R E V I E W E D B Y
Though it's obviously a playwriting exercise, "By the Sea, By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea," the triple bill of beachside one-acts at Manhattan Theatre Club, contains several surprises, sharp, insightful writing and acting, and clean, sure-footed direction.
The program was originally presented by the Bay Street Theatre of Sag Harbor. Three local authors were asked to write playlets with a common theme and setting: two women vying for the attention of one man on a stretch of Hamptons seaside (beautifully realized by lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and set designer Michael McGarty).
We begin in the dark just before daylight with Joe Pintauro's "Dawn." As a daughter, her brother, and sister-in-law gather to scatter their mother's ashes in the ocean, salt and sand are rubbed into still-gaping emotional wounds.
Lanford Wilson's "Day" is the most successful at transcending the restrictions of the exercise. Wilson's eagle eye for detail and characterization inform this short sketch and make it a fascinating lesson in not judging books by their covers. None of the trio here are what they seem. Big-lug construction worker Ace appears to be a good-natured loser, but we find he has principles and ambition. His horror of a girlfriend, Bill, turns out to be a sturdy pillar of support. The gorgeous stranger, Macy, is revealed to be a serpent in their imperfect but livable Eden.
Terrence McNally's "Dusk" suffers from an implausible situation: The two women are battling for a hunky "joy-of-life" type who has no preference for either. There are also predictable "big-moment" speeches, but even so the actors live the sketch fully.
The small ensemble admirably handles its multiple roles. Mary Beth Fisher is a riot as the tacky brat Bill in the Wilson work, Lee Brock masterfully conveys the anguish of rejection in the Pintauro and McNally, and Timothy Carhart beams with animal joy as the object of their attentions. Leonard Foglia staged all three pieces with a sure hand, giving each a credibility despite the forced nature of some of the writing.
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th St., NYC, May 30-June 30.
R E V I E W E D B Y
"It's a musical comedy. The scene is too talky. It's gotta be cut," barks the veteran producer-director at the fledgling playwright in "Say, Darling," the 1958 comedy currently in a rare revival by the West End Theatre. Though the play is not, strictly speaking, a musical, the original authors should have followed the advice of their character. "Say, Darling" is too talky and it needs to be cut.
Written by Richard and Marian Bissell and Abe Burrows, "Darling" 's plot is derived from Mr. Bissell's experiences in adapting his novel "7 1/2 Cents" into the hit musical "The Pajama Game." Theatre buffs will have fun spotting fictional versions of Harold Prince and George Abbott. Original songs by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Jule Styne are employed in rehearsal and audition scenes, so technically this is a play with songs rather than a musical.
Here are all the crazy, neurotic Broadway types persuading the fresh young author from Iowa to alter his simple novel into a razzle-dazzle star vehicle. But the play takes itself too seriously, attempting to find the motivation behind the temperament of the highly strung show folk. The slight conceit of the plot will not bear the weight of these heavy, lengthy segments.
There are isolated moments of campy musical-comedy delight, such as Bonnie Perlman's wisecracks as the fast-talking press agent, Lynn Bowman's delivery of such curios as "If You Hadn't, But You Did" and "The Carnival Song," Max Perlman's tap dancing, and a witty cameo from Kristine Nevins as a chorus girl auditioning for the fictional show. I also enjoyed the work of leads Bill Tatum, Paul Amodeo, and especially Lucy McMichael as the author's patient wife. But director Robert Armin fails to unify the script's patchwork elements, and his pacing is way too slow.
Breck Sullivan-Carpenter has found attractive '50s fashions and Kevin Ash solved the problem of multiple locations in his clever set design.
"Say, Darling" is an admirable attempt to renew a forgotten show and a treat for musical comedy nuts. For others, it's heavy sledding.
Presented by the West End Theatre at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, 263 W. 86th St., NYC, May 24-June 17.
BLANCA AND OTHER SHORT PLAYS (PROGRAM B)
R E V I E W E D B Y
These two short pieces by Israeli-born playwright-director-actress Nitza Henig are unfortunate examples of absurdist theatre gone astray. Whatever Ms. Henig has in mind never reaches the audience, though we are fairly sure she is familiar with Beckett and Pinter.
The first piece, it must be acknowledged, does give some sense of setting. Directed by Ching Valdes Aran,
"Blanca: Monologue for Mice" offers a solo performance, by Ms. Henig herself, of a woman trapped in a small, squalid room. Though she does portray a woman in despair, what she is about and why she is there is never clarified through the thin, repetitive material.
It is downhill from there on. The second piece, titled "Hamlet Variations" and directed by Henig, attempts to parallel Shakespearean characters with those in real life (or rather an absurdist view of life). Shakespeare is fair game for every would-be playwright, but some (Stoppard's "Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead," for example) are more successful than others. This time around, the attempt to weld past and present, classic and contemporary, fails abysmally.
What is the point of this piece? Surely the four actors do not know, judging by their far-out, unappealing performances. The audience seems equally at sea. And this reviewer, as a result, reassessed the opening piece, finding it better by default.
We acknowledge that theatrical attempts, which represent hours of earnest endeavor and hard work, should be encouraged. But we suggest sessions of honing, focusing, clarifying, and, above all, self-criticism, before a piece is mounted for the public. What appears to be unexamined self-indulgence does not make for good theatre--or for theatre of any kind.
Presented by Odilon Redon Theatre at the Producers' Club, 358 W. 44th St., NYC, May 29-June 15.
WATCH YOUR STEP
R E V I E W E D B Y
"Watch Your Step," the 1914 Irving Berlin musical at Theater for the New City, has plenty going for it--not the least of which is Berlin's infectious, innovative score. (The program notes tout the show as "the most transitional work of all American stage musicals," a somewhat hyperbolic but debatable position.) It also has a book that was considered laughable 82 years ago and has only gotten worse.
In other words, it's a piece ripe for rediscovery--in some venue. This is not it.
Director-adaptor Robert Dahdah wisely dispenses with all but the most necessary exposition and launches right into the ragtime score. Unfortunately, the work's failings (and an extremely uneven production) prevent it from ever becoming more than a museum piece, suitable for admiring but not embracing.
Harry B. Smith's original "book" was really a series of excuses to move from one dance locale to the next. For a show to succeed with so little substance, the production had better be unassailable on its own lightweight terms. This one simply doesn't measure up.
The performances vary from quite good to nearly unwatchable (Jack Sullivan, Brian James Grace, and the luminous Peggy Williams fall firmly into the former category), and entire portions clomp along gracelessly. Choreographer Carol La Madrid and musical director Arthur Abrams do everything within their powers, but the production's shortcomings prove unsurmountable.
Perhaps a staged concert along the lines of City Center's Encores! series would be kinder to this piece. As it stands, good intentions aren't nearly enough.
Presented by and at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., NYC, May 26-