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 From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975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 ingĂ©nue 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 From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975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


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

Tuesday, March 23, 2021


“SUGAR-MOUTH SAM DON’T DANCE NO MORE” and “ORRIN” [Drama/Drugs/Family/One-Acts/Race/Romance] A: Don Evans; D: Helaine Head; P: Negro Ensemble Company; T: St. Marks Playhouse (OB); 5/6/75-5/11/75 (8)

Note: No photos of this production are available.

This pair of one-acts was produced by the Negro Ensemble Company as part of their month-long 1975 “Season-Within-a-Season” festival of workshop productions. They were “small and predictable,” wrote Mel Gussow, but had “a sharpness in the writing, embellished by the performances.”

Both plays had prodigal characters attempting to make homecomings. The title character in “Orrin” (Taurean Blacque), a drug dealer/junkie, was kicked out of his middle-class Philadelphia home by his moralistic dad (Carl Gordon). He returns uninvited eight months later, his presence proving disruptive.

Sam (also Carl Gordon) in “Sugar-Mouth Sam Don’t Dance No More” has been having an erratic love affair with Verda Mae Hollis (Lea Scott) for years. He returns to her place yet one more time to rekindle the flame before he again departs, Tired of his infidelity, Verda Mae's sense of womanly independence emerges.

Like Gussow, Edith Oliver saw value in these short plays, especially in their character depiction.

Next up: Suggs

Monday, March 22, 2021

507. SUGAR. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 197O-1975

Sheila Smith (left, with baton), Tony Roberts, Robert Morse, and company
SUGAR [Musical/Crime/Period/Romance/Show Business] B: Peter Stone; M: Jule Styne; LY: Bob Merrill; SC: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay, Some Like it Hot (from a Robert Thornton story); D/CH: Gower Champion; S: Robin Wagner; C: Alvin Colt; L: Martin Aronstein; P: David Merrick; T: Majestic Theatre; 4/9/72-6/23/73 (515)

Cyril Ritchard, Tony Roberts.

A musical version of Some Like It Hot, the ever-popular, crossdressing, 1959 film farce, set in the Roaring Twenties, in which Elaine Joyce, Tony Roberts, and Robert Morse took the roles immortalized on screen by Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. It came into New York after expensive out-of-town revisions, including the replacement of the book writer, as well as of both the set designer and his set. Cast changes and production doctoring were other remedies applied to the ailing show. 

Robert Morse, Tony Roberts, Sheila Smith (right)

For all its troubles, the show had a fairly robust run while failing to satisfy many critics. For most, it was an elaborate, colorful show of what Julius Novick deemed “deeply mediocre” quality. It was, he added, “smooth, polished, professional, safe, and not very interesting.” “It doesn’t work as a musical,” claimed Clive Barnes, who, like various others, thought its performances the chief reason for a visit. Sugar, he remarked, “Had a dearth of jokes, a shortage of wit and a scarcity of verbal humor that is almost remarkable.” John Simon, on the other hand, believed its many weaknesses were made up for by its being “the most diverting, stylishly mounted, smoothly acted, brilliantly staged and endearingly danced [non-musical musical] in many a season.”

Composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill, both Broadway A-listers, were accorded little but condescension for what Brendan Gill labeled their “workmanlike and old-fashioned” score, Walter Kerr, however, found pleasure in the music’s authentic period sound and in the energetic title song. The other numbers were “Windy City Marmalade,” “Penniless Bums,” “Tear the Town Apart,” “The Beauty that Drives Men Mad,” “We Could Be Close,” “Sun on My Face,” “November Song,” “Hey, Why Not!,” “Beautiful Through and Through,” “What Do You Give to a Man Who’s Had Everything?,” “Magic Nights,” “It’s Always Love,” and “When You Meet a Man in Chicago.”

Robert Morse, Elaine Joyce.
The familiar plot tells of two jobless Chicago musicians, Jerry (Morse) and Joe (Roberts), who are on the lam after witnessing the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. They disguise themselves as performers in an all-girl band, where each falls for singer Sugar Kane (Joyce), a simpleminded blonde with her heart set on marrying a millionaire. In the course of the action, a rich old lech (Cyril Ritchard, Joe. E. Brown in the movie) pursues Jerry, thinking him female, of course, with intentions of marriage. Ultimately, the pursuing gangsters are disposed of and Joe gets Sugar.

The attractive Elaine Joyce and the appealing Tony Roberts were sweetly but not very enthusiastically received. Robert Morse’s performance, despite being slapped for too much mugging, was the big attraction, especially for a hilarious scene in which Ritchard tried ardently to seduce him. 

Master showman Gower Champion’s work, which inspired Simon to comment that it “was one of the few consummate pieces of musical staging I have witnessed,” demonstrated great inventiveness in many routines, like the staccato tap dance performed by chief gangster Spats Palazzo (Steve Condos). On the other hand, it was noted that Champion offered insufficient musical staging for the singing numbers. T.E. Kalem, unimpressed, thought “the dances could be inserted in another musical, where they would mean no more and no less than they do in Sugar.”

Despite bland notices, Sugar entertained audiences for over 500 performances. It received Tony nominations for Best Musical; Best Director, Musical; Best Choreographer; and, for Morse, Best Actor, Musical. Elaine Joyce won a Theatre World Award.

Next up: Sugar Mouth Sam Don’t Dance No More and Orrin

Sunday, March 21, 2021

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

James DeMarse, Sharon Laughlin, Andy Robinson. (Photos: Zodiac,)

SUBJECT TO FITS [Drama/Mental Illness/Period/Russia] A/M: Robert Montgomery; SC: Dostoievsky’s novel, The Idiot; D: A.J. Antoon; S: Leo Yoshimura; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Ian Calderon; P: New York Shakespeare Festival/Other Stage/Florence S. Anspacher Theatre (OB); 2/14/71-5/30/71 (127)

Katharine Dunfee, John Glover.

Robert Montgomery was a third-year Yale Drama School student when his play, Subject to Fits, based on a classic 19th-century Russian novel by Fyodor Dostoievsky, was produced in New York. Robert Brustein, then Dean of the Drama School, had seen a workshop staging and turned it down as a possibility for his own Yale Repertory Company. The director, fellow Yalie A.J. Antoon, soon became a Public Theatre stalwart.

Andy Robinson, Jason Miller.

Montgomery’s program notes said this was drama “smacking of The Idiot, dreaming of The Idiot, but mostly taking off from where The Idiot drove it.” The play suggested a style of “realistic surrealism,” wrote Martin Gottfried, in its fragmented, episodic structure and bizarre characters, at the center of which is the Christ-like Prince Myshkin (Andy Robinson). Instead of a straightforward plot, Montgomery offered what Stanley Kauffmann called “states of being,” his purpose being to “put Dostoievsky’s theme through the mind of a young Christian today, to trace the question of possible good, expressing through the fact of the songs and distortions, the modernity of his inquiry.”

Characters retained from the novel include Rogozhin (Jason Miller, later to write That Championship Season; succeeded by John Glover), anything but a saint; Natasha (Sharon Laughlin), the temptress; Lebedev (John Mahon), Aglaya (Katherine Dunfee), and Madame Yepanchin (Jean David), among several others.

Andy Robinson (in box) and company.

Because of the lack of conventional narrative material, several reviewers were convinced the theatregoer would be confused unless he had a close familiarity with the novel. Walter Kerr, for instance, found only the brilliance of Antoon’s staging and the excellence of Montgomery’s music strong enough elements to hold him in his seat. Though the skull-teasing script was “tantalizing . . . , provocative and strongly self-possessed,” he warned, “casual theatregoers beware.” Also less than inspired was Edith Oliver, for whom the show was “theatrical without being especially dramatic—a kind of ballet with words that is intermittently interesting for about one quarter of its two acts.”

On the other hand, a passel of critics, led by Clive Barnes, were excited over the play. Barnes sang his praises for this “mad, mad play that is a joy to encounter. It is a cerebral play of dazzling intellectuality, manic wit, and calm literacy.” Reviews like this may have helped Montgomery win a Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Playwright.

My frequent plus-one of pre-Covid days, Ken Glickfeld, one of the best cue-callers in the business, was the stage manager.

Dostoevsky lovers (or even Dostoyevsky ones) might, if they are masochistic enough, wish to peruse my comments on a 2016 adaptation of the play, with the simplified title of Idiot

Next up: Sugar


Saturday, March 20, 2021

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

Frances Foster, Moses Gunn.
THE STY OF THE BLIND PIG [Drama/Family/Race/Religion/Romance] A: Philip Hayes Dean; D: Shauneille Perry; S: Edward Burbridge; C: Steve Carter; L: Ernest Baxter; P: Negro Ensemble Company; T: St. Marks Playhouse (OB): 11/16/71-1/9/72 (64)
Frances Foster, Moses Gunn.

The critics hedged in their acceptance of this rather enigmatic naturalist-symbolist drama, set in a Chicago ghetto apartment during the mid-50s just prior to the explosion of the Civil Rights movement. “To an extent,” noted Clive Barnes, “it lacks that special element of drama, that quality of surprise, that quick response of the imagination. . . . And yet the work nags with its truth.” “[A] talented . . . but unsatisfactory play,” added Walter Kerr. And Julius Novick remarked, “the play . . . , though not devoid of integrity and even a measure of distinction, is . . . somewhat less than admirable.”

Blind Jordan (Moses Gunn), a sightless street singer, born in a whorehouse (“a blind pig”), comes to the door of a white family’s domestic. She is 30-year-old Alberta (Frances Foster), who lives with her churchgoing, stodgy, possessive, whisky-tippling mother, Weedy (Clarice Taylor). Jordan is searching for a lost love named Grace. Also present is a numbers-running uncle, Doc (Adolph Caesar).

Jordan is persuaded by the lonely, love-starved Alberta to stay with her, although Weedy resents him. When Weedy departs for a religious meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, Jordan leaves as well—at Alberta’s request—but soon returns. Weedy comes home amazed and disturbed at the new spirit of defiance—black women refusing to ride in the back of the bus!—she observed down South. The mysterious singer is persuaded by Weedy to depart and Alberta’s behavior begins to resemble that of her complacent, old-fashioned mother.

Clarice Taylor, Adolph Caesar.

The theme of black complacency in the face of shifting social and racial attitudes was insufficiently explored, thought some. Excessive dialogue and length, shallow character development, obscure plotting, and lack of variety were cited. However, Martin Gottfried was so moved he called the work “one of the most artistically conceived and best-written . . . I have seen in a long time.” And T.E. Kalem joined in, feeling that “this consecrated act of theatre was eloquent, powerful, moving and beautiful.” Also reaping positive feedback were the set, the direction, and the ensemble. 

Playwright Dean won a Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Playwright, as well as the Elizabeth Hull—Kate Warriner Award. A TV adaptation appeared in 1974. 

Next up: Subject to Fits



Thursday, March 18, 2021


Rosemary Harris, James Farentino. 

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE [Dramatic Revival] A: Tennessee Williams; D: Ellis Rabb; S: Douglas W. Schmidt; C: Nancy Potts; L: John Gleason; M: Cathy McDonald; P: Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center; T: Vivian Beaumont Theatre; 4/26/73-7/29/73 (110); St. James Theatre; 10/4/73-11/18/73 (53). Total: 163

Philip Bosco, Rosemary Harris.

Revived on the 25th anniversary of its Broadway premiere, Tennessee Williams’s modern classic of sexual confrontation between the forces of fragile spirituality and raw sensualism provided the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre with its finest hour. It was, however, shortly before the departure of founding artistic director Jules Irving after a shaky, eight-year tenure (originally shared with Jules Blau).

Alan Feinstein, Barbara eda-Young, Lois Nettleton.

The high-strung, delicate, ethereal Blanche DuBois, originally played by Jessica Tandy in 1947, and the crude, animalistic Stanley Kowalski, immortalized by Marlon Brando, were here given resonant performances by Rosemary Harris (succeeded by Lois Nettleton) and James Farentino (succeeded by Robert Forster and Allen Feinstein). Patricia Conolly (succeeded by Barbara eda-Young) and Philip Bosco (succeeded by Biff McGuire) provided strong support as Blanche’s sister, Stella, and Blanche’s suitor, Mitch. 

The strikingly staged production ran for three months at a time when other Lincoln Center productions, because of subscription seasons, ran only a little more than a month. Several months after closing, it was restaged by Irving for a commercial Broadway run. The new engagement did not tickle the critics’ fancy and was gone in less than two months.

Alan Feinstein, Lois Nettleton.
Rabb’s production, which Walter Kerr called “visually sensitive,” in no way threatened the play’s reputation as what many consider the greatest American drama. It actually strengthened that respect. Douglas W. Schmidt’s beautiful skeletal setting on the Beaumont’s capacious stage emphasized the isolation of the Kowalski home within the teeming French Quarter of New Orleans surrounding it. Rabb brought the streets of the Quarter to choreographically detailed life as background atmosphere for the downstage story, but the effect was often inorganic and distracting. To Douglas Watt it “seemed like watching unoccupied extras amusing themselves backstage.”

Rabb’s direction suffered from other flaws as well, but the production as a whole possessed a rare power that caused hearts to flutter. Martin Gottfried spoke for nearly all his colleagues when he observed that the play “is there in all its depth, pathos, humor, sensitivity and soulfulness. It has been a long time since the theatre moved me to tears.”

Centerpiece of the revival was Harris’s Blanche, a characterization fraught with delicate touches and affecting humor. For some, though, she was too distraught and shaken early in the action, allowing her little chance to develop and put on those airs that reveal her vulnerability. Some problems with the Southern accent were detected in the British actress’s delivery, and Blanche’s sexuality was somewhat muffled. “Lyricism and pathos seem beyond her,” griped John Simon, yet she drew such notices as the following, from Jack Kroll: “Rosemary Harris is brilliant. . . . Pale and lovely as a wounded dryad, she captures exactly the repressed rapacious gentility of one of the most beautiful” characters in American drama.

Farentino was a stolid, dependable Stanley, but could not shake the association of the role with Brando’s famous performance, preserved on film. His lack of inner fire seems to have diminished the electricity needed between Blanche and Stanley to make the air crackle with desire. Bosco’s Mitch was commendable, and Conolly’s Stella decent, if not stellar.

The return engagement had “a coarser, cheaper look,” and, thought Watt, it moved “much less smoothly” with its new cast (several having been replacements at Lincoln Center). Only a few critics thought Lois Nettleton and Alan Feinstein fully acceptable in the leads. A strong factor in the former’s favor, however, was her greater youthfulness, which was deemed appropriate for a woman the script identifies as around 30. Biff McGuire was Mitch and Barbara eda-Young was Stella.

Farentino won a Theatre World Award, Harris a Drama Desk Award, and Rabb an Outer Circle Award.

Next up: The Sty of the Blind Pig





Company of Paul Sills' Story Theatre.
PAUL SILLS' STORY THEATRE [Comedy/Animals/Fantasy] AD/D: Paul Sills; SC: Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales; S: Michael Devine; C: Stephanie Kline; L: H.R. Poindexter; P: Zev Bufman; T: Ambassador Theatre; 10/26/70-7/3/71 (243)

Paul Sand, Richard Libertini, Richard Schaal, Peter Bonerz. 

Note: this entry was originally filed as Story Theatre. Rightfully, though, it should be Paul Sills' Story Theatre, so it's alphabetically out of order here.

Peter Bonerz, Mary Frann, Richard Schaal.

One of the more unusual experimental Broadway productions of the 70s, Paul Sills' Story Theatre was developed by Paul Sills out of workshops where he and his actors devised dialogue and action with which to tell ten popular Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. The show, which originated at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, added the genre of "story theatre" to the modern theatre lexicon.

Folk-rock, mime, sound effects, and third person narrative mixed with dialogue were the ingredients out of which this popular work was composed. The talented company had eight members, several whose names subsequently made their mark: Hamid Hamilton Camp, Melinda Dillon, Paul Sand, Peter Bonerz (succeeded by Peter Boyle, McIntyre Dixon), Valerie Harper (succeeded by Linda Lavin before returning herself), Richard Libertini, Richard Schall (succeeded by Charles Bartlett), and Mary Frann. Their ensemble unity was helpful in garnering nightly laughs. On a practically bare stage against which lights and projections played imaginatively, the actors brought familiar characters (many of them animals) to joyful life.

The stories, presented over two acts, were "The Little Peasant," "Bremen Town," "Venus and the Cat," "The Fisherman and His Wife," "Is He Fat," "Henny Penny," "The Master Thief," "The Robber Bridegroom," "Two Crows," and "The Golden Goose."

Paul Sand, Valerie Harper.

The critics were mostly well disposed toward the work. An ultra-enthused Clive Barnes wrote, “I adored the show, which brings back magic and innocence to Broadway, raises charades to the . . . eminence of an art form, and demonstrates the essential theatricality of children’s games. . . . Great, unequivocally great.” Walter Kerr questioned its revolutionary status, but did find it entertaining enough. John Chapman, however, considered it too juvenile for adult appreciation.

Most of the same actors appeared later in the 1970-1971 season in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which ran in repertory with this show and was based on the same techniques.

Story Theatre snared a Tony nomination for Best Play; Paul Sand, the standout actor, won a Tony for Best Supporting Actor, the Variety Poll for the same, and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance; Paul Sills won both a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Circle Award for his directing; and H.R. Poindexter won the Tony for his lighting.

Next up: A Streetcar Named Desire

Wednesday, March 17, 2021


Drew Snyder, Hector Elias, Cliff DeYoung, Tom Aldredge, Elizabeth Wilson.

STICKS AND BONES [Comedy-Drama/Family/Military/Vietnam/War] A/LY: David Rabe; D: Jeff Bleckner; S: Santo Loquasto; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Ian Calderon; M: Galt McDermott; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Public Theatre/Florence S. Anspacher Theatre (OB); 11/7/71-2/20/72 (121); John Golden Theatre; 3/1/72-10/1/72 (245) Total: 366.

Drew Snyder, Cliff DeYoung.

For David Rabe to follow up the fervid response generated by his first play, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, with another work of near universal acclamation was an achievement of great magnitude. It was something the playwright, for all his occasional success, never again experienced. Critics and audiences were thrilled at how successfully he had risen to the challenge, demonstrating that his was far more than a one-play talent.  Producer Joseph Papp even presented Rabe’s new play while the earlier one was still running, this being the first time Papp had produced simultaneous works by a living playwright. It was also the first time he had given a second hearing to anyone other than Shakespeare.

Drew Snyder, Asa Gim.

Sticks and Bones proved more powerful and provocative than its predecessor, even moving to Broadway, where it enjoyed a decent run. This searing, painful drama inspired Clive Barnes to declare that “it holds the interest and moves the heart. It makes you think and it makes you laugh.” The play details the experience of David (David Selby; succeeded by Drew Snyder), a Vietnam vet, who returns, blinded, to the bosom of his American pie, TV-sitcom family, the parents dubbed Ozzie (Tom Aldredge) and Harriet (Elizabeth Wilson; succeeded by Rue McClanahan), the sons David and Rick (Cliff DeYoung; succeeded by Alan Cauldwell), after TV’s iconic Nelson family.

Elizabeth Wilson, Tom Aldredge.

Enraged and appalled by what he has witnessed and undergone in Southeast Asia, David strives to bring his new reality to the insular world of his parents and brother, but their behavior reveals an unseeing, plastic outlook totally incapable of understanding what he wishes to convey. To them his manner seems merely callous and unheroic. Ever present to him is the memory of a Vietnamese girlfriend whom only the audience can see, but who is invisible to the bigoted and narrow eyes of his family.

Unable to transform his family’s perceptions of the war, he ultimately submits to his brother’s suggestion that he kill himself, allowing Rick to slit his wrists for him, thereby removing from the family the specter of the war’s horrors he would have forced them to confront.

Told in a conceptually unusual blend of realism and surrealism, Sticks and Bones was described as being crammed with symbolic suggestiveness, metaphorical meanings, raging rhetoric, emotional expression, and satirical sass. Rabe had put the 11 months he spent in Vietnam to great use in bringing home the tried and true message that war is hell. Those who were enthralled by the Off-Broadway staging thought it even better on Broadway, although some believed the intimacy of the original was lost on the large stage.

Brendan Gill praised Sticks and Bones for being “a beautiful and harrowing study of American family life and American political life as a double nightmare from which only the most severely mutilated among us struggle to awaken. In the gravity and acuteness of his intelligence and the elegance of his literary skills, Mr. Rabe is already a formidable figure.” From Harold Clurman came the admission that the play was “savagely ironic. It has a cold, hard bite. With very little outward violence, it stings and wounds.” Edith Oliver disputed the contention that the play could fit any predetermined genre, like surrealism or black comedy, because its form was so unique. However, she herself emphasized above all else the corrosive humor and parodic tone of the proceedings. John Simon, like Mel Gussow, compared Rabe to the young Eugene O’Neill, “demonically obsessive, harshly penetrating and perceptive, large-spirited and unwieldy, and ultimately stumbling in his stabs at poetic prose.”

Hesitation came from writers like Stanley Kauffmann, Walter Kerr, Julius Novick, and Richard Watts. They commented on the play’s familiar foundations, overly heightened language, failure to fully explain David’s hatred, weak character development, static plot, and stylistic opacity.

Few caviled at the fast-paced, imaginative, and sensitive staging of Jeff Bleckner, or the extraordinary characterizations of the cast. Perhaps Elizabeth Wilson’s Harriet, model of domesticity, pleased the critics more than any other performance. 

In 2014 I reviewed a revival of the play at the Signature Theatre, which you can access here.

Official acknowledgement of the play and production came via a special citation from the New York Drama Critics Circle; a Tony Award for Best Play; the Outer Circle Award for David Rabe, as well as the Variety Poll choice for Most Promising Playwright; Drama Desk Awards for Tom Aldredge, who also nabbed a Tony nomination, and Jeff Bleckner; a Tony Award for Elizabeth Wilson, who also won the Variety Poll for Supporting Actress as well as an OBIE; a Tony nomination and Variety Poll selection for Bleckner; and a Drama Desk Award for designer Santo Loquasto.



Tuesday, March 16, 2021

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

Anthony Perkins. (Photos: Ted Yaple.)
STEAMBATH [Comedy/Death/Homosexuality/Nudity/Religion] A: Bruce Jay Friedman; D: Anthony Perkins; S: David Mitchell; C: Joseph G. Aulisi; L: Jules Fisher; P: Ivor Balding; T: Truck and Warehouse Theatre (OB); 6/30/70-10/18/70 (128)

Anthony Perkins, Eileen Dietz.

Director Anthony Perkins took over the leading role in this Off-Broadway play after several pre-opening delays in which stars such as Dick Shawn, Charles Grodin, and Rip Torn dropped out. (Bill Bixby later played it in a TV version.) Perkins, a respected stage and film star, gave a competent performance as Tandy, a would-be writer, who dies in the prime of life and ends up in a limbo-like place where he must await God’s decision on his ultimate fate.

The premise is that limbo is a steambath and that God is a New York Puerto Rican (Hector Elizondo) attendant who wisecracks and does spectacular magic tricks to display his powers.

Hector Elizondo.

Among others in the steambath are some business types (Marvin Lichterman, Gabor Morea, Mitchell Jason), a couple of flamboyant queens (Jere Admire, Teno Pollick), and a luscious, near-nude sexpot (Annie Rachel; Valerie Perrine on TV) who has a brief, and then controversial, nude scene. Thrown among this assortment of types and temperaments, Tandy takes some time before acknowledging that he is, indeed, deceased.

There was only mild critical approbation for this black comedy in which the many funny gags and bits, often spiced with the special flavoring of Jewish humor, were incapable of sustaining interest in a situation that was not only basically familiar, but too frail to shore up a full-length play. Thus, Jerry Tallmer called it “interesting but disappointing”; Clive Barnes thought it a “trite idea” executed with “a cute sense of the ridiculous”; and Jonathan Black put it down as “banal and derivative.” Edith Oliver felt it was seriously flawed, but far superior to similar works.

Hector Elizondo, Mitchell Jason, Anthony Perkins, Conrad Bain.

Elizondo’s performance was virtuosic. “He not only commands the world, he also commands the stage . . . , loose as a goose, subtle, foxy, unflappable, dangerous to mess with,” is how Tallmer put it. His work earned him an OBIE for Distinguished Performance. Other cast members included Conrad Bain, Eileen Dietz, and Jack Knight.

Monday, March 15, 2021

1. LUDIC PROXY: FUKUSHIMA (virtual performance seen March 11, 2021)

Saori Tsukada.

 For my review of Ludic Proxy: Fukushima, please click on Theater Pizzazz. Statistically speaking, this is my first review of the 2020-2020 season. My last review of the previous season was The Girl from the North Country, March 10, 2020. It was my 181st review of the 2019-2020 season. 

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

Today’s posting marks the 500th in this series since it began in the early days of the pandemic. At first, I often posted two shows a day but other obligations soon forced me to cut back to one. Quite a number of readers, noting the word “unpublished” in the series title, have supported the idea of my having the material published. I have usually replied, giving the background to how the project began. For anyone actually interested, I direct them to one of the early postings, where, for a time, I regularly explained the genesis of the series.

Gail Strickland, Bruce Boxleitner.

STATUS QUO VADIS [Comedy/Fantasy/Literature/Romance/Sex] A/D: Donald Driver; S: Edward Burbridge; C: David Toser; L: Thomas Skelton; P: George Keathley and Jack Lenny; T: Brooks Atkinson Theatre; 2/18/73 (1)
Gail Strickland, Bruce Boxleitner.

Yet another in the long list of one-performance flops of the early 1970s, Status Quo Vadis tells a conventional morality story about American class relationships but does so in an unconventional, pseudo-avant garde style.

Satirical thrusts at unions, religion, big business, censorship, and other topics are incorporated in this allegorical black comedy about Horace Elgin (Bruce Boxleitner), a rough-edged, lower-class, Candide-like, young poet. He's a high school dropout, who beds down and impregnates his upper-class, night-school teacher, Irene Phillips (Gail Srrickland). He also faces right-wing censorship of his book of explicitly erotic poems, an attempt by his company to hold back his promotion, and pressure to give up his wealthy girlfriend for a secretary from a less respectable background.

To emphasize the author’s cynical point that “Equality has become our inalienable right to be equal with the people above so we need not be equal with people below,” each character wears a number signifying his class determination. The heiress teacher is a #1, the poet a #5, the secretary a #3.

Edward Burbridge’s abstract, yellow, wooden setting, provided with multiple doors, was designed so that all set pieces could be formed by elements constituting the unified scenic background. The effect contributed to the dehumanized fantasy's atmosphere.

The show, which originated at a small theatre in Chicago, garnered mixed reviews, but their general tenor was too bland to excite interest. Richard Watts was “often irritated but more often impressed” by it. Those who failed to support it commented on its blurred themes and contrived, heavy-handed treatment. To Mel Gussow, it was “amateurish, shallow, obvious and ultimately tasteless.”

Boxleitner and Strickland were accorded respectable notices. Strickland, in fact, received a Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Performer, even though one has to wonder how many Drama Desk voters actually saw either the single regular performance or one of the six previews.

Other actors involved included in the 18-member cast included John C. Becher, Roberts Blossom, Geraldine Kay, Lee Zara, and a newcomer named Ted Danson in the role of Paul Regents III (the actor’s real name, by the way, is Edward Bridge Danson III). Gussow, with a touch of Nostradamus, wrote: “Ted Danson made a convincingly successful bartender.”