Sunday, February 28, 2021

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 From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Don Fellows, Verona Barnes, Dorrie Kavanaugh, David Spielberg, Barton Heyman, Norman Bush, Conard Fowkes. (Photos: Martha Swope.)
SLEEP [Comedy-Drama/Hospital/Nudity/Race/Science] A: Jack Gelber; D: Jacques Levy; S: Kert Lundell; C: Willa Kim; L: Roger Morgan; P/T: American Place Theatre (OB); 2/10/72-3/11/72 (32)

Gil (David Spielberg) is a young man, an average guy, who is experiencing various personal difficulties at home and work. He volunteers to be a paid participant in a sleep research lab where he is placed in a bed and allowed to dream. As he sleeps his dreams come to life are enacted by him and four Black and white actors who portray his dream figures.

Gil’s emotional, marital, sexual, and employment crises are shown, none of them especially unusual. The doctors frequently wake him to pump him with questions, most of them apparently innocuous. In one scene, a Black mugger dreamed of by Gil forces him to strip, and Gil dances in the nude, enjoying his liberation. At the end, playwright Jack Gelber leaves us with “The implication . . . that man’s mind always remains basically unsusceptible to precise investigation,” as Clive Barnes explained it.

What Michael Smith called a “soporific” work was not received with open arms, Walter Kerr referring to its “portentous remarks . . . and embarrassingly literal visual metaphors,” and Barnes to its having a “concept . . . a great deal better than the play itself.” 

Saturday, February 27, 2021

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 From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Kathryn Walker, Margo Ann Berdeshevsky, Roberta Maxwell.
SLAG [Comedy-Drama/British/Homosexuality/Politics/Women] A: David Hare; D: Roger Hendricks Simon; S: Daisy Page Pickman; C: Milo Morrow; L: Robert Kellogg; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Public Theater/Other Stage (OB); 2/21/71-3/21/71 (32)

David Hare, who became one England’s most respected dramatists, was only 23 when Slag made its New York debut. It presents three teachers at Brackenhurst, an upper-class girl’s school on the skids with less than a dozen students still enrolled. The neurotic anxieties of the three are played off against each other; two, Elise (Margo Ann Berdeshevsky) and Ann (Kathryn Walker), appear to have lesbian tendencies, while the third, Joanne (Roberta Maxwell), the headmistress, is a rabid feminist. Their dialogue is often cast in long, rhetorical speeches, which sparked charges of overwriting and verbosity.  Fortunately, the burden was lightened by numerous stingingly comic remarks.

The critics reacted cautiously, most feeling Hare showed promise, but considering his play vague. Clive Barnes averred that it was filled “with more ideas than his thought can handle.” A variety of topical targets were aimed at, especially the political state of England, the title itself suggesting the residue of the past on which the nation was standing.

Edith Oliver laughed at Hare’s “eccentric notions, . . . funny lines, [and] wry outlook.” Walter Kerr may have found Slag “quite the dullest evening in town,” but Harold Clurman said, “the impression made, besides that of political muddle, is one of frenzy, verbose confusion of mind and spirit, a considerable gift for acid humor, and above all, roiling impotence.”

Canadian-born Roberta Maxwell got top honors in this well-acted production. Barnes enthused, “Such a good actress, restrained when she could have been strident, impassioned when she could have been petulant, the shining Miss Maxwell is a joy in a role that could have been written for her.” Her performance was honored with a Drama Desk Award.

Friday, February 26, 2021

482. SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

John Kani, Winston Ntshona.
SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD [Drama/Politics/Race/South Africa] A: Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona; D: Athol Fugard; S: Stuart Wurtzel; C: Bill Walker; L: Ronald Wallace; P: Hillard Elkins/Lester Osterman Productions/Bernard Delfont/Michael White b/a/w The English Stage Company, Ltd., in the Royal Court Theatre Production; T: Edison Theatre; 11/13/74-5/18/75 (52)

A two-man drama “devised” as a collaborative effort by South Africa’s greatest playwright, Athol Fugard, and two Black countrymen of his, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, with the latter pair’s improvisations used as the basis of plot and dialogue. It played in repertory with The Island, a similarly created work. Both plays came to Broadway after a successful stay at London’s Royal Court Theatre.

These were political plays reflective of the crushing agony endured by millions of South African Blacks under the burden of apartheid. The creators were all members of a Port Elizabeth drama troupe, the Serpent Players, founded in 1961.

A gripping, if slow moving, 45-minute monologue spoken by Styles (Kani) opens the work, as he comments, in a seeming improvisation, on newspaper headlines and recounts the story of how he had progressed from a Ford motor plant assembly line to an entrepreneur with his own little photography studio in Port Elizabeth. Part of the monologue requires participation from several audience members. Styles is interrupted by the arrival of a customer, Sizwe Banzi (Ntshona), a Black man from a small country town, who has come to the city to find work so he can support his family back home.

At first Sizwe says he wants a photo to send to his wife and children. As the play progresses, we learn via flashback that his need for the photo is for another reason. Having realized that his identification passbook contains a stamp making his continued presence in Port Elizabeth illegal, he conspires with a friend, Buntu (Kani, again), to steal the passbook of a dead man they have come across and to assume his identity and job. Sizwe wants Styles to take a photo that he can place in the dead man’s passbook.

Though the play took some time to get going, it gradually grew more and more involving, “and the sheer dramatic force of the piece bounced around the theatre like angry thunderbolts of pain,” declared Clive Barnes. There were very strong encouragements voiced for the incisive indictment of South Africa’s inhumane policies whereby a man is reduced to no more than a number and a passbook, yet where men like Styles and Sizwe Banzi continue to uphold the principles of human pride and dignity.

Both Kani and Ntshona received accolades for their full-bodied portrayals; they even shared the Tony for Best Actor, Play (for both this play and The Island). Here is Harold Clurman on their contributions:

The acting is the word become flesh; we are hardly able to differentiate between text and performances. John Kani, in both instances, plays the ‘leader,” the more knowledgeably articulate one; Winston Ntshona the more naively puzzled one. Kani is all driving impulse, which might render him breathless if he were not propelled by extraordinary energy. . . . The effect of his passion is joyful. It inspires confidence, not only in but in mankind itself.


Ntshona is charming in his confusion; though he must struggle to understand, we are sure that his instincts will lead to the right action. Technically he is more of a character actor than Kani, but his characterizations spring spontaneously from his inner being, so his effects are as natural as Kani’s. Both these men have acted together since their boyhood. They are now more than a term; together they have become emblematic of a people. Such acting carries primitive force; it is clear, sharp, seemingly free of any “aesthetic” premeditation. 

The play itself was Tony nominated, as was Fugard for Best Director, Play (including The Island).


Thursday, February 25, 2021

481. 6 RMS RIV VU. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Jane Alexander, Jerry Orbach. (Photos: Friedman-Abeles, Secunda/Zarmati.)
6 RMS RIV VU [Comedy/Marriage/Romance] A: Bob Randall; D: Edwin Sherin; S: William Ritman; C: Ann Roth; L: Marc B. Weiss; P: Alexander H. Cohen and Bernard Delfont; T: Helen Hayes Theatre; 10/17/72-5/19/73 (247)

Jerry Orbach, Jane Alexander.

A moderately successful rom-com that reminded various reviewers of a typical Neil Simon play. It became a regular visitor at stock and dinner theatres for years. Its simple situation involves an attractive man, Paul Friedman (Jerry Orbach), and woman, Anne Miller (Jane Alexander), each married to someone else, who meet while examining an Upper West Side apartment for rent. They get locked in by accident when the super (Joe Ocasio) removes the doorknob, thinking the place empty. Naturally, they fall for each other, but eventually decide to return to their respective spouses.

Jane Alexander, Ron Harper, Jennifer Warren, Jerry Orbach.

The strange title refers to the abbreviated real estate listing of the sort then common in newspapers (six rooms, river view). Bob Randall’s comedy had many funny gag lines, but most critics found it eventually grew tiresome, lacking enough wit and invention to keep the plot’s wheels turning for very long.

Jerry Orbach.

The characters were “unbearably dull” to Douglas Watt, and T.E. Kalem found them, like the play, somewhat undernourished. Cast members included Ron Harper as Anne’s husband, Jennifer Warren as Paul’s wife, and, in the brief role of “Expectant Father,” F. Murray Abraham. The 1974 TV movie starred Carol Burnett and Alan Alda.

Francine Beers, Jerry Orbach.

Despite its slightness, Richard Watts liked the play’s “humor, freshness, and charm,” and Martin Gottfried believed it a “perfectly charming entertainment, sexy, romantic and funny.” For most, Orbach and Alexander provided just the right touches to help the piece keep its head above water for the better part of the season. Clive Barnes captured their contributions:

Mr. Orbach has a strangled grace, a way of hesitating in midthought, and a special awkwardness that could only have been brought on by a severe attack of adolescent acne. He is perfect in this role of an advertising copywriter who is wondering whether there is just a little more to life than advertising copy. And in Jane Alexander he finds the ideal match. Miss Alexander, hiding behind dark glasses and beneath floppy hats on her way to an unlooked‐for middle age, is sensitive, vulnerable and oddly realistic.

Alexander received a Tony nomination, Randall got a Drama Desk Award as Most Promising Playwright, and Jennifer Warren won a Theatre World Award.

Jerry Orbach, Jane Alexander.


Wednesday, February 24, 2021


Poster for movie version of Love on the Dole.

For the latest installment in my series, ONTHIS DAY IN NEW YORK THEATER, please click on Theater Life.

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

Alvin Ing, Lee Beery, Johanna Albrecht, Gilbert Price, Gail Nelson, Hal Watters.
SIX [Musical Revue] B/M/LY: Charles Strouse; D: Peter Coe; S: Richard Nelson; P: Slade Brown; T: Cricket Playhouse (OB); 4/12/71-4/18/71 (8)

Six talented young performers –Johanna Albrecht, Lee Beery, Alvin Ing, Gail Nelson, Gilbert Prie, and Hal Watters—were trapped in this Off-Broadway show. Obviously, it had no connection to the Covid-delayed, much anticipated arrival on Broadway of the identically titled British musical about the wives of Henry VIII. (The most noteworthy performer in the six-member cast was baritone Gilbert Price, who earned three Tony nominations.)

Six was an ill-fated revue in which various topical subjects were sung about in a presentation that lasted not much more than an hour. As Edith Oliver expressed it, librettist, composer, and lyricist Charles Strouse—creator of such hits as Bye Bye Birdie, Applause, and Annie—put too strong a reliance on “abstract thought” when dealing with subjects like “life, love, birth and death.”

Clive Barnes found Strouse’s lyrics “simplistic, the tone pretentious, and the music unoriginal.” He observed:

The lyrics make such commendable statements as: “Life is to Live. Life is to die. Life is to sing. Life is to cry.” Right on, baby—tell it as it is. There are some decently simplistic political comments such as: “The white man kills the Indian. Hitler kills the Jew.” And a few social meanderings such as: “Everyone's a suicide—it is just a question of when.” Well, yes.

For those old enough to remember a certain TV critic of yore, Barnes’s conclusion might be worth a gander:

Strangely, for me the most dramatic figure of the evening was my colleague Stewart Klein—he works on one of those TV channels — stolidly chewing gum in the front row. That man chews superbly. It could almost be set to music.

The Cricket, in case you're wondering, was located at 162 Second Avenue, between E. 10th and E. 11th Streets.




Tuesday, February 23, 2021

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

Michael Calkins, Emily Bindiger, Gale Garnett, Nicholas Surovy, Leonard Cohen, Pamela Paluzzi, Rosemary Radcliffe. 

SISTERS OF MERCY [Musical Revue] CN/D: Gene Lesser; M/LY: Leonard Cohen; ADD. M: Zizi Mueller; S: Robert U. Taylor; C: Carrie F. Robbins; L: Spence Mosse; P: Martin J Machat b/s/a/w Lucille Lortel Productions; T: Theatre de Lys (OB); 9/25/73-10/7/73 (15)

Described as “a musical journey into the words of Leonard Cohen,” Sisters of Mercy, based on the writings of the contemporary Canadian poet, singer, and songwriter, received tepid notices and quickly vanished. The material was arranged in a way that made the evening appear an autobiographical excursion into the hip young entertainer’s life, with its focus on the irresistible attraction he had for women, and his remarkable sexual powers.

This “ego trip” of a revue (what would later be called a “juke box musical”), wrote Clive Barnes, displayed what many then thought was Cohen’s doubtful prowess as a writer and composer, although Barnes acknowledged that he greatly enjoyed the production. To Brendan Gill it was “a droopy show,” and to John Simon there was “a paucity of insight and genuine feeling,” a dearth of wit and musicality.

The six-member cast included Gale Garnett, Emily Bindiger, Michael Calkins, Nicholas Surovy, Pamela Paluzzi, and Rosemary Radcliffe. Among the 20 songs were “”Winter Lady,” “War Song,” “Bird on a Wire,” “TonightWill Be Fine,” “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” “The Singer Must Die,” “Suzanne,” “Love Calls You By Your Name,” “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” “Sisters of Mercy,” and “So Long, Marianne.”

Respect for Cohen’s talent, of course, would grow and, when he died in 2016, his work was regarded with reverence, particular affection being expressed for his ubiquitous song, “Hallelujah ” which was first recorded in 1984, more than a decade after Sisters of Mercy closed.

Monday, February 22, 2021


Zohra Lampert, Hal Linden.
THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW [Dramatic Revival] A: Lorraine Hansberry; AD: Robert Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg; M: Gary William Friedman; LY: Ray Errol Fox; D: Alan Schneider; S: William Ritman; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Richard Nelson; P: Robert Renfield; T: Longacre Theatre; 1/26/72-1/29/72 (5)

Hal Linden, Zohra Lampert.

This first New York revival of the late Lorraine Hansberry’s unsuccessful 1964 drama “about idealism, liberalism and not selling‐out,” as Clive Barnes described it, had a powerful cast and a renowned director. Still, it emerged an egregious, five-performance failure. Although containing some strong and theatrically vivid writing, the play’s inherent weaknesses were not assisted by what most critics agreed was a misguided production. Julius Novick wrote that this was “not so much a production as an abortion. The pomposity and clumsiness . . . come through loud and clear; its urgency and sweetness and warmth have been extinguished.” 

William Atherton, Kelly Wood, Hal Linden.

Barnes added:

The story of Sidney's growing up — his disillusionment with fake liberal attitudes and his final determination to face the world on braver, more realistic terms — holds the interest, but unfortunately nothing entirely holds water. Why a sudden tragedy should lead him to reject a reform politician he has just helped with his weekly newspaper to get into Congress is never clearly explained.

Hal Linden was highly appreciated as Sidney, Zohra Lampert hit the bullseye as Iris Parodus Brustein, an aspiring actress, William Atherton excelled as David Ragin, a neurotic gay playwright, John Danelle was intense as a bitter Black revolutionary, Kelly Wood did well as a prostitute, and Frances Sternhagen, as Barnes described her, “was brightly amusing and brave as the oddly sympathetic square sister,” Mavis. She was good enough to garner a Tony nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and to place first in Variety's poll for a similar category. Dolph Sweet and Mason Adams were other well-known cast members.  

Frances Sternhagen, Hal Linden.

A major part of the problem was the muddled approach taken by the adaptors, one of them Hansberry’s widowed husband. (The play was unfinished when Hansberry died.) There was considerable updating of the language, thereby flattening the 60s’ ambience, and a number of intrusive songs sung by a “Woodstockian” quartet “who come on at intervals to stop the play dead in its untidy tracks,” as Brendan Gill reported. Dressing them in the hip garb of 1972 was another mistake, said some, as it clearly contradicted the period in which the play is set.

Sunday, February 21, 2021


Jack Somack, Jake Dengel.
THE SHRINKING BRIDE [Comedy/Business/Family/Jews/Romance] A: Jonathan Levy; D: Marvin Gordon; S: T.E. Mason; C: Joseph G. Aulisi; L: Molly Friedel; M: William Bolcom; LY: Jonathan Levy; P: Tony Capodilupo and John Fink; T: Mercury Theatre (OB); 1/17/71 (1)

A here-today, gone-tomorrow turkey billed as a “comedy with songs.” It was a zany near-musical farce about a wild bunch of characters, with a plot focusing on a very wealthy businessman named Cates, né Katz (Jack Somack), who is thinking of changing his name again, to Plantagenet. Cates has built his empire from his start as a Lower East Side pushcart peddler. He now resides in an ostentatiously vulgar, ersatz Hudson River castle named Tantamount Hall, where he hopes to shed his Jewish identity and mingle with snobbish WASP society.

His elder daughter (Louisa Flaningam) is to be married to a rich, upper-class young Brit named Delano Quince (Jake Dengel), but is such a shrinking violet she is forever fainting or hiding under a bear rug. Another daughter (Diane Simkin) is pregnant by the lecherous stable boy (Danny DeVito), who is studying in night school to be a butcher (he’s first in his class in lamb chops). Irritants are provided by the first daughter’s ex-husband (John Pleshette), a hippie artist, and Cate’s cynical brother (Joe Silver), who want him to get his mind off social climbing and back into business.

Martin Gottfried stood alone in defending this as a near-perfect farce, marred only by a too-sudden ending (Mel Gussow thought a third act had been cut off). Otherwise, it was “the funniest play” he had seen in years. Richard Watts concluded that “it would be flattering to call his humor merely infantile,” and Lee Silver termed the play “ridiculous” and hard to believe. Few wished to make the attempt and it closed after a single performance. 

Gussow wrote:

Mr. Levy has attempted to combine several styles and milieus. His play is something of a modern, period farce, and too much of a hybrid to be entirely satisfactory. It is the sort of mildly wild comedy that needs a consistency of vision and a quick pace that would soar right through the complex plot. Instead, as directed by Marvin Gordon, the action is overly busy. The humor arches into whimsy, each character has at least one gimmick and we are often reminded how crazy everything is, as ‘This house is like a zoo.’

Gussow, noting the presence of someone who would be this show’s greatest gift to contemporary entertainment, wrote: “He enters spitting on the estate's swans and telling the girl about real beauty: the N.C.O. club in Fort Lee, Va. He is an oaf, a buffoon, but he is very funny, particularly because of the zany performance by Danny DeVito.”

Saturday, February 20, 2021


William Hickey, David Selby, Cathryn Damon, Roberts Blossom, James Staley, Ralph Roberts.
SIAMESE CONNECTIONS [Drama/Crime/Family/Rural/Vietnam] A: Dennis Reardon; D: David Schweizer; S: Santo Loquasto; C: Nancy Adzima, Richard Graziano; L: Ian Calderon; M: Cathy McDonald; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Public Theater Annex (OB); 1/25/73-3/4/73 (64)

Dennis Reardon’s second play (originally seen in June 1972 at Off-Off Broadway's Actors Studio Theatre), came three years after his well-received The Happiness Cage. Unlike that maiden effort, it was heavily panned. Set on a rundown farm, it recounted the behavior of an evil young farmer, James (James Staley, played OOB by James Woods), who jealously hates everything about his brother, Franklin (David Selby), recently killed in Vietnam after stepping on a land mine.

Franklin was the family favorite and his envious brother now displays his pent-up venom by killing a sow, a hired hand, and his senile grandmother (ludicrously played in drag by William Hickey). He also seduces his brother’s girlfriend (Mary Hamill), allows his father (Roberts Blossom) to die of a heart attack, and manhandles his mother (Cathryn Damon). Throughout, the ghosts of the dead appear to the haunted James and talk to the living.

Reardon’s drearily dour drama was “pretty awful,” reported Clive Barnes, “extraordinarily lugubrious,” groaned Edith Oliver, “overwritten and overextended,” blasted Harold Clurman, and “very bad and very boring,” yawned John Simon. Here is Barnes on the production itself: “The acting and direction are for the most part as overhysterical as the work itself. David Schweizer has staged the play in a manner of heavyhanded melodrama, and the setting by Santo Loquasto is virtually unworkable.” R.I.P.



Friday, February 19, 2021

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

Tito Goya, Felipe Torres.
SHORT EYES [Drama/Crime/Homosexuality/Prison] A: Miguel Pinero; D: Marvin Felix Camillo; S: David Mitchell; C: Paul Martino; L: Spencer Mosse; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Public Theater/Florence S. Anspacher Theatre (OB); 2/28/74-4/14/74 (54); Vivian Beaumont Theatre; 5/23/74-8/4/74 (156) (total: 210)

Shocking for its time, Short Eyes is a nearly documentary drama of life in the dayroom of a New York City prison, written by a Puerto Rican ex-convict. It was first produced Off Broadway by a workshop group made up of other ex-cons called “The Family.” Its leader was director Marvin Felix Camillo. Joseph Papp moved it from its Off-Off mounting at the Theatre of the Riverside Church to a showing at the Public. He then startled his subscription audience at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in the pristine surroundings of Lincoln Center, where the play's vulgar language, deviant sexual behavior, and violent action proved deeply unsettling.

Robert Maroff, H. Richard Young.

A richly ambiguous play given a brilliantly veristic interpretation by a company that practically lived the story, Short Eyes paraded a diverse assortment of prisoners across the stage. Most were Black or Hispanic, but the white convict, Murphy (Joseph Carberry), and the newly admitted Clark Davis (William Carden), an alleged child molester, were central. Murphy sides with the insecure white prisoner against the darker-skinned thugs until he learns what Davis’s crime was. 

Child molestation is considered by the inmates the worst crime possible, one that instantly makes Davis a pariah among outcasts. Only Juan (Bimbo), a saintly Puerto Rican convict, shows him any compassion, although he, too, despises this “short eyes” (slang for child molester). Ultimately, the men gang up on Davis, and Murphy slits his throat.

Joseph Carberry, William Carden.

There is never a clear-cut case against the confused “Short Eyes,” for Pinero neither definitely establishes his guilt nor denies it. Pinero’s closely observed junkies, thieves, and murderers, his realistic and profane language, his striking confrontations, and his hangman’s humor made Short Eyes one of the most respected examples of its genre.

Hollis Barnes, Bimbo, Kenny Steward, Johnny Johnson, Tito Goya, Joseph Carberry, Robert Maroff, Ben Jefferson, Felipe Torres.

“His dialogue sizzles with truth,” wrote Clive Barnes, who was enthralled by the plotting, authenticity, and honesty. According to Walter Kerr, this otherwise powerful slice of jailhouse life was too close to its sources, lacking the objectivity to view them with unimpeded artistry: “it is the fact not the form that counts.” “Every harrowing moment of it bears the stamp of passionate feeling.” But John Simon considered it “effective theatre, well put together, tightly acted, and staged with forcefulness and variety.”

Bimbo, Joseph Carberry.

A rare negative responses came from Stanley Kauffmann, who accused the play of being too similar to a host of TV, film, and theatrical works depicting life behind bars.

Short Eyes won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and OBIE, while Miguel Pinero was given a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Playwright. Camillo won both an OBIE and a Drama Desk Award for his direction, while David Mitchell walked off with a Drama Desk Award for his set design.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

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

Philip Locke, John Wood. (Photos: Martha Swope.)

SHERLOCK HOLMES [Dramatic Revival] A: Arthur Conan Doyle and William Gillette; D: Frank Dunlop; S/C: Carl Toms; L: Neil Peter Jampolis; P: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in the Royal Shakespeare Company Production; T: Broadhurst Theatre; 11/12/74-1/4/76 (471)

Morgan Sheppard, Keith Taylor, Nicholas Selby, John Wood, Mel Martin.

An elaborate, highly successful revival of the 1899 crime melodrama in whose title role co-author William Gillette appeared on and off for 33 years. No one took the play seriously in 1974, but the cleverness of British director Frank Dunlop’s staging—he was one of the most consistently imaginative directors of the day—the gorgeousness of Carl Toms’s sets, and the acting of a thoroughly brilliant ensemble from Britain’s RSC had the critics turning cartwheels. “What a change to be able to recommend, yes, wholeheartedly, an inadequate play magnificently staged. Miraculous,” beamed Clive Barnes.

Nicholas Selby, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, John Wood, Mel Martin.

Sherlock Holmes, about an archetypal confrontation between the super-sleuth of Baker Street (John Wood, replaced by John Neville) and his masterfully dangerous archenemy, Professor Moriarty (Philip Locke, replaced by Patrick Horgan and Clive Revill), was played with all the straightforward panache required of a 19th-century thriller set in the fog-shrouded streets and book-lined lodgings of horse-and-carriage London. A touch of spoofery hung in the air, but ever so gently, never threatening to crash leadenly to the ground.

John Wood, Clive Revill.

The revolving sets were realistically and solidly built, recalling the Broadway of pre-movie years. The precision pacing, intriguingly detailed characterizations, authentically costumed characters, imaginatively conceived lighting and mood-setting violin and cello music were like a rich sundae topped by Woods’s virtuoso acting. T.E. Kalem wrote

If any of us lives to see a more perfect embodiment of Sherlock Holmes than that offered by John Wood, it will only be by some special dispensation of Thespis. . . . Wood belongs among the top dozen actors of the English-speaking stage. His voice is an organ of incisive command. He moves with the lithe, menacing grace of a puma. In an instant, he can range from partygoer prankishness to inner desolation. At the core of his being is a raging, inviolate perfectionist.

There have been, of course, more Sherlocks since this production, primarily on TV and in films. Would Kalem have revised his opinion had he seen, for instance, Benedict Cumberbatch? (Let’s leave Robert Downey, Jr., out of the convo, shall we?)

The large company also included Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Nicholas Selby, Mel Martin, Trevor Peacock, and Tim Pigott-Smith, all of whom were replaced during the run.

Wood was nominated for a Best Actor, Play, Tony, but lost to John Kane and Winston Ntshona who shared the award for Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island. Locke also received a nomination, for Best Supporting Actor. Carl Toms won both the Tony for Best Scenic Designer and the comparable award from the Drama Desk. Lighting designer Neil Peter Jampolis also took home both a Tony and a Drama Desk Award



Wednesday, February 17, 2021

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

John Cullum, David Russell, Joseph Shapiro, Donna Theodore, Joel Higgins, Ted Agress, Penelope Milford, Gordon Halliday.
[Musical/Family/Period/War] B: James Lee Barrett, Peter Udell, and Philip Rose; M: Gary Geld; LY: Peter Udell; SC: James Lee Barrett’s screenplay, Shenandoah; D: Philip Rose; CH: Robert Tucker; S: C. Murawski; C: Pearl Somner, Winn Morton; L: Thomas Skelton; P: Philip Rose, Gloria and Louis K. Sher; T: Alvin Theatre; 1/7/75-8/7/77 (1,050)

John Cullum, Donna Theodore.

Screenwriter James Lee Barrett participated in the crafting of the book for this hit musical version of his eponymous 1965 James Stewart film. First staged at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House, Shenandoah struck most New York critics as an old-fashioned musical (Howard Kissell called it “simpleminded” and Martin Gottfried thought it “corny”), a kind of ersatz Rodgers and Hammerstein, which did not, however, hinder it from a long run.

John Cullum, Penelope Milford.

Set at the time of the Civil War, it follows the adventures of pacifist Virginia farmer Charlie Anderson (John Cullum in a career-defining performance) and his family, living in the Shenandoah Valley. Charlie, opposed to allowing his six sons to get involved in the conflict, suddenly finds himself enmeshed in it when his youngest, Robert (Joseph Shapiro), is kidnapped by Union soldiers. Leaving his daughter, Jenny (Penelope Milford), eldest son, James (Joel Higgins), and James's wife, Anne (Donna Theodore), on the homestead, he and his other sons go off in search of the missing child, wreaking havoc on Union trains wherever they go. Finally, after Anne, James, and another son, Jacob (Ted Agress), have been slain, the defeated Charlie comes home and, with his remaining brood, goes to church. There, the ragged little Robert comes limping in as the congregation sings a rousing hymn.

This sentimental, but certainly moving, tale was told in episodic scenes incorporating music ranging “from hymns to lullabies to country tunes to love songs to elegiac meditations,” wrote Jack Kroll. It was danced in a pre-Agnes DeMille style of thumbs tucked in overalls with lots of vigorous knee and thigh-slapping and hollering. Several critics approved the moral fervor of the show and its attempted return to an American musical method exemplified by classics such as Oklahoma!, but few were wholeheartedly supportive of it.

John Cullum and company.

Kroll argued that it was not simply a schmaltzy show, but a decent stab at making a musical out of “simple, clear, strong blocks of human feeling.” Its major flaw, he felt, was an intellectual frailty. Clive Barnes also considered it relatively successful: “it is nice to have a show around that not only dares to be tuneful but is even willing to throw in a morsel of moral uplift.” “In spite of yourself you get a catch in the throat,” added Edwin Wilson. Although T.E. Kalem admitted that it was “all sentimentally endearing,” he pointed out that “it marks one giant step backward for the American musical.” “It’s all so cornshuckingly, fingerlickingly, hornswogglingly folksy,” snapped John Simon, “that any stomach unturned by it can be sold as show leather.”

Choice targets were what Gottfried dubbed the “crude book,” or what Douglas Watt labeled the “dumb story,” not to mention the “insipid” songs. Barnes noted that the film, because of its expanded scope, told the story more potently, an advantage not challenged by the undistinguished staging. Howard Kissel claimed that the design gave the show the air of “a high-school pageant.”

Songs included “Raise the Flag of Dixie,” “I’ve Heard It All Before,” “Pass the Cross to Me,” “Next to Lovin’ I Like Fightin’,” “Over the Hill,” “Meditation” “Violets and Silverbells,” “Papa’s Gonna Make It Alright,” and “The Only Home I Know,” among others.

There was little negative response to the performances. As Charlie, John Cullum came into his own as a Broadway musical leading man. Kroll thought he had “probably the best singing voice on the American stage.” Barnes said he “can even make partially convincing some maudlin conversations with the grave of his wife, and the warmth, tone and characterization of his voice are exemplary.” Simon, however, thought “his acting is all Broadway commonplaces.”

Shenandoah was a relatively rare example of hit musical that managed to overcome tepid reviews to run for over 1,000 performances. It also garnered much official recognition, gaining Tony nominations for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Supporting Actress (Donna Theodore), and Best Choreography. Cullum took home the Tony for Best Actor, Musical, as well as an Outer Critics Circle Award for Distinguished Performance. Chip Ford, who played Gabriel, an African-American child, received an Outer Critics Circle Award for Notable Performance by a Young Player. And Donna Theodore won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical, the first person to receive this recognition, as previous Drama Desk Awards did not differentiate between the sexes or whether a performance was in a play or musical.


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

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

Joanna Merlin, Susan Browning, Marcia Rodd, Terry Kiser.

SHELTER [Musical/Advertising/Marriage/Romance] B/LY: Gretchen Cryer; M: Nancy Ford; D: Austin Pendleton; CH: Sammy Bayes; S/C: Tony Walton; L: Richard Pilbrow; P: Richard Fields and Peter Flood; T: John Golden Theatre; 2/6/73-3/3/73 (31)

Terry Kiser, Marcia Rodd.

This was the type of musical critics described with words like “likable,” “amiable,” “pleasing,” and “engaging,” as if it were a puppy, not a show. It concerns a philandering young TV ad writer named Michael (Terry Kiser) who sees his wife and seven adopted kids only on weekends, and resides during the week in the special effects set used for the commercials he creates. With him is Arthur, a marvelous computer that, at the touch of a button, can created projected scenic backgrounds appropriate for any mood or climate desired. (This prescient notion is now common in both theatre and on TV.) Arthur can also do a host of other useful feats, including singing many of the show’s songs.

Michael seduces a young actress, Maud (Marcia Rodd), is disturbed the next morning by another of his bed friends, a cleaning woman named Wednesday November (Susan Browning), and finally must face his supportive, understanding, but firm, wife, Gloria (Joanna Merlin).

There were some decidedly effective ideas in play here (many of them scenic and technical), and the performances were bright and amusing. However, the critics were mostly disappointed, opining that the show failed to come together in a consistent blend.

Clive Barnes liked the “generally neat” lyrics, and found the “undemanding soft-rock [music] with lots of electronic sound . . . attractive.” Douglas Watt said the book was “gratingly mannered and senseless,” the lyrics “foolish,” and “The music in no better.” Martin Gottfried described Shelter as “an unmusical and an undramatic play.” Several others were annoyed by the unpleasant character of the spoiled, unstable, womanizing hero. One or two felt that a more positive women’s lib approach might have helped.

Creators Cryer (mother of actor Jon Cryer) and Ford, pathbreakers in being, reportedly, the first female lyricist-composer team on and Off-Broadway, would bounce back five years later (1978) with their best-known show, the popular I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road.

Monday, February 15, 2021

472. SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975.

Jane Connell, Tom V.V. Tammi, Arlene Nadel, Louis G. Trapani. (Photos: Paul H. Hoeffler)

SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER [Dramatic Revival] A: Oliver Goldsmith; D: Gene Feist; S: Holmes Easley; C: Mimi Maxmen; L: Robert Murphy; P: Roundabout Repertory Company; T: Roundabout Theatre (OB); 4/25/71-5/30/71 (36)

Jane Connell, Fred Stuthman.

This was a moderately effective revival of Goldsmith’s 1773 town and country comedy—a satire of the era’s sentimental comedy style—about deceptions practiced in a country home. The chief victim of the foolery is Young Marlowe (Robert G. Murch), who is convinced by Kate Hardcastle (Nancy Reardon) that her home is an inn and she a serving wench. The Roundabout’s 1971 production (done in an intimate basement theatre) is not to be confused with the company’s 1984 revival in a larger venue, with a different cast and director.

Jack Kroll enjoyed it enough to say, “With revivals like this, who needs new plays?” Mel Gussow considered the production “surprisingly good,” with only a few “weaknesses,” among which were “an uneven acting company, [and] a barrage of accents.” Gene Feist’s staging was adept and the period flavor appropriate, but “the true character values are squashed, squelched and suppressed,” Gussow added. There was also an unfortunate busyness to the production, including too much “unfunny and irrelevant” business. Holmes Easley’s set, though, was anything but busy, being little more than two straight-backed chairs, with the visual emphasis placed on Mimi Maxmen’s sumptuous period costumes.

Jane Connell, fighting hard to separate herself from the indelible image she created as Agnes Gooch in Auntie Mame, was “inspired” casting in the secondary but fruitful role of Mrs. Hardcastle, wrote Gussow. “Somehow, in the course of her years of playing contemporary comedy, she has become a first-rate classical character actress. She strides through this production with grace and confidence, never playing for laughs, but getting most of them. Tricked into getting lost on her own property . . . , she explodes—not into a screech of self-pity, but into a quiet rumble. When she softly moans, ‘I shall remember the horse-pond as long as I live,’ one knows that she will.”

Others in the cast included Fred Stuthman as Mr. Hardcastle, Louis G. Trapani as Tony Lumpkin, Philip Campanella as the comic servant Diggory, Arlene Nadel as Miss Neville, and, among others, Tom V.V. Tammi as Hastings.


Sunday, February 14, 2021


Shay Duffin.
SHAY DUFFIN AS BRENDAN BEHAN [Solo/Biographical/Irish/Literarature] AD: Shay Duffin; SC: Writings of Brendan Behan; D: Dennis Hayes; S: Shay Duffin, Joe Behan; L: Joe Behan; P: Signature Productions; T: Abbey Theatre (OB); 1/2/73-3/18/73 (89)

A one-act show with Irish actor Shay Duffin as the rowdy, bawdy, alcoholic pub-crawling Irish poet and playwright Brendan Behan (1923-1964), who died too young to have left an extensive literary legacy. Selections from Behan’s writings and songs were offered by a husky actor who barely resembled the late writer, but whose affection for him came through in the effective choices and arrangements of the presentation. As Mel Gussow observed, “Shay Duffin . . . does not look like Behan—as, for example, Niall Toibin did', exactly, in the stage adaptation of Borstal Boy.” Duffin’s performance was “adequate,” wrote Edith Oliver, even “amiable,” to quote Gussow, but nothing special.

Duffin played the piece as though Behan were regaling the audience from a seat in a favorite pub, and he drank healthy draughts of stout throughout the evening. On opening night, at least, stout was also served to audience members. He moved into his own person occasionally, but would quickly resume the Behan impersonation. Said Gussow, “This stage Behan reveals himself as an earthy, roguish sort who cannot resist a bad joke, and who often makes up a good one. More than occasionally, he sings a lyric, such as 'There's no place on earth like the world.' Duffin's voice is good, and so is the accordion accompaniment of Barney McNelis.”

This was only one of several similar one-man shows in which actors portrayed the Irish writer, most recently 2013’s Brendan at the Chelsea.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

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

Bruce French, John Heffernan.
THE SHADOW OF A GUNMAN [Dramatic Revival] A: Sean O’Casey; D: Philip Minor; S: Lloyd Burlingame; L: Fred Allison; P: Norman Kean and John Heffernan; T: Sheridan Square Playhouse (OB); 2/29/72-4/30/72 (72)

This revival of O’Casey’s 1923 tragicomic satire on the response of a diverse group of Dublin tenement dwellers to the Irish-British political strife of 1920 was received with attitudes ranging from warm to chilly. Responses ranged from positive to reserved, a major problem being the lack of a strong ensemble and consistently effective brogues.

Clive Barnes and Harold Clurman were supportive, the former calling the show “a handsome revival” and its acting “very sound,” with “the authentic Irish lilt.” Clurman rated it “the best acted” of the three versions he had seen. Douglas Watt termed the revival “creditable,” while Edith Oliver was bothered by the shaky dialects; still the play came “through unimpeded.” John Simon and Arthur Sainer, however, ranked it as “a poor production.”

Star and co-producer John Heffernan, playing Seamus Shields, was liked by several, but turned down by the majority, while Bernard Frawley, a native-born Irishman, gained kudos for his Mr. Gallagher. Others on hand included Leon Russum as Donal Davoren, Joseph Daly as Mr. Maguire, James Carruthers as Mr. Mulligan, Bruce French as Tommy Owen, Jacqueline Coslow as Minnie Powell, Paddy Croft as Mrs. Henderson, Estelle Owens as Mrs. Grigson, and James Gallery as Adolphus Grigson.

Friday, February 12, 2021

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

Harvey Evans, Mary Small, Robert Spenser, Dixie Carter, Jerry Lanning.
SEXTET [Musical/Homosexuality/Sex] B: Harvey Perr and Lee Goldsmith; M: Lawrence Hurwit: LY: Lee Goldsmith; D/CH: Jered Barclay; S: Peter Harvey; C: Zoe Brown; L: Marc B. Weiss; P: Balemar Productions, and Lawrence E. Sokol; T: Bijou Theatre; 3/3/74-3/10/74 (9)

An intimate six-character musical that many considered a derivative of the successful Stephen Sondheim-Hal Prince show Company, but without that classic’s finesse and genius. In Sextet, the characters are guests at a dinner party given by two gay men, Kenneth (Harvey Evans) and David (Robert Spencer). There are David’s stereotypical widowed Jewish mother, Fay (Mary Small), her salesman date, Paul (John Newton), David’s straight, ex-college roommate, Leonard (Jerry Lanning), and Leonard’s wife, Ann (Dixie Carter, who would have a successful career, including the TV series, “Designing Women”). As the evening progresses, the various sexual attitudes and feelings among the six are gradually disclosed.

“In the end,” Martin Gottfried commented, “they discover . . . that they’re stuck with who they are.” He also described how the show’s nonlinear construction allowed it to layer and mix the dialogue. “One character talks to a second, who responds to a third who reacts to a fourth.”

In turning thumbs down Clive Barnes remarked that the show suffered from a dearth of humor and, while pleasantly modest, a “faintly familiar” score. He cited a scene touched on by several others as the show’s funniest, when the square salesman smokes a joint and blows smoke rings with it. Edith Oliver called it a “frail little musical,” and Douglas Watt regarded it “more with pity than outright displeasure.” Richard Watts, however, called it “amiable and quite agreeable,” while Gottfried, the most positive reviewer, was captivated what he considered a “clever and straight and musical and funny and unusual and fine show.”

Like others, Barnes picked Carter as the standout performer: “I liked best Dixie Carter as Ann, because she looks pretty, plays a trumpet and does a Grouch Marx impersonation.”


Dorothy McGuire, Donald Cook, Frances Starr in Claudia.
For the latest installment fn my series, "On This Day in New York Theater," please click on THEATER LIFE.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

468. 70, GIRLS, 70. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975.

Gil Lamb, Mildred Natwick, Hans Conreid.
70, GIRLS, 70 [Musical/Crime/Old Age] B: F,red Ebb and Norman L. Martin (AD: Joe Masteroff); M: John Kander; LY: Fred Ebb; D: Paul Aaron; CH: Onna White; S/L: Robert Randolph; C: Jane Greenwood; P: Arthur Whitelaw i/a/w Seth Harrison; T: Broadhurst Theatre; 4/15/71-5/15/71 (36)

Jay Velie, Coley Worth, Lillian Roth, Thomas Anderson, Joey Faye.

One of several 1970s shows that focused on elderly people, 70, Girls, 70 had a plot that reflected that of the movie Make Mine Mink (although not credited as such). A group of septuagenarians residing in a seedy Upper West Side retirement hotel are inspired by one of their number (Mildred Natwick) to become a gang of shop-lifting thieves. Natwick’s character eventually is caught and dies. She returns for the finale, however, seated on a crescent moon in heaven. (No, she did not say, "The Great Work Begins.")

Most of the cast was Social Security-eligible, but one reviewer thought Natwick, 66, looked too young for her role. She was good enough, however, to earn a Tony nomination for Best Actress, Musical. Supporting her were names such as Hans Conreid, Sally De May, Henrietta Jacobson, Lillian Roth, Joey Faye, Tommy Breslin, Coley Worth, Lucie Lancaster, Jay Velie, among others.

Coley Worth, Lucie Lancaster, Mildred Natwick, Joey Faye.

Reviews were mixed, but no one was over that crescent moon for it. Harold Clurman shook his head at this “loony, corny, untidy affair,” yet noted that it had “a freshness of feeling, . . . an elation of craftsmanship. . . . One must be marvelously uptight not to enjoy the fling.” Clive Barnes also had reservations, but appreciated the show’s “refreshingly unsentimental attitude to . . . the aged,” its occasionally “bright music and lyrics, and “natural warmth and happiness.”

The downside carried the day, however. Douglas Watt, for one, called the show “about as enlivening an affair as a New Year’s Eve party thrown by the members of the St. Petersburg shuffle board club.” Martin Gottfried even walked out, claiming it was “the sloppiest musical” he had ever seen.

Henrietta Jacobson, Tommy Breslin.

Kander and Ebb, the score writers, were already Broadway stars, especially for Cabaret. Here they offered 15 songs, some of their titles being “Old Folks,” “Broadway, My Street,” “The Caper,” “Hit It, Lorraine,” “Boom, Ditty Boom,” “70, Girls, 70,” and “Yes.” Most are still known mainly by show biz geeks, who appear--from initial reactions to this entry--to be more abundant than one might have imagined.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021


Katherine Cornell in Candida.

For the latest installment of my series, "Leiter Looks Back," this one covering revivals of 1924-1925, please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.


Kay Cole. (Photos: Michael Childers.)

SGT, PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND ON THE ROAD [Musical/Romance/Show Business/Youth] CN/AD: Robin Wagner and Tom O’Horgan; M/LY: John Lennon and Paul McCartney; D: Tom O’Horgan; S: Robin Wagner, Randy Barcelo; L: Jules Fisher; P: Robert Stigwood i/a/w Brian Avnet and Scarab Productions, Inc.; T: Beacon Theatre; 11/17/74-1/5/75 (66)

Ted Neeley, Alaina Reed, and company.

The gargantuan proclivities of theatricalist director Tom O’Horgan grew ever more tiresome to the critics in the mid-70s. His work hit a low point with this juke box musical, described by Mel Gussow as an “inflated production” suffering from “elephantiasis.” Produced at a large, Upper West Side venue formerly a movie house but increasingly used for concerts and special events, it attempted to animate the stage with a psychedelic interpretation of the Beatles’ popular 1967 rock music album.

The original 12 songs on the “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” disc were supplemented by 17 additional Lennon-McCartney numbers. To meld the disparate songs into a unity of sorts, a transparent plot was grafted onto the score, but the glue failed to hold and the pieces fell apart.

O’Horgan’s fragile, dialogue-less book tells of how the ambitious young rock star Billy Shears (Ted Neeley) is corrupted through the machinations of the three contract-bearing, androgynously-dressed Hammermen (Allan Nicholls, William Parry, and B.G. Gibson). This group that seemed to Martin Gottfried “to represent the show’s point that the business end of pop music killed the Beatles.” Along the way, Billy’s romance with Strawberry Fields (Kay Cole) and temptation by Lucy (Alaina Reed, who received the best reviews) are also depicted.

The clichéd story was expressed through Robin Wagner’s spectacular props and Jules Fisher’s extravagant lighting. Huge, white balloons on which slides could be projected; gigantic puppets, including a hand that danced; an octopus; an enormous jar of mustard; and a 20-foot tall Statue of Liberty were among the scenic elements that led T.E. Kalem to accuse the show of being ill with “the metastasis of spectacle over substance.” He was angry at how the excellent music had been “trampled under the dreck of Tom O’Horgan’s grimagination,” and called the show a “decadent nightmare.”

Gottfried thought Sgt. Pepper “a clumsy concert with dance movement and Thanksgiving parade props. It is leaden and cheap,” while Gussow reiterated how little of anything new had been contributed from the “attic” of O’Horgan’s creativity.

In addition to the title song, the playlist included "With a Little Help from my Friends," "Nowhere Man," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "I Want You," "Come Together," "Sun Queen," "Lovely Rita," "Polythene Pam," "She Came in through the Bathroom Window," "You Never Give Me Your Money," "Her Majesty," "A Day in the Life," "She's Leaving Home," "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Getting Better," "Because," "When I'm 64," "Good Morning, Good Morning," "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," "Oh, Darling," "Fixing a Hole," "Mean Mr. Mustard," "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," "Carry that Weight," "Golden Slumbers," "The Long and Winding Road," and "Get Back."