LOVE IS THE ANSWER (OR IS IT?)
We’ve had theatrical pieces about show business, commerce, science, religion, prison and everything else you can think of from A(RT) to Z(ULU AND THE ZAYDA).
But few would disagree that the most frequent subject of dramas, comedies and musicals is love.
That brings us to BIG LOVE by Charles Mee, now at the Pershing Square Signature Center. You think Amy showed resistance in marching to the altar in “Getting Married Today?” How about Lydia (the fetching Rebecca Naomi Jones) who wipes her feet on the wedding dress she’s thrown on the floor? The aged Bella (the superb Lynn Cohen) doesn’t approve, as she extols the virtues of marriage and children – well, for a while at least.
Lydia is one of 50 women who was promised at birth to just as many cousins. (Yes, the play could be called 50 BRIDES FOR 50 COUSINS.) The women have minds and songs of their own, including “You Don’t Own Me,” which must have been sad for them to sing during the last week of rehearsal when Leslie Gore died.
The show is full of love songs that are substantially sillier than anything Paul McCartney could have concocted. But Lord knows that love songs are a big part of our lives. When Bobby Steggart, as one of the cousins, starts singing the line “When I look into your eyes,” you may infer, as I did, that it’s going to be that lovely ballad from DOCTOR DOLITTLE. No – but, believe me, there’s plenty of Pushmi-Pullyu where love is concerned, and that’s what Mee wants to convey.
So many love songs mention “falling in love,” and to that end, director Tina Landau literally makes her actors do that. At least a half-dozen times, the women and the cousins throw themselves full force on the floor. And they say that CATS was hard on the human body.
For a while, Mee negates what Tom Jones tried to sell us in I DO! I DO!: “You can throw away your ev’ry care and doubt, ‘cause that’s what married life is all about.” He shows that trouble begins right at the reception. That the new wives and new husbands playfully (and then not-so-playfully) shove wedding cake into each other’s mouths (and throats) is a metaphor for the chaos to come.
But then Lydia has a monologue that in tone rather resembles Nina’s in Konstantin’s play in THE SEA GULL. It finally gets around to its pro-love message: “If we can’t embrace another, what hope do we have in life? Love trumps all. A woman may want another woman, a man may want another man, but there can be no wrong.” Considering that Brett J. Banakis’ set mostly consists of white walls, Ivory Soap could very well sponsor BIG LOVE, offering both money and one of its soapboxes.
Ferenc Molnar’s terrific FASHIONS FOR MEN – beautifully directed by Davis McCallum at the Mint Theatre Company – deals with love, too. The 1917 play shows us that Peter Juhasz’s small clothing store in Budapest is failing along with his marriage. Peter does see the impending financial disaster (although he’s still generous with employees and customers), but doesn’t at all suspect that his wife Adele (the convincing Annie Purcell) has been hiding two secrets.
The first one she divulges is that she’s “lost” Peter’s savings. His sloughing it off shows us how much he loves her. But when Adele tells him that she’s been consorting with his own employee Oscar, he says that “It would have been less painful if you’d gone on deceiving me.” What’s worse, Adele has given Oscar a considerable amount of Peter’s savings to start his own business and THEIR new life in Berlin.
John Tufts plays Oscar with the appropriate oiliness – totally unapologetic for stealing Peter’s wife, just expecting him to be adorable about the situation as he’s been in all others. Indeed, Peter must be the most understanding cuckold in dramatic literature. The moral of the story seems to be that nice guys finish last.
The blindness that love inflicts upon us comes through when Oscar demands of Adele “Just get your hat when I tell you to” only to have her think nothing of it. We predict a bad marriage, and while by play’s end we’re not convinced that it’s a good one, we’ll discover that that’s not what most interested Molnar. Ditto a subplot that involves Paula, a barely legal woman, and a rich middle-aged count (“My heart feels 17 when I see you”) who makes her proclaim that “The Count is a door that leads to a new life.” No, Molnar most wonders if a man such as Peter (the earnest Joe Delafield) will get financial and romantic justice or be doomed to spend a life getting such semi-compliments as “You have the eyes of a devoted horse.”
Or will his goodness rub off on others? Will Paula marry The Count or The Pauper? Will nice-‘n’-steady win the race? Molnar suggests that man and wife can best be successful if each brings different talents to the marriage. It’s a Hungarian HOBSON’S CHOICE, done in the usual astonishingly high Mint standard. When the curtains part, Daniel Zimmerman’s stunning first-act set is all that theatergoers could ask for an evening, but he has a nice second-act one ready for their viewing pleasure. God love producing artistic director Jonathan Bank for finding another wonderful obscurity and shepherding it to a fulfilling production.
And then there’s “the love that dare not speak its name,” which brings us to Oscar Wilde. People often assume that the great playwright coined the phrase, but actually its author was Lord Alfred Douglas, the object of Wilde’s intense affection and the man who brought him down.
We learn this in DIVERSIONS AND DELIGHTS, John Gay’s one-man play that starred Vincent Price in its 1978 Broadway production. Craig Dudley holds the small stage on West 30th Street that The Ensemble Theatre Company of New York is currently calling home.
Gay borrows many of Wilde’s best witticisms: “The worst of having a romance of any kind is that it leaves one so unromantic” … “Twenty years of romance make a woman look like a ruin, but twenty years of marriage make her something like a public building.” Of Douglas, Wilde says that “it’s those we love who betray us” and that his love “has expired from mendacity.”
What’s most impressive about Dudley’s performance is that he makes these quotations sound as they were just uttered for the first time and not more than a century ago. (Director Kevin G. Shinnick obviously had something to do with that, too.) That’s also true with the best line in the show, which deals with homosexuality: “If it is a malady, why does it always strike the highest natures?”
Full disclosure: I’ve known Craig Dudley for years, for he’s been very helpful with the Theatre World Awards that I emcee each June. But here’s the thing: as much as I know him, I simply could not find him or his face on stage. That may be as big a compliment as any actor can get.
— Peter Filichia