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February 26, 2016

February’s Leftovers and March’s Brainteaser

If you’d been at the Sunday, Feb. 21 matinee of PRODIGAL SON, would you have been outraged or tremendously impressed with what Timothée Chalamet did?

It’s a tough call. Chalamet is playing John Patrick Shanley’s alter ego in the latter’s new play at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Although all teenagers can be irrational, troublesome and argumentative, Jim Quinn can be described by all these undesirable adjectives and more: he’s larcenous, which is quite a problem at St. Thomas More Preparatory Boarding School.

If Jim were only not so brilliant, he could be expelled without a moment’s worth of debate. But his intelligence and incisiveness allows him to have at least one ally in Mr. Hoffman (a fine Robert Sean Leonard), who’ s impressed by a mind that can come up with “I like things I never thought of” and “A poem that won’t be good in 100 years isn’t good now.”

Chalamet is a wonder in the role, with eloquent body language that typifies a teen: the lanky walk, the shoulders slumped, the head cocked to one side, all arms and legs on a rail-thin body. It’s what you’ve seen on thousands of teenagers, which makes it exactly right.

But here’s the thing: an hour into the Feb. 21 performance, as Jim was trying to explain his recent difficulties to Mr. Hoffman – and just barely masking his fervid exasperation with the teacher – two first-row theatergoers decided to leave. They may have hated the play, or found Jim too hard to bear or – because they did seem especially elderly – one might have had a medical emergency.

As they were exiting, Chalamet saw them. He was in mid-discourse and did not stop talking for even a mini-second. What he did do, however, was put out his left hand and wave bye-bye to them.

Well, what do you think? Surely an actor shouldn’t break the fourth-wall in a play that doesn’t call for it. That said, seeing Chalamet react to the affront the way that Jim Quinn would have responded to anything he didn’t like was very much in character.

Even if you condemn Chalamet’s artificial move, you have to admit that it’s an example of how live theater is capable of offering a surprise denied to pre-set film and videotape.

There’s a major rediscovery at the Mint Theater Company and what else is new? Once again, for the umpteenth time, Jonathan Bank has unearthed a marvelous play that once again exhibits his exquisite taste.

However, this one – Hazel Ellis’ WOMEN WITHOUT MEN – had to be harder to find, because it never received a Broadway production. There’s still time for it to travel from the Mint’s interim home at City Center to a few blocks down the street.

WOMEN WITHOUT MEN asks the question that was posed in a 1968 musical whose title I’d give you if I weren’t too lazy to sprinkle 10 asterisks among 11 letters: “And how are things in the teachers’ room tonight?”

Here in Ireland in 1937, not good at all. What’s more, things will get progressively worse through six scenes. Eventually you’ll wince whenever the door is opened, for you fear who’ll enter the room; almost every one of the female teachers has an vicious enemy inside.

Twenty-year teaching vet Miss Connor (the perfectly pent-up Kelly Overbey) detests newcomer Miss Wade (the stalwart Emily Walton), and goes out of her way to stop Wade’s drama club production from proceeding. Yeah, even in 1937 Ireland, people in schools wanted to stop the arts from flourishing. (And we thought this only started recently in America.)

Yes, the teacher who’s the nicest is the one that must be destroyed and gets little to no benefit of the doubt from the other rats in the Skinner Box. Matters became so tense that the theatergoers whispered between scenes as if they were attending a thriller. In fact, they were, thanks to Jenn Thompson’s superb production and of course Ellis’ script.

What a shame, though, about that title. The implication is that if these women HAD men, they’d be happier and perhaps not-at-all nasty. Yes, when the show moves to Broadway, let’s rename it.

Treating each other much, much better are Anita Gillette and Penny Fuller, who actually feel like SIN TWISTERS, TOO!

Make that twin sisters, too. But cabaret legend Barry Kleinbort thought spoonerizing the words would be fun, and indeed it is – leading to patter in which the spoonerisms fly. We wonder how these women could possibly say so many word-reverses without stumbling, but breeze through them they do. They also have a good joke about 54 Below and another rib-tickler about Jerry Herman.

Of course the packed house at Feinstein’s/54 Below first and foremost came to hear them sing, and do they ever – songs from ANYTHING GOES, THE APPLE TREE, GOLDEN RAINBOW, KISMET, THE NERVOUS SET, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN – musicals, in fact, in which each of them would have been memorable had directors known enough to cast them and they’d been the right age.

We get to hear the song that Gillette had which opened THE GAY LIFE in Detroit before the song – and she – were dropped. Gillette could have stayed on as Barbara Cook’s understudy, but ALL AMERICAN awaited. Let’s put it this way: after Gillette sings the score’s “Magic Moment,” she proved that had she continued with the show and had Cook fallen ill, the audience wouldn’t have been remotely cheated.

Fuller tackles one of Sondheim’s most difficult songs and shows it posed no threat to her considerable abilities. She also delivers a song that Harold Arlen wrote just for her, and while it must be one of his shortest, we understand why he’d be moved to write for her. Finally, the story on why her first real boyfriend dumped her deservedly gets the longest and hardest laugh of the night.

And what do Gillette and Fuller truly have in common? Each played Sally Bowles on Broadway, and we’re glad they did, for they wouldn’t being doing a nifty CABARET medley if they hadn’t. At different points in a different song, each picks up a left leg and gives it a backward kick worthy of the ingénues they once played. And, to say the least, we get quite a kick out of them. It’s oft been said that through life we find our family, and Anita Gillette and Penny Fuller prove the supposition true, for each seems to be the other’s true sister.

Meanwhile, downtown through March 20, there’s another major rediscovery, this time at the Metropolitan Playhouse. Abram Hill’s WALK HARD ran all of seven performances when it debuted on Broadway in 1946 – and it’s easy to understand why. It’s the story of Andy, a 20-year-old black man who’s working as a shoe-shine “boy.” Andy has few illusions about life; when a relative tells him that his deceased mother “is looking down from above,” Andy shoots back “Through the cracks in the plaster?”

Andy is recruited for boxing, but because he’s so young, he must get his father’s permission. Just when Hill’s play threatens to be a rehash of GOLDEN BOY – or any of the many other boxing properties that peppered the cultural landscape in the middle third of the 20th century – WALK HARD shows it has far more of an agenda. It wants to uncompromisingly look at black-and-white racial relations.

Although both a beautiful young woman and a powerful fight promoter have expressed more than just a passing interest in Andy, he explodes when each makes the mistake of using the N-word. More powerful still is his going to a hotel with his white manager and finding that their two reservations have suddenly shrunk to one, and the single room will be given to the white man. Andy makes a scene to demand justice and his “civil rights.” (Is this the first instance of that phrase being used in a Broadway drama?)

Andy wins the battle, but runs the risk of losing the fight. If Andy can’t knock out his opponent, then the fight will end in a decision made by three judges – one of whom is the hotel manager that he’s infuriated.

Joshua David Scarlett leads a cast that excels (with one minor exception) under Imani’s perfectly paced direction. Granted, The Metropolitan Playhouse, located at 220 East 4th Street between Avenues A and B, is a difficult theater to reach; no subway goes particularly near. But the weather has improved dramatically, and the walk will do you a world of good.

Speaking of shoe-shine boys, I was disappointed that Maurice Hines, when gliding through his memories in TAPPIN’ THRU LIFE, didn’t mention that he and his brother Gregory had been in the original Broadway cast of THE GIRL IN PINK TIGHTS. It was the 1954 musical about the founding of musical theater via THE BLACK CROOK. Gregory was “Shoe-Shine Boy” and Maurice was “Newspaper Boy.”

Aside from that, TAPPIN’ THRU LIFE is a pleasant evening. But Hines, who wrote the script, missed a great opportunity when composing a certain sentence. He said that when he performed with Judy Garland he was “over the moon.” Wouldn’t you have used a different noun to follow “over the”?

And speaking of decisions from boxing judges, that brings us to
Rich Orloff’s CHATTING WITH THE TEA PARTY. The postcard that is promoting it says that it “is neither anti-Tea Party nor pro-Tea Party.” Yeah, and that’s the problem. It was like watching a heavyweight championship fight in which few punches land and the bout ends in a decision from the judges.

Jeffrey C. Wolf was charming, however, as Orloff’s stand-in, representing the playwright who went around the country to meet Tea Party leaders and members. They turned out to be first and foremost uninteresting and hardly ever outrageous. Orloff seems to have been very fair to them, but that doesn’t make watching them – despite the superb efforts of John E. Brady, Maribeth Graham and Richard Kent Green – at all compelling.

Last month’s brainteaser asked what eleven songs had in common: “All about Ruprecht” (DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS), “Back from the Great Beyond” (PRETTYBELLE), “Be Back Soon” (OLIVER!), “Bianca” (KISS ME, KATE), “Garbage” (SHOESTRING REVUE), “I Hate Musicals” (RUTHLESS!), “It’s Delovely” (RED HOT AND BLUE!), “Paula [An Improvised Love Song]” (THE GOODBYE GIRL), “Running Wild” (BULLETS OVER BROADWAY), “‘Til Him” (THE PRODUCERS) and “When You’re Good to Mama” (CHICAGO).

The answer is that all acknowledge in their lyrics that they are songs. Give a listen to each, and you’ll see what I mean.

Jack Lechner was the only one to get it, although Patricia T. Bisesto came close.


You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia



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