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October 25, 2013


Father’s Day in October

Yes, the third Sunday of every June has been reserved for Father’s Day since 1910. But for me this year, the third Saturday in October was truly Father’s Day.

For on Oct. 19, I saw not one, not two, but three shows that made room for daddies: one set in California, one in Pennsylvania and one in England.

The first two were biographical. At one p.m. at the Cherry Lane Studio, I saw Kelly Carlin do her one-woman show A CARLIN HOME COMPANION: GROWING UP WITH GEORGE. The man in the title, of course, was George Carlin, the marvelous comedian who made funny and funky observations: “George Washington’s brother, Lawrence, was the uncle of our country.” “One great thing about getting old is that you can get out of social obligations just by saying you’re too tired.” “Anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, but anyone going faster is a maniac.”

Not the type of fare you’d hear from Danny Kaye, whom Carlin originally wanted to emulate. And while I can see Carlin doing TWO BY TWO, I’m more grateful that he eventually found his own voice, rhythms and perceptions.

The show is dotted with footage of Carlin’s routines, including the startling rapid-fire list of 576 words that includes “I’m a non-believer and an overachiever, laid-back but fashion forward, up front, down home, low rent, high maintenance, supersize, long lasting, high definition, fast acting, oven ready and built to last.”

Nothing that Kelly says is remotely as funny as her father’s weakest joke, but that’s not the point of her show. She wants to prove that “being a counter culture god isn’t as easy as it sounds” either for a comedian or his wife; Brenda Carlin learned early on the most expedient ways to bail her man out of jail.

Surviving was harder still for a daughter. Kelly recalls being a little child asleep in bed when her father burst into her bedroom, shook her awake and said, “I think the sun has exploded and we have only seven minutes to live.” He wasn’t the only family member with chemical addictions, for Kelly reports that her mother was often high on cocaine, Valium and wine. Young Kelly eventually had to hide liquor from Brenda, who then accused her of being an alcoholic who wanted the booze all to herself.

Hey, at least she got a one-woman show out of it. And Kelly does make clear that George was a supportive father who believed in her abilities and constantly cheered her on. And while show business is littered with overnight successes who dumped the mates who believed in them when they were nothing, Carlin stayed loyal to Brenda for 36 years until the day she died.

Audiences may well get the impression that despite the drawbacks, Kelly Carlin was grateful. She paints a George who loved both his wife and daughter, and could be downright sentimental about it – which you might not expect from a man who said “The shortest sentence in the English language is reportedly ‘I am.’ Could ‘I do’ be the longest sentence?”

It is for Bruce Bechdel, the father in FUN HOME, the extraordinary musical I saw at three p.m. at the Newman. (Bless you, fast cabbie!) We all learned years ago that Lisa Kron can deliver a great one-woman show; then, through WELL, we discovered that she could write a terrific play. Now we see that she is a skillful bookwriter and lyricist, too, in this fine adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel.

Bruce, wife Helen and three young children (Alison, John and Christian) live on Maple Street in a suburban Pennsylvania town. The slide projection that we see of the family portrait is so perfect that a politician could use it as a testament to his normalcy and goodness.

We first see Bruce enthusiastically teaching Alison about life. However, it’s an activity that he must fit in, for Bruce is one busy guy: by day, he teaches English; by afternoon, he works in a funeral home and informs customers about “the most popular” caskets.

By night, he goes cruising for men, if he’s having no luck with the occasional teen that he hires to work in the yard. Bruce will drive him home and offer a beer. It’s a venerable trick: make the kid feel older because you want him to engage in an adult activity. When you’re at home, make the inside and outside of the house as perfect as you can, too – for if it’s flawless, perhaps the family that will live inside will become perfect, too.

In a way, Alison could be said to be a chip of the old block, for she’ll embrace a gay lifestyle, too. We might have seen her sexual preferences coming when she mentions a penchant for The Hardy Boys without mentioning Nancy Drew or Cherry Ames.

So Alison will enjoy her life more than her closeted dad – partly because the younger generation mostly says “Ho-hum” to gays. And, to be frank, people tend to be more tolerant of gay women than gay men. Alison will certainly have an easier time of it than her mother who knows very well what’s going on.

Kron and expert composer Jeanine Tesori show us three phases of Alison’s life, played by three different actresses, all of whom are extraordinary. Beth Malone as Alison today ably serves as narrator; Sydney Lucas is Small Alison, who has a great number with her brothers in which they write and perform a singing commercial for the funeral home, noting that the word “fun” appears in the first word. Later, Lucas alone does splendidly by a song in which she’s intrigued by a woman who visits the house in “jeans, lace-up boots and with a ring of keys.”

Most astonishing is Alexandra Socha as Medium Alison, a round-shouldered mess until she gets to college and meets Joan. Here’s a woman who years ago learned what Medium Alison has been fearing. Ah, but the morning after, Socha gives us a happy Medium Alison who sings about the joy we all feel when we find the first person whom we believe we love. Tesori has written much of the music in her CAROLINE, OR CHANGE style, but with this song and the kids’ commercial, the composer shows her THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE mode, too.

What a shame that Dad must rain on – no, whip up a hurricane on -- Alison’s parade of good feelings. He’s ostensibly berating her because she wants to be a cartoonist and he believes she can be a significant painter. No, it’s his misery talking, nothing else.

As the tortured dad, Michael Cerveris gives yet another riveting performance; is he capable of any other kind? How adeptly he plays the authority figure who once had all the answers, but now, as Alison knows, he has none. But he’ll still pretend he has.

And let’s not forget Judy Kuhn as his eternally suffering wife. In a song I infer is called “Days and Days and Days” -- there’s no song listing in the program – she warns Alison of how quickly time passes and urges her daughter not to “give away any days.”

The vast majority of critics would have you spend a day or night with THE WINSLOW BOY at the American. I’ll file a minority report: Lindsay Posner’s production gravely disappointed me, especially in how he handled the character of the father.

In the 1948 film, the Arthur Winslow of Sir Cedric Hardwicke is a stern taskmaster who seems less a father than a tyrannical dictator. His youngest son Ronnie has always been deathly afraid of him, so imagine how he feels now that he’s been expelled from school because, authorities say, he was guilty of stealing.

Considering what we’ve seen of Hardwicke’s hardass nature, we too fear for this kid’s life. No: in an important matter such as this, Arthur gives his son the benefit of the doubt, and when he’s convinced that the lad is innocent, he’ll go to the mat for him and sacrifice his wealth and health.

There’s no such immediate danger in the way Posner has instructed Roger Rees to deliver lines. He’s droll, as if he expects a laugh after every one of them. He’s all teddibly British, very pip-pip and wot-wot, a fuddy-duddy of a daddy.

This is not a drawing room comedy, and at Saturday evening’s performance, when things were getting tough and Rees repeated to Ronnie “Did you steal?” there were actual guffaws. When Rees got up from a chair and winced, the audience laughed, unaware that this was the first phase of a debilitating illness. The frivolous direction had taken away the drama. WINSLOW without the wink would have been much better.

All right, Rattigan disappointed me, too. Perhaps to save on a setting in salaries – they were probably doing that, too, even as far back as 1946 – everything takes place in the Winslows’ living room. So we never see the courtroom trial as we do in the film, but must hear about it from this character and that one dropping in to see Arthur. Rees is fine here as he becomes more and more infirm, but oh, what a performance this could have been had Posner not wanted to jolly us up in Act One.

Someone send him a DVD of the film – and don’t wait for the real Father’s Day to give it to him.

         — Peter Filichia

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