Thursday, April 15, 2021

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 From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Roger Morden, Martha Greenhouse.
THREE BY FERLINGHETTI [Comedy-Drama/One-Acts] A: Lawrence Ferlinghetti; D: William E. Hunt; S: Sandi Marks; C: Deborah Foster; L: Ray McCutcheon; P: Winters/Rosen Productions i/a/w Elliott Taubenslag; T: Jan Hus Theatre (OB); 9/22/70-9/27/70 (8)

“Three Thousand Ants,” “The Allegation,” and “The Victims of Amnesia,” by well-known beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who died at 102 on February 22 of this year), appalled the critics by their dull, excessively symbolic, and heavily philosophical tone. To Clive Barnes, for example, they were “windy allegories set on some far horizon of poetic sensibility.” John Simon called them “one viscous mass enlivened by two intermissions.” He did note, however, that they read better than they played. One reason he offered was because the author’s elaborately written stage directions were beyond the ability of the producer to express onstage; another is because the director ignored the poet’s requirements.

In “Three Thousand Ants,” considered the best play, an unhappily married man and woman are in bed when he looks out a window and sees a yacht sinking and its passengers saved by an airplane. In the next play, “The Allegation,” a woman keeps an alligator as a pet, but the reptile wants its freedom, and an Indian thinks it should have it. But his advocacy goes nowhere as the alligator and its mistress are unable to break their psychological shackles. In the third, and weakest piece, “The Victims of Amnesia,” a woman chats with a hotel reception clerk, a former  train conductor, who soon conducts her to her room, where she gives unassisted birth to three babies. Downstairs, at his desk, the clerk threatens the audience as images of feet and carnage are projected on a wall.

The trapped actors were Roger Morden, Martha Greenhouse, and Charles Gregory, “who,” said Barnes, “showed no embarrassment whatsoever.”  

Next up: The Three Sisters.

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                       

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

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 From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

E.H. Wright, Martha Flowers, Barbara Montgomery, Howard Porter. (Photo: Amnon Ben Nomis.) 
THOUGHTS [Musical/Race/Show Business/Southern] B/M/LY: Lamar Alford; ADD. LY: Megan Terry, Jose Tapia; D: Michael Schultz; CH: Jan Mickens; S: Stuart Wurtzel; C: Joseph Thomas; L: Ken Billington; P: Arthur Whitelaw, Seth Harrison, and Dallas Alinder; T: Theatre de Lys (OB); 3/19/73-4/6/73 (24)

Following an enthusiastic review from the Times for its Off-Off Broadway showing at La Mama E.T.C., Thoughts ventured forth as a regular Off-Broadway show, with the same cast, a month later. Once more Clive Barnes sang its praises, but neither his notice nor several other positive ones induced the public to keep the show alive.

Thoughts is a brief, simple, nostalgic, autobiographical account of a Black musician’s (Howard Porter) youth and developing maturity as the son of a poor Montgomery, Alabama, pastor. The boy is seen growing up in a series of vignettes with other local characters until he makes a success of himself in New York show biz.

Lamar Alford wrote the entire musical, except for some lyrics, and Barnes and others were generally mpressed. Thoughts is essentially bookless and tells its story through “gospel, country, and hard-rock rhythms,” wrote Walter Kerr. Barnes found the revelation of the musician’s travails surviving in a white world throbbing with “style, guts and compassion,” and he deemed the music “vibrantly and defiantly effective.” Kerr also saw much of value, but he was unenthusiastic about the work’s inconclusiveness, its lack of “emotional overtones,” and the incompletely realized characters.

Among the better-known players were Barbara Montgomery and Mary Alice.

Note: Michael Schultz restaged the show for Off Broadway, while the original director, Jan Mickens, took credit for its “musical staging.”

Next up: Three By Ferlinghetti


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

529. THINGS THAT ALMOST HAPPEN. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Sam Coppola, Karen Rosenblatt, Patrick McDermott. 

THINGS THAT ALMOST HAPPEN [Comedy-Drama/One-Acts] A: Claude McNeal; S: Tim Wilson; L: Paul T. Holland; P: Jules and Gila Zalon; T: Provincetown Playhouse (OB); 2/18/71-2/21/71 (5)

“Morton: The Patient” [Mental Illness]; “The Courtship of Kevin and Roxanne” [Romance/Sex]; “Dominic’s Lover” [Romance] SC: Robert Browning’s poem, “Porphyria’s Lover”

An evening of three mediocre one-acts that to Mel Gussow were more “writings than plays. . . . [T]hey are devised situations, forced crises, and difficult to sit through.” Bloated by pauses (the author directed), these “long and tedious” works, said Richard Watts, “were stubborn in their uneventfulness.”

In “Morton: The Patient” a session between a bored analyst (Sam Coppola) and his patient (Richard Lynch), a man whose wife divorced him and who threatens suicide, leads to the discovery that both men are crazy. At the end, they exchange roles.

“The Courtship of Kevin and Roxanne,” set in 1959, shows a young man (Patrick McDermott) and his girlfriend (Karen Rosenblatt) in a car as he tries to talk her into having sex. A cop (Coppola) comes by and tries to arrest them for lewd behavior, but his superiors reject the charge.

“Dominic’s Lover,” inspired by a Robert Browning poem, presents a young woman (Rosenblatt) who goes to her schoolteacher lover’s (Coppola) flat where, bored by his inactivity, she invites over a man (McDermott) to whom she is attracted. She hopes this will stir the teacher to try and do something about it. The other man arrives, then departs, and the girl, perhaps poisoned by the teacher, is found dead.

In brief, this was an evening that almost happened.

Next up: Thoughts. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

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

Richard Mulligan, Marlo Thomas. (Photos: Friedman-Abeles.)

THIEVES [Comedy/Crime/Homosexuality/Marriage/Prostitution/Sex] A: Herb Gardner; D: Charles Grodin; S: Peter Larkin; C: Joseph G. Aulisi; D: Jules Fisher; P: Richard Scanga and Charles Grodin; T: Broadhurst Theatre; 4/7/74-1/5/75 (312)

Irwin Corey.

Herb Gardner’s marital comedy about New York life starred Marlo Thomas and Richard Mulligan as Sally and Martin Cramer, a pair of schoolteachers living in a lovely upper East Side apartment, but on the verge of separation after twelve years of faithfully observing their marriage vows. They have moved to their new domicile after years of struggling, beginning in happier days on the Lower East Side. As the years passed, their relationship, for reasons never fully developed, grew ever more frayed.

As the playwright depicts their personal problems, including flirtations with possible adulterous results, the New York environment is brought to life in the persons of Sally’s deaf, cabby father (Irwin Corey); a pilfering African-American student (Haywood Nelson); and various apartment house residents and street people, among them a hooker (Ann Wedgeworth) and gay man (Dick Van Patten). Sally and Martin endure their crises and survive unscathed to reunite in blissful matrimony.

Marlo Thomas, Haywood Nelson.

Contrived to milk every moment for laughs, the play was only moderately amusing, and barely any critics gave it more than polite approval, although it stuck around for the better part of a year. “How does a man of Mr. Gardner’s . . . intelligence bring himself to set down such tosh?” queried Brendan Gill. John Simon called Thieves a “sticky blend of the fey and sentimental” in which the author keeps “yea-saying to New York, to love, to human nature, to life, to promiscuity, to chastity, to whatever else he can vent his facile assent on.” And Clive Barnes declared that “nothing of particular originality emerges [from the play despite] moments of insight, even touches of urban poetry.”

The company was well-liked, but not overly so, with Thomas, Mulligan, Corey, Wedgeworth most frequently cited for the quality of their work. The sizable company also included such notable actors as David Spielberg, Sudi Bond, Pierre Epstein, William Hickey, and Alice Drummond.

Next up: Things That Almost Happen.

 

 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

527. THEY DON'T MAKE 'EM LIKE THAT ANYMORE. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Luba Lisa, Kenneth Christopher. (Photo: Impact.)

THEY DON’T MAKE ‘EM LIKE THAT ANYMORE. [Comedy-Music Revue] M/LY/SK: Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray; D: Timothy Gray; S: Don Gordon; C: E. Huntington Parker; L: Beverly Emmons; P: Costas Omero in the Timothy Gray/William Justus Production; T: Plaza 9 Music Hall (OB); 6/8/72-6/25/72 (32)

Arthur Blake, a female impersonator whose takeoffs included Mae West (who seemed more like Shelley Winters) and Gloria Swanson (as per Sunset Boulevard), was the centerpiece of this campy cabaret revue, designed to kid the greats of old-time show biz. 

It was disheartening to know that Broadway musical veteran Hugh Martin (Best Foot Forward, for example), was partly responsible for what Howard Thompson dismissed as “an incredibly threadbare paste-up of unsparkling tunes and rickety sketches.” One song, "Oscar," was agreeable enough, said Thompson. “This number, a thrust at the Hollywood statuette, at least briefly keeps Mr. Blake off the stage, as five energetic youngsters supply some song‐and‐dance respiration. Two do quite nicely on their own—Phoebe Otis and a lad named Kevin Christopher, both of whom deserve a better show. So would Luba Lisa, if she toned down that calliope stridence.

 And, as any regular theatregoer can attest, unfortunately, they do still make ‘em like that.

Next up: Thieves.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

526. THERE'S ONE IN EVERY MARRIAGE. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Patricia Gage, Jack Creley, Tudi Wiggins, Peter Donat, Roberta Maxwell, and others. (Photos: Martha Swope.)
THERE’S ONE IN EVERY MARRIAGE [Comedy/French/Marriage] A: Georges Feydeau; TR: Suzanne Grossman and Paxton Whitehead; D: Jean Gascon; DS: Alan Barlow; L: Gil Wechsler; P: David Merrick i/a/w Byron Goldman in the Stratford National Theatre of Canada’s Production; T: Royale Theatre; 1/3/72-1/15/72 (16)

Jack Creley, Peter Donat.

Turn-of-the-20th-century Parisian farceur Georges Feydeau’s Le Dindon (The Turkey), written in 1898, had been produced in French in New York in 1961 for six performances by the Comédie Française. The present version was its local English-language debut, and came to town from Stratford, Ontario, where it had been successfully staged by Jean Gascon. (A flimsy Off-Broadway revival under by the Pearl Theatre under the title The Dingdong arrived in 2016.)

A conventional bedroom farce about eccentric bourgeois adulterers racing about in a comic maelstrom of beds, doors, and puns, the play failed to hit the right note for Broadway hitdom and closed quickly. There was good reason for its French title not to have been translated literally. One or two performances were noteworthy, especially that of Roberta Maxwell, but the company did not fully satisfy. Among the better known actors were Peter Donat, Tony Van Bridge, and Joseph Maher.

Patricia Gage, Jack Creley.

The special Feydeau style and flavor were thought missing from this concoction about the attempt of a lawyer’s best friend, a bachelor (Jack Creley), to seduce his upright wife (Maxwell), and the wife’s desire to teach her philandering hubby (Donat) a lesson when she learns of his peccadillos.

“This is dramatic confectionary rather than dramatic architecture,” jibed Clive Barnes. Michael Feingold believed that the “players are so busy Playing Farce that they have no time to become their characters.”

 

Friday, April 9, 2021

525. THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Michon Peacock, Michael Vita, David Chaney, Alan Weeks. (Photo: Henry Grossman.)
THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT [Musical Revue] M/LY: Howard Dietz, Arthur Schwartz; D: Paul Aaron; CH: Larry Fuller; S/L: David F. Segal; C: Jane Greenwood; P: Gordon Crow i/a/w J. Robert Breton; T: Edison Theatre; 4/14/72-4/16/72 (4)

A jukebox revue in which a narrative frame loosely tied together around 40 musical standards about love’s joys and sorrows, written by the "hugely successful partnership of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. The songs included “Something to Remember You By,” “By Myself,” “That’s Entertainment,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “Shine on Your Shoes,” most of them tunes with which a 1972 audience would have been familiar. Perhaps less well-known were numbers like "High and Low," Absent Minded," "You're Not the Type," and "Blue Grass."

The singers had character names and the songs were staged as narrative scenelets, but the direction often became intrusive, a number of songs were considered better left at home, and the performances were uninspiring. Clive Barnes summed it up as “half-baked in conception,” concluding, “That’s not entertainment.”

For the record, the singers were David Chaney, Jered Holmes, Judith Knaiz, Michon Peacock, Vivian Reed, Scott Salmon, Bonnie Schon, Michael Vita, and Alan Weeks.

 Next Up: There's One in Every Marriage.

 

 

 

 

 

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Thursday, April 8, 2021

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

Michael McGuire, Richard A. Dysart, Paul Sorvino, Charles Durning, Walter McGinn. (Photos: Friedman-Abeles.)
THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON 
[Comedy-Drama/Friendship/Illness/Politics/Sports] A: Jason Miller; D: A.J. Antoon; S: Santo Loquasto; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Ian Calderon; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Public Theater/Estelle R. Newman Theater (OB); 5/2/72-9/3/72 (144); Booth Theatre; 9/14/72-4/21/74 (700) (Total: 844)

Richard A. Dysart, Walter McGinn.

Few plays of the 70s were accorded the tumultuously ecstatic panegyrics engendered by Jason Miller’s smash, That Championship Season. It represented a triumph of immense stature for the author, designers, director, actors, and producer Joseph Papp. His success with this and several other works of the period, most notably A Chorus Line, skyrocketed him and his New York Shakespeare Festival to the pinnacle of American theatre. When he transferred this overwhelmingly popular play from Off- to on-Broadway, where it opened the 1972-1973 season, it became his third such transfer in little more than a year.

Paul Sorvino, Walter McGinn, Michael McGuire.

That Championship Season recounts the events of a 20th-nniversary reunion held by a team of small-town Pennsylvania men, alumni of a Catholic high school, whose basketball team captured the state championship in 1952. Present are five of the men, four players and their aging coach (mortally ill with cancer). The only one not there is their star forward, nor has he attended any of their earlier, periodic gatherings.

The reunion is held in the large, rambling, turn-of-the-century home of the coach (Richard A. Dysart), a locale represented by a fascinatingly solid-looking, detailed, and cleverly laid out Santo Loquasto setting. As the work progresses, Miller lays bare the bigotries, animosities, vices, and corruptions of each character. The ostensible purpose underlying the reunion is to unite the old team for one more try at validating the “winning is everything” ethic that has so long sustained the men, and that we learn was responsible for that championship season when the final victory was achieved through foul means instigated by the coach. It is the missing player, Martin, in fact, who followed the coach’s instructions to play dirty and whose life has ever after been tainted with guilt and self-recrimination.

Charles Durning, Michael McGuire.

In the present instance, the victory aimed for is the re-election of team member George Sikowski (Charles Durning) to his job as town mayor. But playwright Miller soon reveals that Sikowski is an inept, fatuous blowhard and that his old teammates are each, in their own ways, defeated, deflated, and decaying specimens of a rotting value system that has been poisoning them for years. Many of their pretensions and blind spots are continuously being punctured by the verbal darts thrown at them by the alcoholic Tom Daley (Walter McGinn), whose cynical tongue, loosened by drink, permits him to be a sort of author’s mouthpiece. The metaphorical significance of the action is vividly imaged when Sikowski vomits into the large silver trophy that dominates the upstage area.

Painfully accurate in its depiction of the five men, larded with profanity and gut-shaking laughter, and buttressed by an intensely meaningful thematic substructure, That Championship Season was a slam dunk for many critics. “It has vigor, its dialogue is salty and its unmasking of the contradiction between mask and face, myth and reality is heightened, to speak in the play’s vein, by a ‘no bullshit’ forthrightness,” wrote Harold Clurman. “It is the dramatist’s understanding of his characters, and therefore his sympathy for them, that gives his play such richness,” observed Edith Oliver. “[A]s a well-made, commercial, traditional yet freshly felt and thought-out play, it is perfect. . . . I was amused, delighted, horrified and captivated,” applauded the more usually acerbic John Simon.

Michael McGuire, Paul Sorvino, Charles Durning.

A.J. Antoon’s staging was outstanding, “not merely in organizing a brilliant ensemble of actors and giving the play a headlong vitality, but in underlaying an essentially straightforward play with a bed of metaphor and mysticism,” declared Martin Gottfried. So well-integrated and thrilling were the performances of McGinn, Durning, Dysart, Michael McGuire, Paul Sorvino, that they were honored by an award memorializing the quality of the ensemble.

Richard A. Dysart, Walter McGinn.

The play won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Tony; Miller won awards from the Outer Critics Circle, the Drama Desk, and Variety; the ensemble was honored by Variety; Sorvino won Variety’s Supporting Actor poll and received a Tony nomination; Antoon landed a Drama Desk Award, a Variety Poll award, and a Tony; Loquasto was another Variety Poll winner, while also receiving a Tony nomination; and lighting designer Ian Calderon also received a Tony nomination.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

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

TERRACES [Comedy-Drama/Crime/Family/Marriage/Race/Romance] A: Steve Carter; D: Frances Foster; C: La Donna Harris; L: Sandra Ross; P: Negro Ensemble Company; T: St. Marks Playhouse (OB); 4/2/74-4/7/74 (8)

Note: no photos of this production are available.

Produced the NEC’s “Season-Within-a-Season” series of one-week runs, Terraces was a collection of four scenes set in a “pseudo-posh multi-terraced housing complex in the middle of Harlem, U.S. of A."  The setting is the only link between the parts. The actors each played at least two roles. The first three scenes are comic, the last a suspenseful melodrama, with all the characters, for whom the playwright has little but scorn, being Black and well-to-do.

In one scene, a young couple (Joyce Hanley and Rolan-lqad Sanchez) break off their engagement while examining an apartment; in another the audience witnesses the aftermath of a situation in which a husband (Robert Christian) finds his wife in bed with someone else when he comes home with friends for a surprise party; a third deals with an older couple (Mary Alice and Leon Morenzie) discussing the ingratitude of their now grown children; and the last is what Edith Oliver termed a “startling and hair-raising” episode about a wealthy family who ritually murder a derelict (Morenzie), at a birthday party, for being a disgrace to his race.

“Mr. Carter writes with a sharp pen and these dramatic anecdotes maintain the interest,” approved Clive Barnes. Oliver thought “the performances went very well indeed.”

Next up: That Championship Season.

 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

LEITER LOOKS BACK: FOUR MUSICALS OF 1925-1926

No, No, Nanette.
For the latest installment of LEITER LOOKS BACK, please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

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

Carol Kane, Sam Waterston.
THE TEMPEST [Dramatic Revival] A: William Shakespeare; D: Edward Berkeley; S: Santo Loquasto; C: Hilary M. Rosenfeld; L: Jennifer Tipton; M: James Milton; P: New York Shakespeare Festival Lincoln Center; T: Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre (OB); 1/26/74-4/7/74 (81)

The second and last attempt by artistic director/producer Joseph Papp, during his tenure there, to use the smaller of Lincoln Center’s two theatres for Shakespeare revivals. The one that followed, Macbeth, closed in previews. The Tempest was welcomed with some excellent notices, but a few critics were passionately against it. The economical production, using a company of thirteen (some with names still popular today) to play all the roles, was designed by Santo Loquasto to look like a yellow sand-covered Caribbean island, magically lit by Jennifer Tipton. Prospero (Sam Waterston, who would do the role again many years later, in Central Park) and Miranda (Carol Kane) were dressed in ragged clothing suggestive of beachcombers, while the shipwrecked characters wore Elizabethan garb.

As Clive Barnes viewed it, director Edward Berkeley sought to stress “the common humanity and the endearing eccentricity of man.” Prospero was in his early thirties, his hair sun-bleached, his temper monumental. There was no hint of the conventional, patriarchal Prospero, such as when Waterston did the part in 2015. The rest of the cast also was somewhat offbeat, with Christopher Walken as Sebastian, Randy Kim as Trinculo, and Jaime Sanchez as Caliban, and the decidedly earthbound Christopher Allport as Ariel. The last was the hardest for the critics to buy.

“This is the only Tempest I have ever seen that has brought me within feeling distance of this elusive play,” remarked Walter Kerr. He admitted that it had faults, especially a masque scene that was like “a lead balloon.” Edith Oliver was enthralled by “this original, audacious and imaginative production,” and Barnes said it worked “extremely well.” John Simon, though, was appalled: “It certainly isn’t a vulgar little farce to be crassly demystified by loutish histriones.” He loved the set, lighting, and comedy of Trinculo and Stephano (Richard Ramos), however; for the rest he had nothing but contempt.

While others hailed Waterston’s Prospero—Oliver called it “an astonishing performance that never loses its urgency”)—Simon discarded it as “one of the most scandalous performances” he had ever witnessed.

Next up: Terraces

Monday, April 5, 2021

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

Maxine Herman, Rubber Duck, Gloria Maddox.
TAROT [Musical/Fantasy] CN: Rubber Duck (Joe McCord); M: Ton Constanten and Touchstone; D: Robert Kalfin; S/C: Stephen Hendrickson; L: Burl Hash; P: Chelsea Theatre Center of Brooklyn; T: Chelsea Theatre at Brooklyn Academy of Music (OB); 12/11/70-12/20/70 (13); Circle in the Square (OB); 3/4/71-4/4/71 (38)

This strange, wordless show, performed entirely in mime, was first given at the Chelsea in Brooklyn and then revised for a commercial Off-Broadway run at the old Circle in the Square in Greenwich Village. It was conceived by a mime who went by the name Rubber Duck in the Brooklyn production but used his actual name, Joe McCord, for the second one. Designed and executed as a sort of counterculture masque, it employed fantastic characters suggested by the fortune-telling Tarot deck to create what Jack Kroll called “an allegory of creation and travail that adumbrates in an often touching manner the gnostic, necromantic religious yearnings that strive inchoately in much of the new generation.”

Of its original staging, Clive Barnes wrote that it was guilty of “pretentiousness,” and that it was produced “ill-advisedly,” although the music was "moderately distinguished.” The fancifully costumed and made-up characters cavorted in a show he termed “ludicrous. . . . , tedious, pompous, ineffective and amateurish.”

Next up: The Tempest


Sunday, April 4, 2021

520. THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (2 productions). From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Michael Wager, Joan Bassie, and company.

1.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW [Dramatic Revival] A: William Shakespeare; D: Gene Feist and Gui Andrisano; S: Holmes Easley; C: Mimi Maxmen; L: Robert Murphy; M: Philip Campanella; P: Roundabout Theatre Company; T: Roundabout Theatre (OB); 1/30/71-2/20/72 (29)

Michael Wager’s performance as Petruchio was one of the few delights of what Edith Oliver deemed a “brainless” revival, saying that it “might just as well [have been] non-verbal for all the values that the players get from Shakespeare’s words.” This production “just will not do,” carped Clive Barnes, who, like many others, felt the attempt to present this heavily cut Shrew in commedia dell’arte style—including Callot-like masks—worked “against the best interests of the play.” Even Petruchio and Kate (Joan Bassie) were sometimes masked, albeit with dominos. About the most positive thing anyone had to say came from Dick Brukenfeld: “Altogether, well done.”

Judith Sullivan was Bianca, Philip Campanella was Hortensio, Fred Stuthman was Gremio, David Hendricks was Lucentio, Gui Andrisano was Grumio, and so forth.

2.

Jane Lapotaire, Jim Dale.

D: Frank Dunlop; DS: Carl Toms; L: David Watson; M: Michael Lankester; P: Brooklyn Academy of Music i/a/w Brooklyn College in the Young Vic Production; T: Brooklyn Academy of Music (OB); 3/6/74-3/31/74 (12)

Britain’s popular Young Vic repertory company, then only four-years-old, offered a season of three plays at BAM, including this rambunctious Shrew with the versatile Jim Dale as Petruchio and Jane Lapotaire as Kate. As typical of their work, irreverence marked what Clive Barnes dubbed this “perfectly untamed” interpretation by clever director Frank Dunlop. Carl Toms’s set, consisting essentially of a steep, red flight of stairs, some platforming, and a 75-seat bleacher section, was an economical, yet effective base for this buoyant show.

Many liberties were taken to squeeze the juice of humor from the characters and action. The critics loved the results since they agreed that of all the Bard’s comedies, this was one that surely allowed for farcical high jinx.

The tone was set at the beginning when one of the onstage spectators, a drunken, jeans-wearing, Greenwich Village hippie barged into the play as the tinker Christopher Sly. Well done by young Richard Gere, the only American in the cast, Sly got the show off to a hilarious start. From there on it was a fast-paced, free-for-all of comic invention, with many off-color notes, asides, pratfalls, and anachronistic comments, including references to other Shakespeare plays. There were even wisecracks citing Glenda Jackson and Shea Stadium. The “gags and emendations, . . . wheezes and japes, are all perfectly cast in the Shakespearean mold,” observed Barnes.

Given the play’s contentious position today regarding its perceived misogyny, a position that has seen it either get fewer revivals or have it staged so that the shrewish Kate is somehow untamed, it’s interesting to see that, to Barnes, the interpretation had a definitely male-chauvinist slant: “this shrew is tamed, and tamed, and tamed.” But Martin Gottfried insisted it was a match of equals, with the lovers’ relationship ending with them as “a couple.” Instead of being chauvinistic, it was, he opined, “a post-women’s lib” approach.

Jim Dale’s Petruchio was not the conventional swaggerer, but a gentler, more human and appealing character. He received excellent notices for playing down the bravura and playing up the sincerity. “Mr. Dale is simply the firm-minded boy who lives next door and wants his dinner on the table on time,” wrote Barnes. Jane Lapotaire played the shrew as “winsome and sympathetic,” said Gottfried. Her truthful behavior made the struggle with Petruchio more believable and appealing than typical for this play.

Cast members included Ian Charleson as Lucentio, Ian Trigger as Gremio, Gavin Reed as Hortensio, Denise Coffey as Bianca, and so forth.

Next up: Tarot

Saturday, April 3, 2021

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


William Devane, Christopher Walken. (Photos: Friedman-Abeles.)
THE TALE OF CYMBELINE [Dramatic Revival] A: William Shakespeare; D: A.J. Antoon; S: Ming Cho Lee; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Martin Aronstein; M: Galt McDermott; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Delacorte Theatre (OB); 8/12/71-8/29/71 (15)

Jane White, Sam Waterston.

One of Shakespeare’s least frequently performed plays, Cymbeline was given a hearing during the summer of 1971 as a free Central Park production. It was an eccentric revival with the words “The Tale of” added to the title by director A.J. Antoon. Broad comedy and exaggerated stage conventions, including a red rubber ball to represent the severed head of Cloten (Sam Waterston), were liberally incorporated to suggest a never-never land of unusual events and persons. Maurice Sendak’s playfully horrific drawings for children seem to have inspired the costumes of the Roman soldiers, while the British military was garbed in uniforms resembling Big Bird from “Sesame Street.”

Antoon’s gimmicky direction distorted the principal role of Imogen (Karen Grassle), who, in Mel Gussow's opinion, was forced to change “too swiftly from being an impulsive romantic to something of a clown.”  Walter Kerr could not abide this gag-stuffed interpretation, with its inconsistent style, and Julius Novick found the experience tedious. John Simon sneered at the way Antoon had bent the play “into misshapenness when not breaking it into smithereens.”

Sam Waterston, Karen Grassle.

A fairly positive notice stemmed from Jack Kroll, for whom the revival brought the required “brains and guts and vitality and passion” to the job, even in the face of feeble acting. For all that, the cast was noteworthy, with, to name some of the most recognizable, Tom Aldredge as Cymbeline, Jane White as the Queen, Christopher Walken as Posthumus, Sam Tsoutsouvas as Guiderius, William Devane as Iachimo, and Joseph Ragno as Cornelius.

Next up: The Taming of the Shrew

Friday, April 2, 2021

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

Diane Oyama Dixon, Hilary Jean Beane, Adeyemy Lythcott. (Photos: Friedman-Abele.)

THE TAKING OF MISS JANIE [Drama/Drugs/Homosexuality/Race/Romance/Sex/Youth] A: Ed Bullins; D: Gilbert Moses; S: Kert Lundell; C: Judy Dearing; L: Richard Nelson; P: New Federal Theatre and the New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre (OB); 5/4/75-6/15/75 (42)

Robbie McCauley, Dianne Oyama Dixon, Adeyemi Lythcott.

Artistic director/producer Joseph Papp’s program of Shakespearean revivals at the Newhouse ended when he offered this transfer from Off-Off Broadway’s New Federal Theatre. Deemed “the most significant new American play in a long while,” by Douglas Watt, The Taking of Miss Janie was a major Black theatre event of the decade.

It was described by playwright Ed Bullins as a sequel to his The Pig Pen, and like that work was set at a racially mixed California party in the mid-60s. The play’s ultimate purpose was to view in semi-allegorical terms the racial life of America during the 60s as seen from a Black perspective. As the party proceeds, fragmentary scenes from the past intrude. To mingle past and present, the play makes use of various formalistic devices, including long monologues for each important character, choral dialogue, and a considerable amount of recorded music.

Janie (Hilary Jean Beane) is a young, white, liberal WASP who has met Black writer Monty (Adeyemi Lythcott) at college and, for over a decade, remained his close friend. She has not, however, despite his desires, had sex with him. Now Monty and two Black friends are having a party to which white and Black acquaintances, Janie among them, are invited. Most of the whites are Jewish. The play’s free-ranging structure introduces each character in detail, among them Lonnie (Sam McMurray), a white jazz musician who performs with Blacks and used to be Janie’s lover; Peggy (Robbie McCauley), Monty’s Black ex-wife, who turns to lesbianism after a failed second marriage to a white guy; Rick (Kirk Kirksey), a chorus-like, white-hating militant roommate of Monty’s, destined to be killed in a shootout; Len (Darryl Croxton), another Black roommate, an intellectual, who marries the hippie Sharon (Lin Shaye); the drug-addicted, beatnik poet Mort Silverstein (Robert B. Silver), who gets soundly beaten by Monty; and Flossy (Dianne Oyama Dixon), another Black woman with a yen for Monty.

The play begins and ends with the rape of Janie by Monty, who for years has wanted to “take” her despite her wish to keep their friendship “pure.” During the final scenes, the evening’s pathos is pointed up by the projection on a scrim of the faces of four martyred leaders of the 60s, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Blood gradually smears their faces as the action proceeds to its climax. “The rape is, to some degree, an image of the anarchic violence of the ‘60s,” thought T.E. Kalem.

Drug abuse, partial nudity, and obscene language were ingredients in Bullins’s play, the point of which, wrote Edwin Wilson, is to express how “these restless creatures of the 1960s were looking desperately for improvement and salvation, but too often in the wrong places; in drugs, in intermarriage, in political militancy.” “[T]he play makes trenchant observations,” said John Beaufort, “about the recent past and that segment of the youth community whose personal failures paralleled the tragic disorders and breakdowns of society.”

Several critics argued with the drama’s structural awkwardness. John Simon even claimed that Bullins, for all his work’s comedic and dramatic virtues, had not written a play. He thought the ideas “too simplistic” and the characters cartoon-like. Martin Gottfried took issue with the schematic nature of Monty and Janie, but he and most others believed the people were real in an almost documentary way. Clive Barnes declared that the work was “sensitive, . . . with vivid dialogue, a sensibility towards time and place, and possesses an intellectual and emotional density,” despite its need for “a sharper focus.”

Gilbert Moses, who had reconciled with Bullins after their widely publicized brawl over another play, The Duplex, was generally commended for his direction, for which he won an OBIE. The Taking of Miss Janie won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play, and also received an OBIE.

NEXT UP: The Tale of Cymbeline

Thursday, April 1, 2021

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

Louise Jameson, Estelle Kohler, Brenda Bruce.
SYLVIA PLATH [Dramatic Anthology/British/Literature] D: Barry Kyle; DS: Gordon Sumpter; M: Jeremy Barlow; P: Brooklyn Academy of Music i/a/w Brooklyn College and presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the RSC Production; T: Brooklyn Academy of Music (OB); 1/15/74-1/27/74 (15)

Sylvia Plath was one of two productions brought to BAM in a repertory season that also included Richard II. A very simply staged piece featuring three barefooted, white-gowned actresses (Brenda Bruce, Estelle Kohler, and Louise Jameson), it was performed on a platform with white draperies, a large photo of Sylvia Plath, and cards to denote the where, when, and what of each selection. The work itself was an anthology of writings by the iconic English poet, author of The Bell Jar, who killed herself (perhaps unintentionally) in 1963 at 31.

The poetry was interwove with narrative material on Plath’s unhappy life. The final selection, constituting the second act, was a Plath radio play, ‘Three Women,” taking place in a maternity ward where the performers were seen as “three aspects of one woman,” as Edith Oliver averred. (Edward Albee later wrote something similar, readers may recall.)

Critics like Clive Barnes were affected by the poetry and performances, but Walter Kerr found “something about the occasion . . . in part gratuitous, in greater part morbid.” The event caught him trying to psychoanalyze Plath from her writings, when he would have preferred being able to let the writings speak for themselves. John Simon disliked both the staging and material, claiming that “this was an assemblage of attitudinizings” and “gimmicky movements.”

Next up: The Taking of Miss Janie

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

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

Florence Lacey. (Photo: Stanley L. Franzos.)
SWEET FEET [Musical/Films/Period/Sex] B: Dan Graham; M/LY: Don Brockett; S/L: James French; C: Tom Fallon; P: Proscenium Productions, Inc.; T: New Theatre (OB); 5/25/72-5/28/72 (6)

Today’s entry, which can be swiftly disposed of, was an intimate musical set on a bare stage with just a piano for accompaniment.

Sweet Feet parodies the world of 1940s Hollywood as seen through the eyes of the eponymous starlet (Florence Lacey). All the characters are oversexed and there are various bits of heavy farce, including a drag routine. Howard Thompson described the dramatis personae thusly: “There's Sweet Feet, an ingénue clearly marked for stardom, a director with a Transylvanian accent, the greasy-looking studio owner, a cherubic‐faced prop boy and a muscular moron who plays Tarzan. Add, emphatically, the studio superstar, a tarantula vamp.” Thompson and his colleagues were turned off by the “anemic” quality of this “excruciating” experience.

Cast members included Bert Lloyd, book writer Dan Graham, Barney McKenna, Scott Burns, John Dorish, and, as the "tarantula vamp," Lenora Nemetz. The pianist was Marty Goetz.

Up next: Sylvia Plath

 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

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

Mathew Tobin, Ronald Bishop, Gretchen Corbett
THE SURVIVAL OF ST. JOAN [Musical/Biographical/Period/Politics/Youth] B/LY: James Lineberger; M: Hank and Gary Ruffin; D: Chuck Gnys; S/C: Peter Harvey; L: Thomas Skelton; P: Hailey Stoddard and Neal Du Brock; T: Phyllis Anderson Theatre (OB); 2/28/71-3/14/71 (17)

A "medieval rock opera” (no, not Pippin) with an antiwar theme that had begun as a concert produced at the Playwrights Unit before being expanded to a musical with songs and dialogue. Its premiere was in Buffalo the previous year. 

The Survival of St. Joan, which, despite its weak showing in this production, appears to have had an afterlife, is a retelling of the Joan of Arc story using a revisionist account in which the Maid of Orleans (Gretchen Corbett) is not burned at the stake. Instead, when a reputed witch is slain in her place, Joan is allowed to live after confessing her transgressions. She takes up with a mute farmer (Richard Bright) who falls in love in with her, but with the Hundred Years War (an allusion to the Vietnam War) continuing to rage, she rejoins the army, where she is rejected and even must fight off being raped. Joan ultimately meets her appointed fate when villagers accuse of her of hexing their cow. Before she meets her appointed end, however, bound to a tree, her saintly voices, which have deserted her, return.

The many songs, which can be heard on the show’s album, include “Survival,” “Someone Is Dying,” “Back in the World,” “Stonefire,” “Country Life,” “Cornbread,” “Darkwoods Lullaby,” “Propitious,” and “Burning a Witch.” Cast members, all playing two or more roles, included F. Murray Abraham, Lenny Baker. Mathew Tobin, Ronald Bishop, Patricia O’Connell, Janet Sarno, and Tom Sawyer.  

Performed by having the story acted out downstage while upstage an Atlanta rock band called Smokerise sang the lyrics and accompanied the action, The Survival of St. Joan ran into stiff  opposition. (Two of the band's four members wrote the score.) Clive Barnes torched it for its notably poor book and lyrics: “Rarely can such pretentious nonsense have been foisted upon the public. It pretends to be modern, modish, fashionable and presumably even significant. But it has little to declare but its quite remarkable impudence. Chuck Gnys's staging was as atrocious as the acting.”

Next up: Sweet Feet

Monday, March 29, 2021

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

Carl Murray Singers.

THE SUNSHINE TRAIN [Musical Revue/Race] CN/D: William E. Hunt; S/L: Philip Gilliam; P: Jay Sessa; T: Abbey Theatre (OB); 6/15/72-12/17/72 (224)

Gospel Starlets.

A rousing, foot-stomping, joyous celebration of gospel music, with nothing but vigorously sung songs for the entire 90 minutes of the show. Accompanied by a piano and an electric organ, two groups, the Gospel Starlets (all women) and the Carl Murray Singers (all men), soared through heart-moving, pulse-racing, earth-moving rhythms and hymns, with scarcely a nod toward musical staging in the typical theatrical sense. The men wore slacks and brightly colored shirts, the women dressed in pink. The men were Carl Murray, Ron Horton, Ernest McCarroll, Joe Ireland, and Larry Colemen. The women were Mary Johnson, Dottie Coley, Peggie Henry, Barbara Davis, and Gladys Freeman.

Songs on the playlist included “The Sunshine Train,” “Near the Cross,” “On My Knees Praying,” “Wrapped, Tied, and Tangled,” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” “Swing Low,” “Troubled Waters,” “Judgement Day,” “Stand Up for Jesus,” and more.

Howard Thompson averred, “It may be exactly what Fun City could use at the moment.” (Remember “Fun City”?)

Next up: The Survival of St. Joan

 

 

 





Sunday, March 28, 2021

March 28, 1939: ON THIS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER

Katharine Hepburn, Joseph Cotten.

For today's installment in my series, ON THIS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER, please click on THEATER LIFE.

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

Jack Albertson, Lewis J. Stadlen, Sam Levene. (Photos: Martha Swope.)

THE SUNSHINE BOYS [Comedy/Friendship/Old Age/Show Business] A: Neil Simon; D: Alan Arkin; S: Kert Lundell; C: Albert Wolsky; L: Tharon Musser; P: Emanuel Azenberg and Eugene V. Wolsk; T: Broadhurst Theatre; 12/20/72-4/21/74 (538)

Lee Meredith, Sam Levene, Jack Albertson.

One more in a long line of hit comedies by Neil Simon, Broadway’s undisputed king of laughter, The Sunshine Boys set the Broadhurst Theatre rocking with its yock-a-minute proceedings. Most critics were delighted that Simon had provided a serious undertone to the nonstop joking by depicting with unexpected pathos two wonderfully observed former vaudevillians, Al Lewis (Sam Levene) and Willie Clark (Jack Albertson). Lewis and Clark are now old, the latter living in semi-retirement in a seedy Upper West Side Hotel, the former staying with his daughter’s family in the placid suburbs of New Jersey.

Lewis J. Stadlen, Sam Levene.

For 43 years Lewis and Clark were a leading comedy team in the vein of Weber and Fields or, more recently, Smith and Dale, but after a farewell performance on the Ed Sullivan Show eleven years earlier they stopped talking to one another. Acrimony had always plagued their relationship, and it does so now as well when Clark’s nephew (Lewis J. Stadlen), an agent, attempts to reunite them for a TV special on the history of comedy. This effort brings the old sparring partners back together again for another bout of insults and frustration as they rehearse their old burlesque doctor skit (reminiscent of Smith and Dale's Dr. Kronkheit routine, sexy nurse (Lee Meredith) and all). Rancor once again intrudes, however, leading to Willie suffering a heart attack. The live act is subbed for by an old film of it but the pair are brought together when they both retire to the Actors Home in New Jersey to play out their final days.

“[I]ts qualities are so evident, so deft, so effortless that while some people will wish for even more, everyone will be satisfied,” wrote Clive Barnes. Among the many similarly satisfied were Harold Clurman: “the play is funny. The audience laughed, I laughed, you will laugh”; Douglas Watt: “shrewdly balanced, splendidly performed, and rather touching”; and Edwin Wilson: “not the sunniest play around, but it is without doubt the funniest.” Less tickled critics included Jack Kroll, who thought Simon was “back to his true form, the anthology of gags disguised as a play,” and John Simon, who insisted that whatever play lay dormant in the subject could not “survive burial under 10-gags-10-a-minute.”

Esteem for the skillful performances of Albertson and Levene as the crusty old cynics could not have been greater. “Jack Albertson never puts a line wrong. He is always pathetic but never enough to make you cry. Lovely,” chirped Clive Barnes. Of Levene, he said that he was “as tough as vintage chewing gum, and yet with a sort of credible lovability.”

Jack Gilford took over as Clark in October 1973, with Lou Jacobi joining as Lewis in February 1974. Many geriatric actors—like Walter Matthau and George Burns, who starred in the 1975 film version, or Woody Allen and Peter Falk who did the 1996 TV remake—went on to play Lewis and Clark over the years in countless regional, stock, foreign, and amateur performances. The Sunshine Boys was nominated for a Best Play Tony, Jack Albertson was nominated for Best Actor, Play, and Alan Arkin was nominated for Best Director, Play. Albertson also won a Drama Desk Award. With the show’s success under his belt, Emanuel Azenberg went on to produce all of Simon’s subsequent plays.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

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

(seated) Sonia Zomina, Louis Zorich; (standing) Andrew Jarnowsky, Shirley Stoler, Zitto Kazann.
SUNSET [Dramatic Revival] A: Isaac Babel; TR: Mirra Ginsburg and Raymond Rosenthal; D: Robert Kalfin; S: Santo Loquasto; C: Carrie F. Robbins; L: William Mintzer; M: Ryan Edwards; P: Chelsea Theatre Center of Brooklyn; T: Chelsea Theatre, Brooklyn Academy of Music (OB); 12/5/72-12/24/72 (24)

Originally staged Off Broadway in 1966, this translation of Isaac Babel’s Yiddish-language play is a picturesque 1928 depiction of Jewish life Odessa, 1913. It was appreciated for its wonderfully detailed examination of an interesting family situation and its many realistically observed characters, including rabbis, vodka-drinking peasants, and marriage brokers. Its theme, said Clive Barnes, “is that there is a time to be young and a time to be old, that there is a time for high hope, and a time for sunset.” (Babel died in a Soviet concentration camp during World War II.)

It tells of a boisterous, well-to-do, 62-year-old caterer, Mendel Kricks (Louis Zorich), infatuated with a beautiful 20-year-old woman (Ellie George), with whom he has a notably erotic scene and for whom he intends to sell his business so he can run off with her. This creates a conflict with his two sons, Levka (Zito Kazann) and Benya (Andrew Jarkowsky),   not only to end the father’s philandering but to wrest his power from him.

Barnes declared that “Louis Zorich makes a splendid figure as the vain, eventually broken patriarch,  bringing to the end a Lear-like pathos to the role. There were several other well-crafted performances. Robert Kalfin's direction was lively and continually interesting, and the sets and costumes were perfect for the dramatic world created. The critics were fairly well disposed toward the work, although some felt it lacked dramatic thrust.

Next up: The Sunshine Boys

Friday, March 26, 2021

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

Martin Shakar, Lois Smith, Brooks Morton, Jerome Dempsey, Jacqueline Brookes, Patrick Mcvey (seated). (Photo: Martha Holmes.)
SUNDAY DINNER [Drama/Family] A: Joyce Carol Oates; D: Curt Dempster; S: Kurt Lundell; C: Willa Kim; L: Roger Morgan; P: American Place Theatre; T: St. Clement’s Church (OB); 10/16/70-11/25/70 (41)

A Midwestern family sits down to its Sunday ritual of eating dinner after visiting the grave of their late matriarch. A strange, blind census taker (Patrick McVey) intrudes upon the scene and gradually makes each squirm as their personal guilt is drawn out. Eventually, he is ejected (although he may well be their long absent father), and his place is taken by one of the sons.

This play by prolific novelist Joyce Carol Oates was turned down by all the critics. As Richard Watts phrased it, Sunday Dinner was pretentious, studiously obscure, and ponderous.” Few were able to grasp the author’s point, and most felt there was nothing but a vacuum at its core. Clive Barnes thought it an allegory of sorts with murky, symbolic trappings. Walter Kerr was put off by its qualities of self-indulgence. Martin Gottfried knocked it for being “awkwardly and insincerely written” in the vein of Harold Pinter.

Few quarrels were picked with the acting or directing. As John Simon noted, they “seem to know how it is done even if they don’t know what it is they are doing.”

The rather distinguished cast included Jacqueline Brookes, Lois Smith, Brooks Morton, Jerome Dempsey, and Martin Shakar.

Next up: Sunset

Thursday, March 25, 2021

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

Estelle Kohler, Ian Richardson, Mike Gwilym, Janet Whiteside, Susan Fleetwood.
SUMMERFOLK [Comedy-Drama/Marriage/Politics/Romance/Russia/Russian] A: Maxim Gorky; TR: Jeremy Brooks and Kitty Hunter Blair; D: David Jones; DS: Timothy O’Brien, Tazeena Firth; L: Stewart Leviton; M: Carl Davis; P: Brooklyn Academy of Music b/a/w the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, in the Royal Shakespeare Company Production; T: Brooklyn Academy of Music (OB); 2/5/75-4/6/75 (13)

England’s RSC appeared in New York frequently in the 70s, usually at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with plays both new and old. In the present instance they were represented by a 1904 Gorky play, but one that was new to New York, so it wasn’t a true revival.

Gorky’s Enemies had sparked much admiration when given its New York premiere earlier in the decade. His Summerfolk demonstrated even more cogently the playwright’s long-neglected talents, best known mainly for The Lower Depths.

Character, rather than plot, predominates in this sensitively evocative picture of a cross-section of successful members of the Russian bourgeoisie—the descendants of peasants, not, as in Chekhov, the gentry—at the turn of the 20th century. These folk come from the city every summer to their riverside dachas, and return to the city in the fall. In this countryside setting, Gorky introduces his many summerfolk. With great skill, he realizes them three-dimensionally both as creatures to be scorned and people to be savored. They represent a class doomed by the corruption represented by their idle lives, a class soon to be swept away by the tidal wave of the Russian Revolution. Although Gorky’s political viewpoint clearly is on the side of the toiling masses, he offers these apathetic beings full opportunity to defend their way of life.

The three-and-a-half hour drama, which was superbly staged and acted, takes place in in the environs of a dacha owned by Bassov (Norman Rodway), a lawyer, who is married to the Nora Helmer-like Varvara (Estelle Kohler). Their friends and relations, who pass the time in gossip, love-making, quarreling, and adultery, include familiar figures reminiscent of Chekhov’s: a jaded novelist, Shalimov (Ian Richardson); Bassov’s poet-sister, Kaleria Vassilievna (Susan Fleetwood); an engineer, Suslov (Tony Church); his wife, Yulia Filipovna (Lynette Davies); her lover, Zamislov (David Suchet); Suslov’s tycoon uncle, Dvoetochie (Sebastian Shaw); a widowed female doctor, Maria Lvovna (Margaret Tyzack); Varvara’s clownish brother, Vlass Mikhailich (Mike Gwilym), and a host of others.

John Simon reveled in what he called a “wonder” of an event in which “the lofty ideas of a playwright are given magnificent embodiment in a remarkable production” of a “rarer-than-rare play.” “Here Gorky . . . has an exquisite sense of atmosphere, of a social and psychological climate conveyed neither through an unusual plot nor through a significant change in a principal character . . . , but through the subtle yet volatile interaction of a very considerable number of persons used like instruments in a concerto grosso,” he added.

Calling it a sequel to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Clive Barnes loved the play’s blend of “philosophy, humor and honesty,” calling it “marvelous,” a word also used by Douglas Watt, who forgave its “blunt, meandering and derivative” style because it was so ‘brimming with vitality” in both the writing and performances. “The cumulative effect . . . is quite powerful,” noted Edwin Wilson, who was never once bored during the lengthy performance, and who wished he could continue to live with Gorky’s people.

There was universal acclamation for what Simon deemed the “almost flawlessly unified performing” of the ensemble, although Estelle Kohler’s exquisite portrait of the disillusioned Varvara gathered the greatest attention. David Jones’s reputation as a director of Gorky was immeasurably enhanced, and the set and costume designs of O’Brien and Firth added enormously to the work’s quality.

The Royal Shakespeare Company was rewarded with an OBIE Special Citation for its contribution, produced in repertory with Love’s Labour’s Lost.

 

 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

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

William Atherton.

SUGGS [Comedy] A: David Wiltse; D: Dan Sullivan; S: Douglas W. Schmidt; C: Jeanne Button; L: John Gleason; P: Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center; T: Forum Theatre (OB); 5/4/72-5/20/72 (20)

Lee Lawson, William Atherton.

“[T]he erosion of innocence,” as Edith Oliver put it, was the subject of David Wiltse’s well-liked piece that, unfortunately, was given only a limited run of 20 showings.

A cheerful, optimistic young Kansan, George Suggs (William Atherton), arrives in the Big Apple to pursue a career as a broadcast sports announcer. He begins his New York life with the rosiest of attitudes, but gradually finds his initial good will crumbling under an onslaught of the city’s ills. Many of his frustrations are forthrightly delivered in direct address.

Robert Levine, Lee Lawson, Joan Pape.

Conventional in its sideswiping blows at the hassles of urban survival, an existence “overrun by derelicts, drug addicts, panhandlers, muggers, prostitutes, depressed and case-hardened employers, dissatisfied wives, [and] crooks,” in Harold Clurman’s words, Suggs remained “engagingly ironic, swift in pace, [and] happily devoid of portentousness.” Henry Hewes thought it was “neatly crafted, highly entertaining.”

Ralph Bell, William Atherton.

William Atherton, “always seemingly unaware of what is happening to him as his jauntiness and trust slowly ebb away, gives a first-rate comic performance,” wrote Oliver.

David Wiltse won a Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Playwright, and Drama Desk Awards also went to William Atherton and director Dan Sullivan, then at the outset of his prolific career. Atherton also snared a Theatre World Award.

Next up: Summerfolk