The comedy of errors.
For the tenth year, The EnsembleStudio Theater has marked the rounding of the bend to summer by producing its own limited-run festival of new one-act plays. Aside from the sheer skinflint delight of getting three for the price of one (or four, or five, at the Ensemble's Marathon '87), there is a way in which we are taking part in an act of justice by attending such an event, for the machineries of publicity and fame are such that one-act plays seldom get a fair shake. For every Zoo Story or Beirut that establishes its own theatrical identity, a legion of other one-acters sink into oblivion, victims of their own concinnate virtue, for had the playwright valued the box office more than his muse, he could probably have beefed up his story to a commercially viable ninety minutes. Surely, two such theatrical master craftsmen as Frank D. Gilroy and Romulus Linney, the authors, respectively, of Real to Reel and April Snow, could have concocted sufficient extra business to bulk out the prime fillets of their plots to acceptable meatloaves. That they resisted the temptation deserves some special commendation: at the least, inclusion in the annual volume of Best One-Act Plays of the Year.
Real to Reel is a sexual chess matchbetween a film critic of a certain age, who bears a vivid, coincidental resemblance to Pauline K***, and a famous hunk of the silver screen of the genus Warren Beatty. The hunk lusts for a good review from Paula (as she's called in the play), and she lusts for the hunk, and fate offers her an opportunity to blackmail him. Doris Belack as Paula is bitchier than Glenda Jackson at her most viperish, and if David Gautreaux, as her sparring partner in the game of sex and/or fame, is not quite at the same Memorex level of a clef credibility, the fault may be Gilroy's more than his. But that is a small demur.
April Snow was my favorite playof the seven I attended, a bittersweet comedy about a May-October romance (she's 20, he's 61) in which sweet triumphs over bitter without any damage to the characters' emotional truth. Sarah Jessica Parker, who once had the title role in Broadway's Annie, plays a waif lately paroled from a mental ward, who descends on the SoHo pad of an old family friend to sit once again, but no longer so innocently, on his curmudgeonly knee. Thomas Gibson, in the role of the curmudgeon, is as lovable as Oscar the Grouch, and the romance follows the strict A-B-A form of meets/loses/gets girl with Mozartian grace. Lois Smith, as the lesbian Mama Bear in the menage that results from the plot's equations, is the very spirit of Sadder but Wiser, and there is a marvelous drunken party scene with separate wisecracking arias for friends of this odd trio, delivered con brio by Joe Ponazecki, Sam Schacht and Harris Yulin. When the curtain came down (which it did only figuratively, curtains having become as rare as farthingales in the theater), I wished the Ensemble would undertake an entire Romulus Linney festival. He's wonderful.
Bad Blood, by Peter Maloney, comesacross as a well-engineered, nongimmicky Twilight Zone episode about an elderly librarian menaced by a guntoting girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The library, where the play takes place, appears to be the last structure that the town's mad arsonist has not yet reduced to ashes. Kristin Griffith and Pat McLemore breathe more life into their stereotyped characters than the script strictly requires. If the two offstage characters in the plot were invited to take part in the action, this is one one-acter that might profit from being inflated to evening length.
Cassandra Medley's Waking Womenis a monologue, delivered like a special-delivery valentine by the Grand Cayman Island actress Ebony Jo-Ann, who can flutter a palm-leaf fan with more elan than anyone. It's a pity that monologues, the atomic building blocks of the theater, don't have their own venue, like songs and arias. Surely they could be accommodated readily into the format of late-night variety shows. Like an aria sung out of context, a monologue is a celebration of acting for its own sake, and it seems odd that a culture that confers royal status on the acting profession should not place proportional value on the act of acting.
The above four plays constituted themenu for Evening C of Marathon '87. Of the three plays I saw on Evening B there was only one I would single out for commendation--Edward Allan Baker's Lady of Fadima, a slice of life from the inner-city lower depths, concerning the sexual harassment by her brutish supervisor of a young woman employed to clean lavatories in a large hospital. Victor Slezak as the brute tears a passion to tatters, to very rags. He has the sleazeball sexual charisma of the young De Niro, and it is an uphill battle for Lucinda Jenney, as his pitiful victim, to get equal time in the spotlight. Yet in hindsight, her futile evasions are as memorable as his sinister blustering. In hindsight I also must regret having missed Evening A and half of B. The truth is I simply hadn't expected Marathon '87 to be such a treat.
Just the contrary is true of The Comedyof Errors, at the ill-fated Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. I went to it in such a state of presold giddy expectation--The Flying Karamazov Brothers doing Shakespeare! Hey-dey!-- that it was almost halfway into the first act (as staged, not as written) before I realized that I was not enjoying it much. It wasn't that the cast was guilty of lese majesty to the Bard's sacred text, which, after all, requires massive transfusions of imagination if it is to come off as more than a theatrical mummy. The skeleton of the plot is sound enough, but there is so much lame and labored wit, so much ribaldry that requires footnotes, so little life inherent in the minor characters, that modern producers have generally left this one on the shelf beside such moldy oldies as Ralph Roister-Doister. That the cast and director concur in this judgment is evident from the many razzings given the Bard (played by one of the Karamazovs) whenever he steps forward to take a bow for a passage of particularly mirthless verse. The problem is that finally the entire text ends up being dismissed, subverted, upstaged or brushed aside, and the material presented in its place is neither especially funny nor breathtaking in a circusy way.
The juggling is the biggest disappointment,since it is the Karamazovs' metier. It never mounts up to a moment of believe-it-or-not stage magic; worse than that, it constantly interferes with the delivery of the verse by imposing its own mechanical rhythms on Shakespeare's pentameter. Only Randy Nelson as Dromio of Ephesus manages to speak his speeches trippingly and to convey a sense that he thinks his jokes may be funny. Sophie Hayden and Gina Leishman, as the wife and sister-in-law of Antipholus of Ephesus, perform their opening scene (one of the most potentially actable in the text) while tap-dancing. Shirley Temples they're not. Hayden was required to supplement her stomping feet with feats of baton twirling while reciting her lines, which wreaked such havoc on the verse that she might as well have counted cadence to Plautus's Latin. I doubt that there were many in the audience who ever figured out what was supposed to be happening plotwise, unless they'd done their homework in advance.
Some of the stage business was funny,and some that wasn't made such an effort that the audience responded with dutiful laughter, as when a friend with a reputation for being the life of the party produces a punch line that fizzles. Indeed, the show may turn out to be a popular success, for it is loud and lively and visibly expensive and can fob off its inadequacies on its conceited author. Shakespeare isn't God, after all, and The Comedy of Errors may simply be the error among his comedies.
Despite this relative thumbs-down, Icontinue to believe in the dramatic mission of the Flying Karamazov Brothers. Perhaps what is needed is the further cognitive dissonance implicit in their name and made explicit on the first page of the show's Playbill, which announces Shakespeare's The Three Sisters. That title is crossed out, the first error of the evening's comedy. But why not The Three Sisters? Why not, indeed, The Brothers Karamazov itself? There are five starring roles, just the right number. Dmitri could balance glasses of vodka and champagne. Ivan and Alyosha could discuss suicide while juggling knives. Somehow or other, the New Vaudeville will achieve its masterpiece.
But not this season. Maybe in thefall . . .
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|Title Annotation:||Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York|
|Author:||Disch, Thomas M.|
|Article Type:||Theater Review|
|Date:||Jul 4, 1987|
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