Tuesday, May 25, 2021

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 From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Kristoffer Tabori. (Photo: Ken Howard.)
THE WAGER [Comedy/Marriage/Sex/University/Youth] A: Mark Medoff; D: Anthony Perkins; S: David Mitchell; C: Mary Beth Regan; L: Neil Peter Jampolis; P: Richard Lee Marks, Henry Jaffe, and William Craver; T: Eastside Playhouse (OB); 10/21/74-1/19/75 (104)

Two mismatched graduate school students are roommates at a California university. Leeds (Kristoffer Tabori) is a smarmy, linguistically brilliant, sardonic, sexually hung-up, emotionally stifled, intellectual going for his Ph.D. in philosophy. Ward (Kenneth Gilman) is a superficially personable, muscular, womanizing, none-too-bright jock, working on a Master’s in Phys. Ed.

Leeds, probably out of his own feelings of inadequacy, tempts Ward with a wager whereby the jock must seduce statistician Honor (Linda Cook), desirable wife of a boring young microbiology professor, Ron (John Heard), who lives in their building. If he fails in this goal within 48 hours without Ron finding out, Ron will kill Ward. In the course of the play, Ron and Honor’s marriage crumbles, Ward fails to sleep with Honor, and Honor ends up provocatively alone with Leeds, whose armor she threatens to pierce.

Critical division greeted The Wager, although it was selected as a Best Play of the Year. There was little quarrelling, however, over the generally well-done, smoothly-paced direction of Anthony Perkins, best known as a leading man. It was the play that separated the reviewers, although the consensus was on the downside. 

Clive Barnes called it “a dandy new comedy” by “a dexterous and extraordinarily witty playwright” who drew his characters “beautifully . . . with a knowing and loving hand.” Jack Kroll was enthusiastic about “this youthful, exuberant, perturbed, imperfect play.” However, Douglas Watt thought the comedy “utter nonsense,” terming the its obsession with verbal foolery “a clumsy and mystifying attempt at playing with words.” The play was a futile stab at “wishful repartee,” claimed Martin Gottfried, serving as a poor substitute for action. Edith Oliver dubbed The Wager “mean-spirited” and its people “hard to give a damn about,” while John Simon described it as pseudo-Stoppardian, implausible, and replete with heartless characters.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here. 

Next up: Waiting for Godot