Saturday, June 12, 2021

590. WHO'S WHO IN HELL. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Erin O'Connor, Beau Bridges, Peter Ustinov, Joseph Maher, George S. Irving. (Photos: Martha Swope.) 

WHO’S WHO IN HELL [Comedy/Death/Fantasy/Politics/Race] A: Peter Ustinov; D: Ellis Rabb; S: Douglas W. Schmidt; C: Nancy Potts; L: John Gleason; P: Alexander H. Cohen and Bernard Delfont; T: Lunt-Fontanne Theatre; 12/9/74-12/14/74 (8)

Peter Ustinov, Beau Bridges, George S. Irving.
A talky, wearisome political satire, burdened with unfunny epigrams, starring its British author, Peter Ustinov, as Russian premier Boris Vassilievitch Krivelov. He, along with the Nixon-like American president, Elbert C. Harland (George S. Irving), has just been assassinated at Disneyland, and is now in a No Exit-like waiting room between Heaven and Hell. Their assassin, Arlo Forrest Buffy (Beau Bridges), is there, too, having been killed by the FBI.

A collection of other corpses, including Samuel E. McWhirter (Bob Lawrence), a lynched Black man; Ilse (Olympia Dukakis), a sexed-up female Nazi storm trooper; the Frenchman (Bob Oyster), a revolutionary; and Arlo’s girlfriend, Bundy Harris (Erin O’Connor), who has killed herself, fill in most of the supporting roles. Sir Augustus Ludbourne (Joseph Maher), a bewigged British judge, dead 100 years, hears the stories of each new arrival and then decides whether they are headed for the “penthouse” or the “basement” by means of the rope elevators running at either side of the stage.

“With no story, no characters and only an author’s self-indulgence, there isn’t very far that actor or director can go,” griped Mel Gussow. Douglas Watt held that this “half-hearted lunge in the direction of Shavian drawing-room comedy . . . moves fitfully.” The political points were blunted by the lack of a clear-cut authorial viewpoint, noted Clive Barnes, and the substitution for “anger” of “wry irony” was not viable, leaving a detritus of “intellectual triviality.”

In addition to the noteworthy names listed above, this unfortunate effort also included Christina Pickles and Josef Sommer.

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 These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through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 by clicking here. 

Next up: Why Hanna's Skirt Won't Stay Down.