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October 16, 2015

Seating Plans

Recently I have not been The Most Happy Fella, although I have been singing the first lines of the 1956 hit musical – with one change of word.

You may recall that the original production began with (the heavenly) Susan Johnson portraying a waitress quite unlike the dedicated, never-complaining Dolores Dante of WORKING. Johnson, who always played what used to be known as tough broads, mourns “Ooh! My Feet!” to the point where she uses a profane word that original cast album producer Goddard Lieberson excised in favor of a trumpet blast.

Well, recent events have had me singing “Ooh! My gluteus maximus! My poor, poor gluteus maximus!” True, my rewrite has five too many syllables for Frank Loesser’s marvelous melody, and while there is a three-letter noun that could fit in place of the four-letter one, I’m from Boston -- and you know how Benjamin Franklin in 1776 implied that we’re on the dainty side.

The problems began at the Atlantic Theater Company’s CLOUD NINE. Oh, there was nothing particularly wrong with Caryl Churchill’s play, which even a third of a century ago wasn’t afraid to deal with pedophilia in rather comic terms. Maybe Churchill got away with it because she’d been talking so much about sex (although she didn’t show any) in such a purposely stilted way that no one took her seriously.

Nevertheless, pedophilia is there among the adultery and homosexuality. There’s a theory that in any drama, every character should have a secret; Churchill certainly observed that dictum in this play.

It’s a terrific production, thanks to the versatility of all seven performers. They play quite different people between Act One and Act Two, with plenty of gender-bending in each half (and one bit of race-bending, too). Churchill offers some delectable lines, one of which I’m going to appropriate and use it every time I go anywhere: “I didn’t want to spoil the fun by not being here.”

Director James Macdonald gets credit for staging it so well without allowing any winking whatsoever. At least I presume there’s no winking; half the time we only see the backs of people, for Macdonald has staged it in the round.

And that’s where our problems begin.

I assume that Macdonald’s to blame for saying to the Atlantic “Hey! Let’s not do it on your regular proscenium stage! Let’s tear out all the seats, build a wooden structure that reaches almost to the ceiling and have the audience sit there on bleachers!”

The structure looks terribly rickety to me, and the vomitoria between sections are so thin and cramped that Chris Perfetti j-u-s-t makes it through without having his big Anna Leonowens hoop skirt get caught in any splinters. (Chris, in case you’re not familiar with this excellent performer, is a man; as I say, lots of gender-bending in this show.)

But at least Perfetti and the others got a large playing area. We spectators were relegated to pancake-thin padded planks with no demarcation between seats – not to mention a total absence of arm rests.

People are always (and I mean always) complaining about the lack of leg-room in theaters, but every other house is positively commodious compared to this torture chamber. You’d have to have legs like Lord Farquaad to feel comfortable. Truth to tell, I was indeed mourning my feet and legs as well as that aforementioned gluteus maximus.

Must it be? Churchill didn’t demand in her script that CLOUD NINE should be played in such a setting. (I checked.) Tommy Tune’s original American production in 1981 managed to rack up close to 1,000 performances at the Theatre De Lys (now the Lortel), so a proscenium setting couldn’t be that injurious to the play’s success.

Slightly more comfy folding chairs – and with far more legroom -- await at the Castillo Theatre where DEATH OF A SALESMAN is being done in Yiddish.

“But I don’t want to see it in Yiddish,” you’re complaining. Actually, what makes this a marvelous experience is that two white walls stand behind the actors, and line-by-line, the entire play is supertitled in English. (It is, by the way, in my favorite font: Tahoma. If you don’t know what that is, send me an e-mail, and the message you get back from me will be in Tahoma.) Hearing words such as “Yonkers” and “Boston” with an oh-so-slight Yiddish tinge is fun; so is hearing the occasional word those of us who don’t speak Yiddish nevertheless know, such as “gelt” and, of course, “meshuga.”

Here’s’ the real reason to attend: Avi Hoffman is easily one of the best Willy Lomans I’ve ever seen. He’s able to become old and broken in the “now” scenes after being blustery without overdoing it in the “then” scenes. I swore he shrunk a half-foot when his boss humiliated him . As Linda, Suzanne Toren is his equal, showing great, great unwavering love for her husband and aging many years in her play-concluding monologue.

I’ve now seen eight productions of SALESMAN, the two TV versions and the hard-to-find 1951 film, but only now did something occurred to me: I’m amazed that when this play opened in 1949, during a post-war period of prosperity that people wanted to see a play about failures, one of whom was victimized, one of whom brought it on himself. Actually, Willy’s winding up on the proverbial ash-heap mostly because he’s old really makes this a story for our times, more’s the pity.

Better seats awaited me uptown at the mightily refurbished Friedman and American Theatres. (Faithful readers know I always and purposely drop the second word that’s been attached to the name of the latter playhouse.)

They’re now respectively offering Sam Shepard’s FOOL FOR LOVE and Harold Pinter’s OLD TIMES. Each play isn’t much more than an hour, so just as we’re getting comfy in our nicely upholstered and still-in-good-shape seats, it’s time to go home. Conversely, CLOUD NINE starts at 8 p.m. and ends at 10:45 p.m. Granted, the intermission seemed longer than usual, probably because theatergoers needed extra time to s-l-o-w-l-y put one foot, other foot on each precarious step when maneuvering their way out of this labyrinth.

Both FOOL and TIMES deal with eternal triangles. Each also makes you wonder if what you’re being told about most everyone is remotely the truth. But needless to say, there’s a profound difference in the approach of each play, which you can infer just from Pinter’s putting his play in rarefied London while Shepard’s opts for the Mojave Desert.

The latter locale sees a lot of brush fires, and here’s one inside a motel room with Eddie and May, who are far less happy with each other than the Eddie and Mae in THE WILD PARTY. Some productions of FOOL FOR LOVE pad the walls of the set, because more than once characters must careen into them.

Or is it because Eddie and May may well belong in padded cells? Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell, both terrific, fight – and love -- with intensity, and Tom Pelphrey excels as the poor shmuck who made a date with May and had the bad sense to show up and keep it.

At OLD TIMES, Director Douglas Hodge lets us know right away that Anna is going to show up at Deeley and Kate’s home, for as they discuss her, she’s already in the room, albeit with her back to us and them.

We’re glad when she turns around, because here’s Eve Best, who did not look her best (intentionally) as Josie Hogan in THE MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN. Now she looks better than we’d expect her best would ever be. And doesn’t she keep us guessing when Deeley (the fine Clive Owen) insists that he’d met her before?

I’ve seen OLD TIMES twice before, and I can’t recall it being a mere 70 minutes long. But there was one moment early on when (the glorious) Kelly Reilly said a line, got a laugh – and Owen didn’t wait for it to subside into silence. Has Hodge told the three to speed it up? Pinter used to be famous for his l-o-n-g pauses, which infuriated many. You mean if those are eliminated, we’re out in an hour and ten minutes?

The seats in the Golden are quite comfortable, but you might not even notice because you’ll be leaning forward in anticipation for the next delicious line that James Earl Jones or Cicely Tyson will say in THE GIN GAME.

This is the finest of the seven productions I’ve seen, and yes, that includes the original with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Looking back on it now, they really were too young for this play set in a senior-citizen residence: Cronyn was 66 while Tandy was 68. Jones is 84 and Tyson is anywhere from 82 to 91, depending on whom you believe.

And yet there’s plenty of life in these two. Watch Jones’ Weller, the alleged master of gin who goes from delight when Tyson’s Fonsia wins her first-ever game to utter fury when he can (almost) never win. (Under these circumstances, why did playwright D.L. Coburn always have Weller deal? After at least one painful defeat, wouldn’t he at some point slam the cards on the table and demand to Fonsia “You deal!”?)

Jones and Tyson got every big laugh, but their best moment came when they heard music seep through a closed door and decided to dance. The “Awwwww” of sentimental delight filled the Golden, partly because Tyson seemed as young as a girl going to her first dance.

Let’s give a big hand to set designer Riccardo Hernandez, who’s taken a completely different approach. Usually, we’re on a wide-open porch that’s pleasant enough. Hernandez took his cue from the many, many times in the script when Weller complains about the facility. So the porch is filled with junk, including an old refrigerator that we can tell no longer works. More poignant is a wheelchair, which underlines the frailty of the people who live here.

And the chairs on which Jones and Tyson must sit to play their games? Why, they’re almost as bad the ones you have to endure at CL – well, you know.

         — Peter Filichia



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