It was the month that marked the 100th birthday of David Merrick, born Nov. 27, 1911. On March 25, 1966, he made the cover of Time. Today, if Time wanted to do an analogous cover story, its editors would have to fill the cover with more people than could be found on three Sundays on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
It was the month that Jose Ferrer got his own U.S. postage stamp. I’m sure what tipped the decision in his favor was that he once recorded (along with then-wife Rosemary Clooney) an entire album of songs from Whoop-Up. To paraphrase a lyric from that august show, nobody sang those songs like that actor Jose.
It was the month that I saw a new movie, which is pretty rare for me, given that I’m always attending plays. But I saw War Horse – well, at least its first hour.
That suggests I hated it. No. It’s terrific. But I’d seen the play once in London and once here, so I knew what was in store for Joey the horse – and I just couldn’t bear to see what he’d have to endure. I realized that I could take his suffering on stage because there he’s played by a stylized and oversized puppet that three men animate. This convention keeps the story from being too real. But seeing a genuine horse in such deep trouble was something I could not bear.
So I returned to the safe world of the theater – although Seminar bored me and offered nary an intriguing surprise. However, I was amused to hear one of its young characters refer to “making out.” That slang expression, which dates back to 1949, never seems to go out of style, does it?
And wouldn’t you know that only a few days after I thought about that, Jordan Harrison essentially made the same observation in Maple and Vine? This is a solid work that makes us wonder if we’d all be happier living in a gated community – one that consciously and meticulously takes its people back to 1955. No computers, no cell phones and no oral sex – at least not openly. The play is very fair in showing the assets and liabilities of both the mid ‘50s and the early 20th century. But we can never go back to before, can we? Jordan Harrison certainly thinks so, and you will too by play’s end.
The biggest laugh I had all month came from the other play about a gated community: Neighbourhood Watch. Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy deals with the fascism of a self-appointed committee that decides that those who don’t follow the rules should be punished by displaying them on the front lawn – here’s where I guffawed – in those stocks that Puritans used to humiliate people. Ayckbourn’s 75th is a comic Crucible that made us see that many a gated community should get the gate.
It was all played against a solid black background, which really helps comedy to stand out. Having a pale blue background may be a reason why the last two acts of Private Lives didn’t land. That they’re not as funny as the first one might have something to do with it, too; Act One is literally a tough act to follow.
Everyone knows that comedy needs bright lighting, so why did director Richard Eyre have Paul Gross’ Elyot close the window shade in Acts Two and Three? If anything, it should be closed as the curtain rises so that he can then open it to get more beneficial lighting.
Eyre did have one excellent idea. While Coward mentions in an Act One stage direction that Amanda “takes a small compact from her handbag and scrutinizes her face,” Eyre then had her see in the reflection that Elyot was in the adjacent balcony.
Maybe Private Lives didn’t have the right star-power; after all, when Sybil came out to start the play, the audience gave entrance applause – undoubtedly assuming that she was Kim Cattrall. No; she was Anna Madeley -- the best Sybil I’ve seen in nine productions, because she was neither silly nor stupid. But the fact that the audience assumed it was Cattrall suggests that she just isn’t well known enough to sell an oft-revived play.
By the way, you know how Amanda and Elyot decide that when they start arguing, one will say “Solomon Isaacs” as a way of defusing the fight? Under those circumstances, can we say that Noel Coward invented the concept of the safe word?
I was less enthusiastic about two musicals than other people were. Although the score to Once is so dazzling that when the cast album comes out, I’ll play no other, its story is trite: a woman spurs a young man to do what he hasn’t been able to do. (It’s harder to like such a story after Neil LaBute turned this well-worn plot on its ear in The Shape of Things.) Besides, the character of The Girl, as she’s called, is terribly annoying. How she tries our patience, for she’s convinced that she has all the answers to every problem and situation.
Lysistrata Jones has a few answers, too, in her eponymous musical. But not one, but two of the things I hate most about live theater happened at the top of the second act. Liz Mikel came out and said, “Welcome back, everybody,” before staring us down and saying, “I SAID ‘Welcome back, everybody.’” And we’re supposed to say something to acknowledge her. Some welcome-back! Liz, will you just leave us alone?
Mikel then started her song, and soon after walked to the lip of the stage, raised her hands high over her head, started clapping in rhythm, and gave us a curt nod of the head – the universal symbol, “Now you have to clap in rhythm, too.” Liz, will you just leave us alone?
In their opening night reviews of The Music Man in 1957, critics noted that the audience clapped in rhythm midway through “76 Trombones.” And while I wasn’t there, I assure you that Robert Preston did not walk to the lip of the stage, raise his hands high over his head, start clapping in rhythm, and give a curt nod of the head. The audience clapped because it wanted to clap.
Another thing I hate in plays occurs when characters walk in and accidentally overhear information that’s been kept secret from them; Lydia Diamond’s melodramatic Stick Fly does this not once but five times. Think of Toby in Sweeney Todd. Does he walk in and see Mrs. Lovett putting in pies the meat that Sweeney has just hacked off a body? No: Toby begins to suspect that something’s not right because his creator(s) put a brain in his head. Even when he accidentally comes across evidence, it’s not because he walked in at the wrong time; he finds a dead person’s fingernail in a pie. That’s much more interesting, and I daresay unique.
Maybe I should be more indulgent, for ‘tis the season to be forgiving. Perhaps that’s why Oskar Eustis decided on December to produce Titus Andronicus – a play that proves revenge doesn’t pay. Otherwise, Titus, which could be described as William Shakespeare’s acid trip, isn’t a logical holiday-season attraction. Oh, there’s a good deal of red on the Anspacher stage, thanks to (literally) bucket upon bucket of stage blood. But the cast certainly isn’t green, for they roar through the gore-fest as if it’s one of the Bard’s masterpieces. Having Jay O. Sanders and Sherman Howard play brothers was certainly inspired, for they do resemble each other.
But Dan Wackerman’s programming The Man Who Came to Dinner indeed was apt, for it does take place during an icy December. I’ve seen actors from New York to (I mean this) Sioux City, Iowa play Sheridan Whiteside – and always all-too-broadly. Thus, I welcomed Jim Brochu’s more realistic approach. Yes, Christmas is a good time for hams, but not on stage.
It was the month that I was once again reminded that my spam filter at the Star-Ledger is highly sensitive. Anything that even whiffs of controversy gets stopped in its tracks and is labeled “Inappropriate Material.” For example, “LA Premiere of ‘8’ Lifts Veil on Prop. 8 Trial” was one of two press releases that had had that label slapped on it. And what else was deemed “Inappropriate Material”? Why, “MCC Theatre announces complete cast for Carrie.” Of course, there are those who in 1988 did feel that Carrie had plenty of inappropriate material. Was the spam filter simply giving its opinion of the show?
Remember last 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?”
Nick Blaemire, in fact, who’s appearing in Godspell at Circle in the Square, where his Glory Days played in 2008. Thomas Snode was the first to get it, followed by Susan Berlin, Brigadude, Michael Dale, John Bacarella, AnyaToes, Davey Kanter, Jacob Shoesmith-Fox and makemlaff.
This month’s brainteaser? Tell what these people have in common: P. J. Benjamin, Ashley Brown, Gloria De Haven, Al Freeman, Jr., Johnny Johnston, Maria Karnilova, Larry Marshall, Laurence Naismith, Laurence Naismith (there’s a reason he’s named twice), Christopher Plummer, Martin Short, Constance Towers and Melissa Van Der Schyff. You know where to find me.
— Peter Filichia