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 From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975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