Poor Early Sondheim; Dull Arthur Laurents


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Saturday Night By Stephen Sondheim and Julius J. Epstein
When future historians look back in search of pithy snapshots of the particular self-satisfaction, obliviousness and amnesia of this bloated moment in time, they could do worse than choose the past week of openings in the New York theater. These included: an innocuous, 48-year-old Arthur Laurents play whose meager emotional discoveries are wholly dependent on facile cultural generalizations and outdated sexual assumptions; a cartoonish staging of a lesser Bernard Shaw play that blithely reduces the work to exactly the trivial operetta conventions it was written to puncture; and a 45-year-old Stephen Sondheim musical, as dusty as the Laurents play, whose main justification for production seems to be that no one in New York ever produced it before.

The theaters in question, let's be clear, are major nonprofit, Off-Broadway institutions: Lincoln Center Theater, Roundabout Theater and Second Stage. This means they're all supposedly dedicated to challenging audiences with provocative work that for-profit producers can't or won't support, not merely rummaging about in nostalgia files to gratify the lazy desires of aging subscribers. We're all aware, of course, that such theaters have been steadily blunted and compromised by commercial pressures for decades. Such a triple dip of toothless sentimentality and archaism, however?especially in the wake of such other works recently produced by two of the same theaters as The Rainmaker, Ah, Wilderness! and The Deep Blue Sea?leaves me wondering whether anyone in power even remembers the fight.


Saturday Night, I concede, is a partial exception. Sondheim is an important enough artist that a first peek at his first musical is of historical interest almost regardless of quality. Furthermore, the show's second act occasionally rises above the creaky quaintness of the first to acquire a music-driven momentum.


Adapted in 1955 from the play Front Porch in Flatbush by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (the screenwriters of Casablanca), Saturday Night was originally commissioned by the Broadway producer and set designer Lemuel Ayers, who died of leukemia before he could usher it into production. According to a program insert, after the show was canceled, Sondheim (who composed the music and wrote the lyrics; the book is by Julius J. Epstein) became preoccupied with other projects, such as writing the lyrics to Gypsy and West Side Story, and "didn't want to look back." He stopped pursuing a production, and then (after his fame exploded) refused to authorize one until the late 1990s.


Second Stage and others (productions have also been mounted recently in London and Chicago) have now done him a favor similar to the one Vanessa Redgrave did for Tennessee Williams in producing his long-buried 1938 work Not About Nightingales in 1998?which is to say, a decidedly mixed one. Gratifying as it may be for some to unearth a missing puzzle piece, it can't be pleasant for either Sondheim or his fans to confront how conspicuously the piece has aged.


Set in the 1920s, the action of Saturday Night focuses on a group of bored, young Brooklynites, some of whom work in low-level jobs on Wall Street. Most harbor modest and provincial fantasies about fun, sex and middle-class comfort, which clash with their friend Gene's uppish dreams of an apartment on Sutton Place, lavish wealth and entree into high society. When Gene's game of acting well-off gets him into some not-very-interesting scrapes, his friends stick by him and his down-to-earth fiancee teaches him a lesson by deliberately delaying the play's dully farcical deus ex machina.


Those whose idea of a swell evening is looking for early, hesitant traces of Sondheim's signature practices and themes will certainly find satisfaction here: dissonant, unhummable melodies, introspective central characters, ambivalence about love and marriage, clever rhymes in the lyrics ("glorious" with "uxorious" is my favorite). Apart from a few standout performers, however?notably Lauren Ward as Gene's fiancee Helen?the production, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, has all the pizzazz of a dutiful museum display. Gambling on the stock market treated as foolhardy, atmospheric bickering among friends over matters of 20 and 40 cents, a detective who grows nervous when asked for a search warrant: it's all so timeworn that its most lasting impression is of generalized ennui.


Second Stage Theater, 307 W. 43rd St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 246-4422, through March 26.


The Time of The Cuckoo By Arthur Laurents
The main problem in The Time of the Cuckoo isn't so much ennui as a complete absence of edge and urgency. The work?which deals with tourism, incidentally, as a smokescreen to distract from the superficiality of its social commentary?resembles a placeless knickknack purchased at an airport. In 1955, Cuckoo was turned into Summertime, a trivial bit of cinematic eyecandy starring Katharine Hepburn, which Arthur Laurents rightly dismissed as a "travelogue." The sad discovery of this Lincoln Center production directed by Nicholas Martin is that, even as recently revised by Laurents, the play comes off as more dated than the film.

The story focuses on an executive secretary named Leona Samish (played by Debra Monk) who visits Venice and has an affair with a married man named Renato Di Rossi (Olek Krupa). In the film, this affair is presented as a simple matter of emotional survival for two mature and essentially sober adults. In the play, Samish is a tritely messy drunk. Her annoyingly naive reactions to Di Rossi imply she is a sheltered, virgin spinster (despite Laurents' reported efforts to make her more worldly in this revision). And all the discussions of sex occur in the context of simplistic theories about frigid Americans versus steamy Europeans.


Monk is impressively multifaceted within this predictable frame, and she has fine support from Krupa, Cigdem Onat, Chiara Mangiameli, Sebastian Uriarte, and Tom Aldredge and Polly Holliday (as the McIlhennys, a charmingly snippy retired couple, abroad for the first time, who find Europe "not quite what we expected"). The play's chief enduring pleasure, though, is wistful recognition of its 1950s period details?black-market money-changing, for instance, and great deals on perfume and glassware?which are of interest primarily to the venerable McIlhennys in the audience and their comrades in touristic memory. I submit that the moment any theater starts pitching its seasons exclusively to the McIlhennys of this world, it has initiated the sclerosis that will stop its heart.


Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th St. (B'way), 239-6200, through May 7.


Arms and the Man By George Bernard Shaw
The choice to produce the "pleasant" 1894 play Arms and the Man, as opposed to one of Shaw's "unpleasant" or more politically pointed works, could itself be seen as an instance of malign McIlhennyosis. Here is a drama set in Bulgaria during a war with Serbia in which the horrors of war never come up, and in which an impressionable young woman is deprived of her romantic illusions regarding male heroism, only to end up betrothed to a soldier with "an incurably romantic disposition."

Shaw adopted so much light comic convention in this work that his unconventional ends can easily seem obscure, and he didn't own up to this at first. He thought the popular success of the London premiere was "insane," for instance, and dismissed it as "a ghastly failure." Addressing a lone man who had shouted "Boo!" among the riotously appreciative first-night audience, the author rose and said, "My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we against so many?"


The utterly inoffensive blandness of Roger Rees' Roundabout production, then, isn't entirely the director's fault. Having seen two previous productions that drew vastly more bite out of this work than his does, however, I do blame him for simply serving up the piece's lighthearted melodramatic shell while all but ignoring the problem of powerfully stating the witty, unconventional thoughts within.


The set by Neil Patel is confusingly stylized: a U-shaped room whose walls are papered with a map highlighting Balkan place names of minor importance in the action. The costumes by Kaye Voyce are, by contrast, sumptuously realistic: wildly colorful Bulgarian pattern dresses and resplendently ornamented military uniforms straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan. Several of the lead actors?such as Katie Finneran as Raina and Henry Czerny as Bluntschli?are smoothly credible, but the irritating mechanics of several others leave them little chance to shine as they might.


The important servant role of Nicola, for instance, is played by a black actor (Michael Potts) straitjacketed by a Cockney accent and a string of idiotic gags Shaw never conceived. Worse, the leading role of Saranoff, one of the three characters whose self-discovery drives the plot, is played by Paul Michael Valley as a Dudley Do-Right-like cartoon, which leaves him nowhere to go with the characterization after he draws his initial laugh.


Seated in my row at the matinee performance I attended was a bright-eyed, very old woman I'd noticed before the show who was asleep during the avid applause at the end. My dear woman, I thought, I quite agree with you, but what are we against so many?


Gramercy Theater, 127 E. 23rd St. (betw. Lexington Ave. & Park Ave. S.), 777-4900, through April 30.


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