Tuesday, June 22, 2021

599. WOMEN BEHIND BARS. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Top: Madeleine le Roux, Helen Hanft, Sharon Ann Burr; center: Leslie Edgar, Hope Stansbury, Mary-Jennifer Mitchell, Ann Collier; front: May Boylan, Maria DeLanda, Pat Ast. (Photo: Arthur Weinstein.)
WOMEN BEHIND BARS [Comedy/Homosexuality/Nudity/Prison/Sex/Transvestitism/Women] A: Tom Eyen; D: Ron Link; S: Herbert Nagle; L: Lawrence Eichler; P: Alan Eichler, Ron Ling, and Craig Baumgarten; T: New York Theatre Ensemble; 10/17/74-11/17/74 (20); Astor Place Theatre (OB); 5/1/75-6/15/75 (54)

Parodies of old movies were a popular 70s genre, especially in view of the freer spirit surrounding the various sexual revolutions dominating the times. Camp values were particularly prevalent in such burlesques, a major example of which was Women Behind Bars, conceived as a takeoff on 50s B-level prison films. It first played Off-Off Broadway at the New York Theatre Ensemble, and then moved to Off, with one or two cast changes.

Opening with black and white titles on the rear of the prison cell set, the play proceeded to travesty the archetypal characters and plots of the movies that inspired it. The crux of the plot—covering the years 1952-1960—had to do with the arrival at the since-demolished Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village of a virginal young prisoner named Mary-Eleanor (Mary-Jennifer Mitchell) and her almost immediate corruption at the hands of horny inmates, a reception that includes rape with a broom.  Eight years later she is released into the free world as a hardened ex-con.

Eyen’s verbal and sight-gag grab-bag of blatant obscenities, offensive ethnic wisecracks, deliberately clichéd situations, sexual outrageousness, transvestitism, nudity, and sado-masochism epitomized what Douglas Watt called “junk theatre” in its deliberate trashiness. A number of critics found it well worth their while, however. The mainly female cast was often extremely funny in their roles as the lesbian Matron (Pat Ast); the butch Gloria (Helen Hanft), with her tongue of acid and heart of gold; the lobotomized blonde beauty, Ada (Madeleine le Roux), fresh out of Section 10; the sexy, bosomy Cheri (Sharon Ann Barr); the murderous old Granny (Mary Boylan); and assorted other cartoon figures. All the play’s men were played by the versatile Walker Stuart.

This “brief, delirious evening of grade-A tomfoolery,” wrote Mel Gussow, was called by Edith Oliver “bold and original and seemingly effortless and very funny.” Even the frequently acidulous John Simon guffawed loudly, although thinking it could have been even more effective with subtler writing and direction. Watt said it was “the sort of theatre that renders criticism useless,” and Martin Gottfried declared it “juvenile and sloppy.” A couple of reviewers felt the subject matter was toon innocuous to need such extravagant ribbing.

 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: Women Beware Women