It was the month that John Neville died. Forty years ago, I saw him play Humbert Humbert in Lolita, My Love at the Shubert in Boston. My buddy Josh Ellis had already seen him do it at the Shubert in Philadelphia. (Those two theaters and cities were the only ones to see the Alan Jay Lerner-John Barry failure.) What Josh did that I didn’t was wait at the stage door. When Josh saw Neville, he said, “You were wonderful!” Neville’s response? “You’re an idiot.”
Some may say that Hugh Dancy was an idiot to take the role of Thomas in Venus in Fur, because no one could possibly top Nina Arianda’s performance as Vanda. Instead, I admire him. Which brings me to my Robert Redford story. When I met him some years back, I asked, “Whenya comin’ back to Broadway?” He said, “In every script they send me, I can just feel the critics getting ready to roll over and play dead for the girl. All the guy ends up doing is looking at her with his hat in his hand and saying, ‘You’re wild and you’re mad, and I love you.’” And that’s when I knew that William Goldman was an accurate reporter -- for in The Season, he quotes Redford saying just that. Anyway, congrats to Dancy for not worrying about that.
Under James Macdonald’s direction, Sam Waterston got mixed reviews as King Lear, but I immensely appreciated his interpretation. Before Waterston makes his entrance, every member of the court turns upstage and bows in anticipation – only to have the king enter from behind them. What a great way to suggest that Lear’s not quite with it.
Waterston walks like a Lipizzaner Stallion and seems to be cracking up – which explains his bad decisions. Later, he doesn’t seem as imbalanced, which reminds us that the elderly have good days and bad days. Old age makes a lot of decisions for us: it often sentences us to senility, and there’s nothing we can do about it. So Lear, who doesn’t trust his good and true daughter, is led to ruin. A similar fate awaits Gloucester, who doesn’t trust his good and true son. Ah, how fragile our leaders can be and how easily their feet can turn into clay!
Whenever I hear that Retro Productions is doing a show, I immediately made a reservation. I love this ambitious company that brings back forgotten plays. This month’s treat was The Runner Stumbles, Milan Stitt’s 1976 quasi-hit about a nun and a priest, and how the raging tide they held inside could hold no more. But did he then kill her? I’ll admit I figured out whodunnit in short order, but everything else about Peter Zinn’s production was surprising, refreshing and winning. Playing the doomed nun was Casandera M.J. Lollar. She may have a cumbersome name, but she showed an effortless way with a line and delivered one of the strongest performances of 2011.
Best New Play of the Month, if not beyond? All-American by Julia Brownell. The idea of a former NFL star grooming his daughter, not his son, to be a pro quarterback seems far-fetched, but Brownell makes you believe her story. The son? He doesn’t care about the game at all, but here’s a delightful twist: he isn’t gay. Harry Zittel is marvelous in the role, and Sarah Steele is just as wonderful as his girlfriend.
Mary Testa is both marvelous and wonderful as the Queen of the Mist, for whom Michael John LaChiusa has written some lovely songs. (Yes: songs.) Harriet Harris, who many of us met as Maggie in the Nathan Lane The Man Who Came to Dinner -- and then impressed us more in Thoroughly Modern Millie -- just keeps getting better and better. She is hilarious beyond any human being’s comprehension in two Paul Rudnick playlets in Standing on Ceremony. Don’t miss.
Of course, Harris has some wonderful words to deal with. Both Marc Kudisch and Carla Cook astonished with non-words. I’m amazed that Kudisch in the fascinating The Blue Flower learned all those nonsense, Dada syllables and made them sound to be words in his native language that he says every day.
Not so dissimilar an experience is the one that Carla Cook offered in the entertaining Cotton Club Parade. After singing the verse and chorus of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” she scatted for a number of minutes in extraordinary fashion. (By the way, I sounded like a combination of both performers because my tongue was tied in rapture after seeing how beautiful the “new” City Center is. Do drop in.)
I once again admired a good deal of Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities – but was still bothered by one plot point. Novelist Brooke comes home and says that she’s written a memoir about her brother Henry’s young and tragic death; the book partly indicts her parents for not doing enough to prevent it – and she’s at a loss to understand why her folks could possibly be upset.
Hmmm. I used to write novels for young adults, including one called The Most Embarrassing Mother in the World. It’s the only book I ever wrote that my own mother knew nothing about. Mind you, it had nothing to do with her at all; had she found out about it and read it, she would have immediately seen that it wasn’t about her. But I never told her about it because I didn’t want to run the risk of even hurting her feelings for an instant. So I don’t see why Brooke expects her parents to give their blessings over a far more difficult incident.
Now here’s my Nit-Pick of the Month. When playwrights name their characters, they have every name in the world at their disposal. Baitz should have chosen a different one for Henry, if for only one line: when Brooke defends herself by saying, “I owe Henry more than that.” When I hear the words “owe Henry,” suddenly I’m thinking of a candy bar.
I re-read David Bianculli’s excellent book Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In telling about their frequent collaborator Mason Williams, Bianculli says that when Williams was a young man he “worked in a record store in Oklahoma City” and quotes Williams: “I decided that I would listen to every record in the store.” That made me wonder just how many original cast albums Williams might have listened to -- before I feared that a record store in that part of the world might not even have any. But then I realized that in an Oklahoma record store, there would have to be at least one certain cast album, don’t you agree?
The irony is that I read this en route to Cincinnati to see Oklahoma! at the Conservatory of Music. The Cincinnati Kids did a terrific job, as usual. Although this was my 13th production, this time I noticed something I never had before: Will Parker says, “Look, fellas, whut I got for Ado Annie’s paw!” It’s the “Little Wonder,” the kaleidoscope that showed what then passed for pornographic pictures. Would you give this as a gift to your prospective father-in-law?
Back to Bianculli. He tells us that when the Smothers Brothers debuted on CBS on Sunday, Feb. 5, 1967 at nine p.m., they were pitted against NBC’s then-wildly popular Bonanza. The brothers were given no chance to ever win their time slot. Ah, but they eventually did -- on Sunday, March, 19, 1967. However, that was a night when Bonanza was pre-empted. The show that the brothers beat? Sad to say, the televised Ethel Merman revival of Annie Get Your Gun. Another slap in the face for musical comedy!
Here’s this month’s brainteaser. His name has now twice been seen in the display cases of a certain theater – but each time has been in a different capacity. These days, he’s listed among the other actors in a musical. But some time ago, he was listed as one of the two writers of a musical. Who is he?
— Peter Filichia