actors had all worked together before and were close, so the show's failure here came as a big disappointment to them. 


Saturday, November 28, 2020


Molly McKasson, Barton Heyman.
A PHANTASMAGORIA HISTORIA OF D. JOHAN FAUSTEN MAGISTER, PHD, MD. DD, DL, ETC. [Comedy-Drama/Fantasy] A/D: Vasek Simek; SC: various writings on the Faust legend; S: Clarke Dunham; C: Patricia Quinn Stewart; L: David F. Segal; P: Vaslin Productions; T: Truck and Warehouse Theatre (OB); 4/24/73 (1)

A confused and "inexcusable” (Edith Oliver) piece of patchwork dramaturgy that pasted scraps of various writers’ treatments of the Faust legend together into a theatrical mulligan stew of little rhyme or reason. Plays by Goethe, Marlowe, Mountfort, Heine, Klinger and Valery were the prime ingredients. “Hyperactive direction” and a “wearisome and unreflective” production, as Mel Gussow phrased it, were partly responsible for this “rock bottom” outing.

Gussow observed that “‘Phantasmagoria Historia’ manages to work in a clown sideshow (a red‐wigged circus clown, a Columbine who resembles Harpo Marx, and a baggy‐pants old Harlequin), much writhing‐in‐tandem, God in an echo chamber, flashing lights, and random songs including a guitar ballad and ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’ tooted on a toy trumpet.”

Barton Heyman played Mephistopheles and Jack Hollander took on Faust. Gussow remarked, “Heyman's Mephistopheles is overbearing and fey—of the raised eyebrow school. Hollander's Faust is smug—like a burgomeister delivering a barroom harangue.” 

John Simon considered the play “the lowest to which theatre can sink.” Among those going down with the ship on its one performance voyage were, of all people, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman.

Friday, November 27, 2020


William Jay, Adolph Caesar, Katherine McGrath, Jeff David.
“PERRY’S MISSION” and “ROSALIE PRITCHETT” S: Edward Burbridge; C: Monica Myrie; L: Ernest Baxter; P: Negro Ensemble Company; T: St. Marks Playhouse (OB); 1/12/71-2/21/71 (44)

Anita Wilson, Frances Foster, Esther Rolle, Roxie Roker, Clarice Taylor.

“Perry’s Mission” [Barroom/Crime/Race] A: Clarence Young III; D: Douglas Turner Ward; “Rosalie Pritchett” [Race/Southern] A: Carlton and Barbara Molette; D: Shauneille Perry 

A bill of two one-acts, presented during the Negro Ensemble Company’s season emphasizing “themes of black struggle.” Mel Gussow said that, in these plays, “the struggle is not so much against white supremacy as against a more insidious form of racism—the imposition of values by whites on blacks and the acceptance by blacks of those values. The plays . . . condemn whites as models, blacks as passive receivers.” 

The bill began with “Perry’s Mission,” which is the name of a Midwestern black bar in which the action takes place. As often in such locales, many characters representing a stereotypical cross-section of class structures, jobs, and problems assemble here. Their central focus is the avuncular yet authoritarian barkeep (Adolph Caesar). 

The episodic drama of class conflict and character revelation ends abruptly in a scene of violence. According to Gussow, “Strobe lights flicker on choreographed carnage. Whites are labeled as organized instigators of black self‐destruction, turning the play into a sort of ‘Perry's Mission Impossible.’ What was subtle . . . is made wrenchingly obvious.” All the black characters die and two trespassing whites (Jeff David, Katherine McGrath) survive after succeeding in getting the others to kill themselves off.

To Walter Kerr, the anti-white message was implausible in the dramatic context. Black critic Clayton Riley agreed, stating that the contrived ending “in its James Bondian fantasy, brings death on [Young’s] previously well-designed work.”

“Rosalie Pritchett” was less effective, but it was nonetheless a strong work with internal class conflicts among African-Americans. A well-off, upper middle-class, black Southern matron, Rosalie Pritchett (Frances Foster), is infused, like her snobbish friends, with white cultural values, and a low opinion of ghetto blacks. She is stopped by four, low-class white National Guardsmen (played by black actors) for being out past curfew during a period of racial rioting. The men rape her, thereby bringing home to her the distorted view of racial reality she and her friends so long believed in. 

Since the action is narrated by Rosalie from a hospital bed upstage, behind a scrim, her lack of participation in the rape greatly weakened the effect, creating what Gussow called “a disembodied” effect.

Edith Oliver, who found the program the Negro Ensemble Company’s “strongest . . . in ages,” thought this play’s indictment too sweeping and bitter, yet still found it “witty, sad, and powerful.” The production style was semi-expressionistic, using flashbacks. The white soldiers were played by black actors in a deliberately “white” manner. Gussow, comparing it to the first play, wrote: “It is written with much less sureness and spontaneity and it is somewhat shakily staged.”

Thursday, November 26, 2020


Bsrnard Hughes, Marybeth Hurt, Charlotte Moore, Randall Duk Kim.
PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE [Dramatic Revival] A: William Shakespeare; D: Edward Berkeley; CH: Dennis Nahat; S: Santo Loquasto; C: Willa Kim; L: Martin Aronstein; M: William Penn; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Delacorte Theatre (OB); 6/20/74-7/21/74 (24)

Edward Berkeley’s staging of this rarely revived quasi-Shakespeare tragicomedy (the Bard is believed to have written only the last three of its five acts) provoked sharply contradictory responses. Clive Barnes described this Shakespeare in the Park production as “forthright” and clear, but “unadventurous.” He wanted it to have a more “imaginative use of music, dance and spectacle,” and more employment of Santo Loquasto’s “flying bridge of a ship” setting. But Edith Oliver thought that “scene by scene this production is . . . firmly and imaginatively done. . . . There are mime and dumb show and dancing and music and excitement at every turn.”

Barnes (referring to Tom O’Horgan, known for his over-the-top directorial style) thought the salacious brothel scene—staged as “an O’Horganized free-for-all between a blowzy madam and a gawky transvestite”—was jarring in relation to the remainder of the show, while Oliver considered it a “triumph.”

Theatricalist touches cited by Oliver included having the actors come out one by one about 20 minutes before the play began to sweep the stage. The familiar concept was to have them behave as members of a strolling company. Several of them did circus bits—including riding a unicycle and juggling—until Gower (Barnard Hughes) arrived to start the show as chorus-narrator.

An unusual casting choice for Pericles was the deep-voiced Asian-American Randall Duk Kim, who surprised the critics by the degree of conviction he brought to the unlikely role. Pericles’s daughter, Marina, was beautifully acted by Marybeth Hurt, and fine jobs were turned in by others in a cast that included Lenny Baker, Richard Ramos, Tom Toner, Charlotte Moore, Helen Stenborg, Armand Assante, and Sasha von Scherler, among others.

There was an Off-Off Broadway mounting of Pericles in 1971 by the Classic Stage Company troupe, but the present version seems to have been the first one in New York of a fully professional stature in the 20th century.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020


Peter Rogan, Leonard Frey, Estelle Parsons.

PEOPLE ARE LIVING THERE [Drama/Friendship/South African] A: Athol Fugard; D: John Berry; S: Douglas W. Schmidt; C: Jeanne Button; L: John Gleason; P: Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center; T: Forum Theatre (OB); 11/18/71-12/4/71 (20)

Leonard Frey, Estelle Parsons.

This play is the least successful of distinguished South African dramatist Athol Fugard’s works produced in America. It is also the only one that—at the time—didn’t specifically confront his nation’s racial problems. People Are Living There looked instead at the dreary lives of a small group of emotionally scarred characters living in a shabby Johannesburg boarding house run by the slovenly Milly (Estelle Parsons).

This unhappy woman, whose boarder-boyfriend of 10 years has just gone out with another woman, is surrounded by a pair of male boarders and the wife of one of them. Don (Leonard Frey) is a pessimistic, cynical young man who questions life’s meaning. Shorty (Peter Rogan) is a thick-witted postman married to the attractive but irritatingly obtuse Sissy (Diana Davila). The main part of the play concerns a 50th birthday party thrown by the group for Milly to cheer themselves up. Their bitterness soon gets the better of them and they fall to sniping at one another and especially at the hapless Shorty, who bears the brunt of everyone’s disgust.

Several critics took umbrage at what they deemed an action-less and largely uninvolving drama with a sardonic message about life’s vacuous purposes. Clive Barnes observed: “The writing is oddly grating. In Mr. Fugard's earlier plays his characters had their own reality and created their own speech patterns. But this seedy Johannesburg locale is too near to our own experience for us to accept the easy stylization of language that seemed acceptable in the earlier plays. And here Mr. Fugard's people just do not talk like people.”

Other complaints were leveled at the writing’s repetitiousness, lack of incident, overly literary style, and what Harold Clurman called the “clash between the play’s ideas—the dismaying absurdity of life—and the by now equally familiar naturalistic drawing of still another ‘lower depths’.” Nonetheless, Douglas Watt used the words “humorous, compassionate and forceful” to describe the work, while Jack Kroll pointed to its “power, scarifying humor and dramatic effectiveness.”

The consensus held that Estelle Parsons gave a sweepingly emotional performance in a production whose fine acting was its principal achievement. Barnes noted: “I much admired the flat‐voiced, flattened Cockney of Estelle Parsons as Milly the birthday girl on the fringe of disaster, the fiercely neurotic Leonard Frey, the more subdued Peter Rogan, and the dim‐mouthed Diana Davila. It is a good cast. But the play is missing. Possibly South Africa itself is as empty.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

391. PENTHOUSE LEGEND (aka The Night of January 16th). From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Kay Gillian, Harvey Solin, Robert Fitzsimmons.
PENTHOUSE LEGEND (aka THE NIGHT OF JANUARY 16TH) [Dramatic Revival] A: Ayn Rand; D: Phillip J. Smith; S/L: David Houston; P: P.J. and K. Smith; T: McAlpin Rooftop Theatre (OB); 2/22/73-3/18/73 (30)

Originally titled The Night of January 16th, this 1935 courtroom drama was unimpressive in its second New York revival. It’s a stunt play in which a case concerning the facts behind a man’s fatal fall from a penthouse (murder? suicide?) are developed with people from the actual audience playing the jury and submitting a verdict. The play is written to support alternative conclusions of “guilty” or “not guilty” for the case against defendant Karen Andre (Kay Gillian).

The revival lacked dramatic tension and realism, and was tiresome, “murky,” and poorly acted, thought Clive Barnes. Richard Watts declared it “amazingly and distressingly tedious.” Douglas Watt said “the whole affair looks like a high school production,” and Julius Novick noted that” the staging and the acting are conventional and obvious.”

The script was a revision by the author of her original. Because of Ayn Rand’s (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged) notoriety as an author, I’m adding here an edited version of my description (from my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1930-1940) of the original production, which opened at the Ambassador Theatre on 9/16/35, where it ran for the considerable sum of 232 performances. Rand was credited under the penname Ann O’Connell and the play was staged by John Hayden.

Producers A.H. Woods and Lee Shubert employed promotional gimmicks to increase interest in the work, such as having boxer Jack Dempsey and other celebrities in the opening-night jury, or having Helen Keller act as foreman for a jury of blind persons. Those serving were offered three dollars apiece in return for their services.

The crime on trial was apparently inspired by a real-life incident involving a Swedish match magnate named Ivar Kreuger. In the drama, Karen Andre (Doris Nolan) is being tried for the supposed murder of her financier employer, Faulkner, for whom she served as secretary and mistress. She is accused by the prosecuting attorney (Edmund Breese) of having shot him in the heart and thrown him from a penthouse terrace because of jealousy over his marriage to a banker’s (Clyde Fillmore) daughter, Nancy Whitfield (Verna Hillie). The defense attorney (Arthur Pierson) claims suicide.

When Karen takes the stand, she declares the entire thing to be a hoax, that what was sent over the parapet was the body of gangster Lefty O’Toole, already dead, so that Faulkner could fly off to Buenos Aires undetected with millions borrowed from his father-in-law. Gangster “Guts” Reagan (Walter Pidgeon, debuting on Broadway before becoming a screen star), in unrequited love with Karen, appears to tell a tale that the plane was stolen, crashed, and burned, that the corpse inside had a bullet in it, and that the banker offered him $5,000 to keep quiet. The case is then handed to the jury for a decision.

The opening night jury found the defendant not guilty, and it was reprimanded for its decision by the judge (J. Arthur Young), who had their names stricken from the jury lists. The critics’ jury, however, came up with a split verdict. In general, they opined it was a better stunt than a play.



Monday, November 23, 2020

390. THE PEARL NECKLACE. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

The Pearl Necklace company.
THE PEARL NECKLACE [Musical Revue/Rumanian/Yiddish Language] CN: Israel Bercovici; P: Kazuko Hillyer i/a/w Brooklyn Academy of Music; T: Brooklyn Academy of Music (OB); 9/21/72-10/1/72 (8)

Performed in repertory with The Dybbuk by the Jewish State Theatre of Bucharest, The Pearl Necklace offered audiences a lighthearted musical revue of 50 Jewish folk songs—the pearls in the necklace—on diverse but familiar topics. Family themes were predominant, touching on “matchmakers and tailors, loving mothers and freedom-seeking sons, poverty and miracles,” as Mel Gussow noted. Patriotism and Jewish pride were also stressed. Many came from a hit Rumanian musical called Mazel Tov, which had been running for 25 years. But more recognizable tunes, like “Mack the Knife,” also were heard. 

Earphones with simultaneous translations were provided, although many audience members seemed not to need them to enjoy the show. Gussow thought the jokes suffered in translation.

The show was offered in a very simple, even “rudimentary” fashion, wrote Gussow, who thought it suffered from “repetitiveness” that might have been alleviated by more clever direction. Consequently it was “only mildly entertaining.”

Sunday, November 22, 2020

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

Natalie Gray, Ruth Truran, Donna Faye Isaacson, Carol Cole, Carole Leverett, Coletta.
PARTO [Drama/Portuguese/Women] A: Maria Isabel Barreno and Gilda Grillo; SC Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta, and Maria Velho da Costa’s book, The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters; D: Gilda Grillo; S/C: Hortesnse Guillemard; L: Marilyn Rennagel; P: Lois D. Sasson and Olive P. Watson; T: Washington Square Church (OB); 4/18/75-5/18/75 (21)

Parto was “a bold attempt at theatricalizing unwieldy material,” wrote Mel Gussow. He was referring to a virulently feminist and controversial book written in 1971 by three Portuguese women inspired by the story of a 17th-century Portuguese nun mistreated by her French cavalier lover, and the series of notorious letters she wrote describing her ordeal. (John Simon interjected that the letters were actually written by a man and that they represented “one of literature’s most famous hoaxes.”)

One of the authors, all with the first name Maria, adapted the book into this play directed by Brazilian Gilda Grillo. The bitter drama’s title is Portuguese for “the pain of labor,” but also implies all of womankind’s sufferings in a male-dominated world.

The adaptors fused the story of the 17th-century Mariana Alcoforado (Sherry Mathis) with that of a 20th-century counterpart named Monica (Carole Cole), using the character of Joana (Donna Faye Isaacson), a friend of Mariana’s, as a link between the centuries. This methodology upset Simon, who said, “the focus becomes one big blur,” particularly since the drama is highly episodic and does not project its substance in direct, linear fashion.

Between the more or less straight segments there were interludes in which men playing eunuchs (Loremil Machado, Jelom Vieira), their heads shaved and their skin painted a deadly white, performed Brazilian  folk materials to a musical accompaniment. Among their presentations were demonstrations of martial arts prowess with long knives, witchcraft, and chanting. Interesting as these were, they had little clear connection with the play proper.

Parto suffered from linguistic deficiencies and an essentially nondramatic script. Dick Brukenfeld thought it “lovely,” but flawed by excessive reliance on “tract” elements. Gussow, declaring the work “an agonized cry to alter women’s fate,” also observed that Parto’s polemics became intrusive. Simon, among other things, picked on the “incompetence” of the acting, although Gussow noted that Sherry Mathis and Carole Cole acted “up a cyclone.”


Saturday, November 21, 2020

388. THE PAJAMA GAME. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Hal Linden, Barbara McNair.

[Musical Revival] B: George Abbott and Richard Bissell; M/LY: Richard Adler and Jerry Ross; D: George Abbott; CH: Zoya Laporska; S/C: David Guthrie; L: John Gleason; P: Richard Adler and Bert Wood i/a/w Nelson Peltz; T: Lunt-Fontanne Theatre; 12/9/73-2/3/74 (65)

Cab Calloway, Mary Jo Catlett.

This hit 1954 musical, with its pillow-full of now standard numbers (like “Hey, There,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” and “Steam Heat”), returned to Broadway under the direction of its co-author and original co-director, 86-year-old George Abbott, and with a company of racially mixed actors. The diversity device was its only bid for novelty. In other ways, the show attempted to recreate the 1954 staging, which had made the reputation of young co-producer Hal Prince; even the choreography was based on the original work of Bob Fosse.

Hal Linden, Willard Waterman, Sharon Miller.

The book, based on Richard Bissell’s novel, 7½ Cents, was once considered daring for its handling of subject matter (a factory strike) thought better suited to leftwing drama. By 1973, it was deemed to not have worn well. Nor could making the love story focus on a black union member (Barbara McNair) give it needed pertinence. The scenic look was rather on the unattractive, economical side, but the rest of the show earned a combination of bravos and complaints, while meeting with few outright rejections. Walter Kerr thought it “genial, spirited but eventually thinnish.” John Simon advised that “if you want an undemanding, cheerful, warm-tub-with-Vitabath of a show, his restful revival is it.” Martin Gottfried. on the other hand, was impressed by how the racial angle deepened the story.

Linden, McNair, and Cab Calloway were loudly praised by most, but Clive Barnes had his doubts:

As the heroine, Babe, Barbara McNair sings vibrantly and looks beautiful, but her acting has the wooden air of a nightclub singer in search of a torch. Hal Linden is almost as badly miscast. He sings modestly and acts with all of his considerable skill, but he is not a natural juvenile lead. Cab Calloway makes as many moments as he can out of the role of Hines, the dumb supervisor, but even with Mr. Calloway the moments are limited. Best I suppose is Sharron Miller as Gladys, who comes over as a tightly packaged bundle of charm.


Friday, November 20, 2020

387. PACIFIC PARADISE. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Maori warrior.
[Musical Revue/New Zealand] D: Jack Regan; P: Irving Sudrow in the New England Maori Company, Ltd., Production; T: Palace Theatre; 10/16/72-10/21/72 (7)

Maori maidens.

A song and dance revue of Maori tribal music and folk customs, well sung but less well danced because of the abundant flesh carried by many performers. The choral numbers were better than the solos. There were 70 New Zealand performers in this touring show.

The program was in two parts, the first arranged around the theme of Maori history, the second an assortment of divertissements with no dominant theme.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

386. P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Jennifer Warren, Keir Dullea.

P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD [Comedy/Crime/Homosexuality/Sex] A: James Kirkwood; D: Vivian Matalon S/L: William Ritman; C: Frank J. Boros; P: Richard Barr, Charles Woodward, and Terry Spiegel; T: John Golden Theatre; 4/7/75-4/20/75 (16)

Keir Dullea, Tony Musante.

This addition to the gay sweepstakes so evident in 1970s theatre pictured a Greenwich Village flat one snowy New Year’s Eve. The tenant, Jimmy (Keir Dullea), an actor in his late 30s with a troubled career and an equally disturbed relationship with his girlfriend, Kate (Jenny Warren), arrives home to discover a burglar. The thief, Vito (Tony Musante), is overpowered by Jimmy and tied face down over the kitchen sink where, to allow him to urinate, his pants are soon removed, exposing his rear end.

Bill Moor, Anthony Ponzini, Mary Hammil., 

At first, both men seem conventionally straight. However, the wily Vito soon tries to seduce his determinedly hetero captor into having sex. The play turns from a rather funny comedy of sadomasochistic repartee into a pro-gay propaganda tract. The continued objections from Jimmy gradually subside as it appears that a bond of affection has begun to tie the men together. Vito ends up staying the night, albeit in a separate bed.

Jennifer Warren, Peter White, Tony Musante, Keir Dullea.

The play was viewed by John Simon as an “ultradishonest” work trying unsuccessfully to hide its nature as a “homosexual wish-fulfillment” fantasy. The plot’s implausibility was a major sore point with him and others, as was the author’s clearly anti-feminine bias, brought out in the characterizations of the play’s two women. A few critics chuckled at the many bitchy, gay-oriented laugh lines, but too many others were “painfully blunt and obvious," as Douglas Watt put it. Watt also jibed at the poorly defined roles of Jimmy and Vito.

The performances, direction, and setting were acceptably slick, but the play had no staying power and was gone in two weeks. It was revived in 1978, however, for an Off-Broadway run of 301 performances. Regardless, playwright James Kirkwood had little to worry about financially by then. A little show whose book he co-wrote with Nicholas Dante, which had opened Off Broadway just as P.S. Your Cat is Dead was getting off the ground, had moved to Broadway soon after. Its title was A Chorus Line and it would break box-office records for years.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

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

Alix Elias, Sam Schacht, Martin Shakar.
OWNERS [Comedy/British/Business/Crime/Marriage/Sex] A: Caryl Churchill; D/P: Terese Hayden; S: Fred Koulouch; T: Mercer-Shaw Theatre (OB); 5/14/73-5/15/73 (2)

Caryl Churchill’s first play, first produced in 1972 in the Theatre Upstairs at London’s Royal Court Theatre, was this episodic black comedy set among working-class people in a North London housing development. With overtones of Joe Orton and N.F. Simpson, the play is written in an absurdist comic book style.

It concerns Marion (Jacqueline Brooks), wife of a poor butcher named Clegg (Stefan Gierasch), who makes a bundle as a ruthless real estate speculator. With the help of her lieutenant, Worsely (Martin Shakar), she uses her terrible new economic power to grab what she can, including adopting the baby of her lover, Alec (Sam Schacht), which she manages to do by duping the lover’s pregnant wife, Lisa (Alix Elias). In the end, she must face the woman’s hysterical efforts to take back what she has been tricked into selling.

The play’s poor production was “a foggy mess,” asserted Edith Oliver, who mostly blamed the confused script. Clive Barnes thought the play was “trying to be about possession—the possession of physical property and the possession of people.” He panned the “sluggish performance,” and “unduly labored” acting, concluding, “Absurdity needs to have its roots in reality in order to be dramatically viable,

Later revivals, it should be noted, like Evan Yionoulis's 2013 staging at the Yale Repertory Theatre, have been more successful as both entertainment and social commentary.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020


Paula Kelly, Penny White, Valerie Harper, Mary Frann, Regina Baff, and (center) Avery Schreiber.
OVID’S METAMORPHOSES [Comedy/Military/Romance] AD/TR/LY: Arnold Weinstein; SC: Ovid’s Metamorphoses; D: Paul Sills; S: James Trittipo; C: Noel Taylor; L: H.R. Poindexter; M: The True Brethren; P: Zev Bufman; T: Ambassador Theatre; 4/22/71-7/3/71 (35)

Hamid Hamilton Camp, Paul Sand, Avery Schreiber, Charles Bartlett, Richard Schall.

The critics were not as clearly in favor of this work as they had been of the earlier Paul Sills's Story Theatre, which the present show joined in repertory from April to July, 1971. Several, like Brendan Gill and Clive Barnes, were more disposed toward Ovid as a dramatic source than the Brothers Grimm (the inspiration for Story Theatre). Most considered the new piece a disappointment, being only partly effective and incapable of sustaining interest for a full evening of theatre.

Charles Bartlett, Paula Kelly.

The material was largely based on the erotic tales of the ancient Roman writer, Ovid (43 BC-17/18 AD). Some proved stageworthy (like the story of Philemon and Baucis, and the one about Pygmalion), but they generally required a greater knowledge of the literary background than the average theatregoer was equipped with. Despite a good rock score, played by a group called the True Brethren, and uniformly good acting, coyness was too often in evidence. It was “Nothing to write Homer about,” quipped Martin Gottfried, using a Greek writer’s name to pun about a show based on Roman writing. T.E. Kalem, however, found it “an amusing and salubrious eyeful.”

Richard Schall, Valerie Harper.

Helping the classical stuff go down was a cast including some whose names ring a bell even today: Lewis Arquette, Regina Baff, Charles Bartlett, Hamid Hamilton Camp, Melinda Dillon, MacIntyre Dixon, Valerie Harper, Paula Kelly, Richard Libertini, Paul Sand, Avery Schreiber, Mary Frann, and Penny White

Monday, November 16, 2020


Jane Cowl in Antony and Cleopatra.

For this latest installment in my LEITER LOOKS BACK series, please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

383. OVER HERE! From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Patty and Maxene Andrews and company.
OVER HERE! [Musical/Military/Period/Show Business] B: Will Holt; M/LY: Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman; D: Tom Moore; CH: Patricia Birch; S: Douglas W. Schmidt; C: Carrie F. Robbins; L: John Gleason; P: Kenneth Waisman and Maxine Fox; T: Sam S. Shubert Theatre; 3/6/74-1/4/75 (348)

Ann Reinking, John Mineo.

Over Here! was an explosion of nostalgia-driven musical energy that rocked Broadway with the Big Band sounds and rhythms of the American Home Front during World War II, as exemplified by the singing of the nation’s most popular female trio, the Andrews Sisters. Patty and Maxene. The surviving siblings (Laverne had died in 1967), now in their fifties, made their Broadway debuts wearing USO canteen hostess uniforms. These may have revealed their ampler figures but failed to dim their memorable eight-to-the-bar singing style. The show called them the de Paul Sisters, Maxene playing Pauline and Patty Paulette.

The paper-thin book supporting the Andrews Sisters placed the action on board a train carrying troops from California to New York for embarkation to the European fighting zones. The evocative and colorful décor of rainbow arcs and drops, and period slides and posters, combined with the just-right costumes to transport audiences back to bygone days of the early 40s. The effect, wrote Jack Kroll, was “like a theme show taking place at some Radio City Music Hall in the skies.” Even a Big Band rising on an elevator trap to become part of the background, was incorporated into the picture.

Janie Sell.

Mixing fantasy with realism, the show used the services of a genial M.C. called Norwin Spokesman (Douglass Watson) to move the plot along. What there was of a story concerned the search aboard the speeding train for a new singer to join the de Paul Sisters’ act, and the sisters’ discovery of one in the person of a talented Marlene Dietrich-like femme called Mitzi (Janie Sell). Unfortunately, Mitzi turns out to be a Nazi spy, so the de Pauls continue as a duet.

Instead of using actual period songs, Over Here! employed an excellent pastiche score by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman that sounded as close to the familiar standards as possible while remaining original and inventive in its own right. The 17 songs included “The Beat Begins,” “Over Here,” “Buy a Victory Bond,” “The Good-Time Girl,” “Wait for Me Marlena,” “Wartime Wedding,” and “Don’t Shoot the Hooie to Me, Louie.” For those demanding a reprise of Andrews Sisters favorites, the pair obliged after the final curtain with a mini-concert. Audiences fondly appreciated swinging again to the upbeat harmonies of “Bei Mir Bist du Shoen,” “Beer Barrel Polka,” and others.

Ann Reinking, John Mineo.

The Andrews Sisters were in excellent voice and were surrounded by a constantly moving show, excellently staged by Tom Moore. One or two critics were curmudgeonly toward the stars. John Simon, for instance, called them “nostalgia without any class.” He liked only one thing about the production, the choreography of Patricia Birch, an achievement also applauded by his colleagues. Birch’s lindy hops, jitterbugs, and boogie woogies, featuring the flying feet of the dynamic Ann Reinking and John Mineo, were showstoppers. A dance Birch devised or Samuel E. Wright as a Pullman porter was another highlight.

April Shawhan, John Driver.

Several reviewers snapped at the show’s overt pandering to memories of an age long gone, and others were displeased with the flimsy writing, but the general opinion was that these faults were far outweighed by the overall exuberance and joie de vivre display. “Over Here is the first show to use nostalgia with good faith and sophisticated self-awareness,” Kroll insisted. “[I]t is going to provide a great many people with some happy moments,” noted Edwin Wilson. “As a musical it is preposterously bad,” admitted Clive Barnes, “but also preposterously engaging and . . . devilishly clever.”

The supporting cast included names that soon grew in importance so, like McIntyre Dixon, Bette Henritze, Marilu Henner, April Shawhan, Phyllis Somerville, Treat Williams, and the young John Travolta (previously on Broadway as a replacement in Grease), as someone called Misfit. Janie Sell, was singled out for her show-stealing talents as the potential third de Paul sister. She was good enough, in fact, to snare the Tony for Best Supporting Actress, Musical. 

The show itself was nominated for Best Musical, Tom Moore was nominated for Best Director, Musical, and Carrie F. Robbins for Best Costume Designer. Robbins also was given a Drama Desk Award for her costumes, while Douglas W. Schmidt’s set was similarly honored. Theatre World Awards went to Patricia Birch, John Driver, Ann Reinking, and Janie Sell.

Sunday, November 15, 2020


Dianne Trulock, J.C. Barrett.
“OUT OF CONTROL” AND “THE MARRIAGE OF THE TELEPHONE COMPANY MAN” [Comedy/One-Acts] A: Martin Craft; D: Frank Bara; S: Albert Carrier; C: Danny Morgan; P: Marlow Ferguson; T: Actors Playhouse (OB); 9/9/71-9/12/71 (6) “Out of Control” [Children]; “The Marriage of the Telephone Company Man” [Labor]

A weak pair of one-acts, the first a rapid-fire farce about a serious subject, the involvement of a well-brought up boy (Alexander Duncan) in the fatal, ganged-up beating with a baseball bat of a local sissy. The relationship between the boy and his lawyer is explored for laughs.

The second play concerns a dull phone repairman (J.C. Barrett) who hates his job and complains of it “to a whining, smitten red-haired woman [Dianne Trulock],” according to Howard Thompson. He wrote, “The sum total: no enchanted evening.”

Without laughs these plays quickly floundered and were withdrawn within a week. 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

381. OUT CRY. From my (unpublshed) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Cara Duff-MacCormick, Michael York.

OUT CRY [Drama/Family/Mental Illness/Theatre] A: Tennessee Williams; D: Peter Glenville; S/L: Jo Mielziner; C: Sandy Cole; P: David Merrick Arts Foundation and Kennedy Center Productions, Inc.; T: Lyceum Theatre; 3/1/73-3/10/73 (12)

Michael York.

One of a string of depressing failures that issued in his declining years from the pen of the great American dramatist Tennessee Williams. A revision of an earlier work played in London in 1967 and later in Chicago under the title The Two Character Play, it displayed a pair of actors, a sister named Clare (Cara Duff-MacCormick) and her brother, Felice (Michael York), stranded by their theatre company in a forbidding “unknown” state theatre somewhere in a chilly region. They have been abandoned because of their alleged insanity. (The “theatre” may be a madhouse and the “actors” inmates. They may also be two halves of a single personality. Michael York later wrote in his memoir that Williams confirmed the roles to be “alter egos, the masculine-feminine, positive-negative, active passive elements of one character.”)

Illusion mingles with reality as they proceed to perform their melodramatic, elusive “Two-Character Play,” about siblings living in the South, for the audience presumed to be entering the venue. It is left purposely vague whether this play about parental homicide and suicide, and the incestuous children left behind, is indeed a play or whether it represents their own confused, lonely existence in a hostile, hateful world. When the play-within-the-play concludes, the helpless Clare and Felice are seen to be in much the same estranged position vis-à-vis the world around them as the roles they have just enacted.

Out Cry’s humorless, abstruse, symbolic theme and “inchoate” treatment, as Douglas Watt termed it, made it improbable Broadway fare and it closed quickly. There were, however, some who thought it interesting, if in a limited way. Clive Barnes said it was “deliberately static but also moving,” and considered the acting “remarkable,” welcoming England’s Michael York in his New York debut. Others noted the personal tone of the play and suggested it was a revelation of the playwright’s own torment of recent years, and his painful experience when putting his work on view for critical attack by the public and press. Mel Gussow noted the drama’s “indisputable lyric beauty,” but decided that it never achieved the ostensibly interesting purpose that inspired it. “There are not enough contradictions, ambiguities and echoes. The playwright has not fully explored the challenging territory he has chosen for himself.”

In his memoir, Traveling Player, York describes being asked directly by the playwright to play Felice, his own fascination in the play despite not fully understanding it, and his belief that it was, indeed, based on Williams’s experience of “a time when, overwhelmed with personal torment, he had retreated from the world in a kind of panic and had actually been locked up in a St. Louis psychiatric hospital. He quite literally had not known where he was.”

He describes the production process in detail, the out-of-town tryouts in New Haven, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., where the critical response was encouraging, and the constant revisions made by the ever-present playwright. The production photos show York wearing a beard, but this was eventually shaved off, and his long, occasionally face-obscuring hair trimmed. He describes how, at the final run-through he “felt incandescent with a strange energy, . . . and almost collapsing on stage,” only to discover “it was a devilish attack of flu."

Although he soon recovered, he found the role extremely tiring, as did his costar of her part. Shortly before the New York opening a doctor diagnosed him as suffering from exhaustion. Then, the opening: “Houselights down. Curtain up. In the wake of the spotlights I felt supercharged from nerves and excitement.  We began. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed something flash from Cara’s eye: her contact lens! I felt a frisson of pure panic—perfectly in keeping with the performance, thank God—but she seemed composed, and, though half-blinded, managed beautifully.”

Later, after the closing, York found out that producer “David Merrick had only agreed to mount this strange eclectic piece at Tennessee’s insistence in order to obtain the performance rights to his more commercial Red Devil Battery Sign.” He notes that Williams thought Out Cry “his most important work. How long, I wondered, before that was publicly confirmed and acknowledged?” A 2013 revival with Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif at New World Stages did little to convince me, at any rate, that such acknowledgment would ever come.




Friday, November 13, 2020

380. OUR LATE NIGHT. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

OUR LATE NIGHT [Comedy/Marriage/Sex] A: Wallace Shawn; D: Andre Gregory; S: Douglas W. Schmidt; C: Ara Gallant; L: Victor En Yu Tan; P: New York Shakespeare Festival and Lyn Austin; T: Public Theater/Martinson Hall (OB); 1/9/75-4/20/75 (119)

Note: no photos of this production are available.

The experimental theatre company called the Manhattan Project made a rare departure from its typical menu of unusual stagings of established or adapted texts to do this new play (Wallace Shawn's first) that Clive Barnes called “the sickest of sick jokes.” He noted that it was “the most obscene show in town,” dubbing it “one of the most unpleasant plays I have seen in years.” He did, however, approve of the “defiant stylishness” of Andre Gregory’s production. (Wallace and Gregory have had a decades-long collaboration that continues today.) John Simon described the play as “one long string of obscene or scatological nonjokes mouthed by nonpeople, as if the author counted on making his name by throwing swill before swine.”

Its plot is about a cocktail party given by a married couple at which the guests, seated at a very large sofa, chat on and on about the most bizarre sexual fantasies and experiences, and now and then flirt overtly with one another, or go off to vomit, very audibly, in the bathroom. The stories grow more outrageous as the evening wears on, until the guests finally leave their, by now, shocked hosts. Alone again, the latter reveal “a few darkened monstrosities” of their own, as Barnes reported.

Troy Jollimore, on a blog called “Longreads” cites Public Theater producer Joseph Papp as saying: “Some [people in the audience] were shouting, and one man got up and walked around in a menacing way. They didn’t even know they were doing it. Wally was looking around the theater, very perplexed—he didn’t realize he had gotten rid of his own sexual mania and given it to everybody else.”

The cast included Gerry Bamman, Tom Costello, Angela Pietropinto, and Larry Pine, among others.

The OBIES, interestingly, gave Shawn an award for Distinguished Playwriting.



For my November 13 installment of ON THIS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER, covering this day in the 1930s, please click on THEATER LIFE.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

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

Moses Gunn, Roberta Maxwell.
OTHELLO [Dramatic Revival] A: William Shakespeare; D: Michael Kahn; S: Karl Eigsti; C: Jane Greenwood; L: John Gleason; M: Conrad Susa; P: Stratford Connecticut’s American Shakespeare Festival; T: ANTA Theatre; 9/14/70-9/26/70 (16)

This less-than-adequate, overlong revival of Shakespeare’s tragedy of the jealous Moor--originally produced at Connecticut's American Shakespeare Festival--was seriously undercut by a generally ineffective, if otherwise respected, cast led by Moses Gunn in the title role, with Lee Richardson as Iago and Roberta Maxwell as Desdemona. Gunn fared poorly in the press, Richardson a bit better, and Maxwell the best, despite a slam from John Simon.

Peter Thompson, Maureen Anderman.

Gunn’s Othello, to Simon, was “passing strange and wondrous pitiful,” for in the role he “never walks when he can skulk, shuffle, lope, or titubate. . . . [M]ost of the time he seems to be vocalizing not from a script but from a score.” Howard Thompson said Gunn gave “a touching but singularly ungripping portrait of agonized naivete. . . . Facially and with an exotic accent and a quivering voice that he uses like a tuning fork, Mr. Gunn conveys the despair and frustration of an explosive poet, not a strong man in hell. Further, the waving plasticity of his hands, underscoring every syllable, seals him off from the play—this man is a general—and the middling performances of the others.”

Thompson referred to the “mercurial but incredibly extroverted version of the wily Iago by Lee Richardson,” a performance Simon found “competent, even impressive,” while wondering if, however, it was Iago he was portraying. Using the same adjective as Thompson, he declared, “I am unstirred by an Iago who seems so extroverted, bluff, uncerebral, and who makes the greatest and blackest of villains merely gray.”

Lee Richardson, Jan Miner

On the other hand, Maxwell was “a lovely, asexual child,” thought Jerry Tallmer, and “the purest, most faithful, most obedient, sweetest Desdemona I’ve ever seen,” gushed Martin Gottfried. To Thompson, she was “a childlike wren,” but, like her colleagues, “sufficient but not striking,” while Simon came down hard: “She starts out as a kittenish Juliet, turns into a shrewish Kate (with overtones of Women’s Lib . . . ) and gets killed in a grisly bout of catch-as-catch-can. She sounds now like a querulous hoyden, now like a boy soprano whose voice is breaking, and always more like a senator’s charwoman than his daughter.” He also faulted her for not having the “stature and countenance” for tragedy, her shortness next to Othello combining with “her tomboyishness” to make her more like Othello’s “adopted child” than his wife.

Others involved were Peter Thompson as Cassio, John Tillinger as Roderigo (Simon thought “his interest in Desdemona a cover for his true craving to be mounted by Othello”), Jan Miner as Emilia, and Maureen Anderman as Bianca.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

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

Marcia Jean Kurtz, Rae Allen, W.B. Brydon.

THE ORPHAN [Drama/Crime/Military/Period/War] A: David Rabe; SC: Aeschylus’ Oresteia; D: Jeff Bleckner; S: Santo Loquasto; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Tharon Musser; M: Peter Link; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Public Theater/Florence S. Anspacher Theater (OB); 3/30/73-5/13/73 (53)

Rae Allen, John Harkins.

David Rabe had been highly successful with his first two plays, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Stick and Bones, both intense examinations of problems related to American military involvement in Vietnam. He completed his trilogy of Vietnam themes in The Orphan, a critical failure that was too obscure, symbolic, and cerebral to make a meaningful impact. One needed to read a lengthy program note for the complex strands of symbolism to make any sort of sense.

The Orestes story of Greek myth and drama was intertwined with anachronistic cross references to the Southeast Asian conflict and the My Lai slaughter, the murders committed by members of the Charles Manson “Family,” and American militarism and materialism. The drama's ultimate purpose was to examine man’s bloody nature over the course of history, albeit viewed from a time-space perspective in which the events occur simultaneously.

Staged with an imaginative panoply of bloody Grand Guignol effects, The Orphan was nevertheless unaffecting and seriously flawed. Its action was never made compellingly present or clear and the events seemed shapeless and without urgency. Many of Rabe’s concepts were disputed, but none so widely as his decision to depict the conflicting elements in Clytemnestra’s nature—the characters bore the names of their Greek originals—by casting two actresses, Marcia Jean Kurtz and Rae Allen, as Clytemnestra 1 and Clytemnestra 2, who represent warring facets of America itself.

Irrespective of the play’s occasionally interesting flashes of theatricality, Walter Kerr noted, “The fact remains that Mr. Rabe has worked out a purely intellectual exercise for his own quite private gratification.” “[H]is dramatic ideas outrun his dramatic language,” added Clive Barnes, while John Simon was shocked that so talented a playwright could produce such “a strained, pretentious, muddled, clumsy and almost completely flavorless piece of claptrap.”

Rabe later recalled, in Kenneth Turan and Joseph Papp’s Free for All, that the play was flailing in rehearsal, that he considered it unfinished, and that Jeff Bleckner was uncertain he could direct it, when CBS decided to cancel its production of Rabe’s Sticks and Bones. That decision to censor his work “mobilized us, made us rally round the flag. We thought we were now obligated to slog on and do the play, to stand up and continue to make this statement.” However, he admits, “I couldn’t solve the writing, and we couldn’t get in any kind of sync about it.”

He also blames producer Joe Papp for rushing the process. And when Papp asked him to write a note to insert in the program, explaining the play, he felt he’d be blasted by the critics for not having fulfilled his commentary. As he predicted, the notes were sharply criticized by some. Simon, for example, that Rabe had been seduced by Papp into “spelling” out the play’s meanings “in a program note more clotted in its prose than the play itself.”

Cliff De Young, who played Orestes, was never happy about it, as he lacked the same confidence in the writing that Papp was expressing. At one point in the play, he had to climb up high and deliver what Bleckner describes in Free for All as a “free-flowing, imagistic speech, sort of hallucinatory and stream of consciousness, and . . . long.” When people began walking out at the same point in it every night, and Rabe refused to cut the speech, De Young grew so frustrated at one performance, he ad-libbed to the departing spectators, “Come on, gimme a break! I gotta stay here and say it, you might as well stay here and listen.”

Cast members included Jeanne Hepple as The Speaker, Carol Willard as Electra, Laurie Heineman as Iphegenia, W.B. Brydon as Agamemnon, John Harkins as Aegisthus, Richard Lynch as Apollo, Tom Aldredge as Calchas, and, among others, Peter Maloney as Pylades.