Poor Early Sondheim; Dull Arthur Laurents

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

By Stephen
Sondheim and Julius J. Epstein
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are wholly dependent on facile cultural generalizations and outdated sexual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

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

The Time
of The Cuckoo
Arthur Laurents
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
George Bernard Shaw
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