Monday, January 19, 2009

Searching For A Pulse

The strangest thing happened this weekend. On consecutive nights I attended two performances which could, at best, be described as anemic. During each performance I found my body shifting, my attention drifting, and my mind struggling to identify what could possibly be wrong. Was the theater too warm? Was my blood sugar too high? Was I tired? Was the rest of the audience strangely quiet? Something was definitely out of whack.

Both productions were revivals of period pieces. Both plays were supposed to be famous for their rapier wit and satirical bite. Both plays began with a discussion of their protagonist's involvement in failed productions of other plays (a bad omen and yet an invaluable starting point to analyze two less-than-satisfying theatrical experiences).

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There's a curious mystique about Ben Hecht & Charles McArthur's Twentieth Century. Based on a play by Charles Bruce Milholland, it originally opened on Broadway in 1932 (where it ran for 152 performances). In 1934, the screen version -- starring John Barrymore as Oscar Jaffe and Carole Lombard as Lily Garland -- swept the nation off its feet and helped define the term "screwball comedy."

A 1950 Broadway revival starring Jose Ferrer and Gloria Swanson ran for 233 performances. In 1978, a musical version of the play starring John Collum and Madeline Kahn (with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) opened on Broadway. Directed by Hal Prince -- with a nearly operatic score by Cy Coleman -- On The Twentieth Century did less for its original stars than it did for the careers of understudy Judy Kaye (who took over the role of Lily Garland from Madeline Kahn) and Kevin Kline, whose over-the-top performance as Lily's lover, Bruce Granit, won him the 1978 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, the 1978 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in A Musical, and essentially launched his acting career into the stratosphere. For the musical version, the gender of the religious fanatic was switched from male to female to create a star turn for the legendary Imogene Coca.

In 2004, New York's Roundabout Theater Company produced a limited run (84 performances) of Twentieth Century starring Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche in a revised version of the play by Ken Ludwig. Although Anne Heche was warmly greeted by the critics, the rest of the production was not. One must be willing to question the myth of Twentieth Century's appeal in order to understand why Saturday's opening night performance at Theatreworks (using Ken Ludwig's new version) left me feeling so sadly underwhelmed.

Marketing campaigns for both the straight play (Twentieth Century) and its musical version (On The Twentieth Century) have relied on selling the glamour of train travel in the 1930s, the period's Art Deco style, and the concept of a battle of the sexes between two oversized Hollywood egos. While it's easy to sell the "sizzle" of Twentieth Century, delivering its "steak" offers a much more difficult challenge.

When I saw the musical version on Broadway in 1978 -- and again in a 2003 production starring Mark Jacoby, Judy Blazer and JoAnne Worley at the now-defunct American Musical Theatre of San Jose -- I found it strangely disappointing (as if a lot of very talented people had bestowed a great deal of love and talent on a favorite grandchild who could never live up to their expectations). As I watched the play unfold on the stage of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts this weekend I realized that (a) what may have been riotously funny 75 years ago was much less amusing to modern audiences, (b) the performance I was watching kept failing to hit its mark, and (c) part of Twentieth Century's undeniable success may lie in film director Howard Hawks' close-ups, which lose their impact when the play is performed onstage.

Over the years I've learned that opening nights -- where expectations are higher than usual --often end up becoming a glorified dress rehearsal. Lines get flubbed (at one point Saturday night someone referred to an airplane rather than a train) and the cast may be concentrating so hard that it simply cannot find its comedic rhythm. In some moments, the set seemed to be strangely underlit by lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt. Robert Kelley's stage direction, while fully functional, failed to ignite any magic.

Dan Hiatt and Rebecca Dines (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

Although the cast, headed by Dan Hiatt as Oscar Jaffe, Rebecca Dines as Lily Garland, Suzanne Gordner as Ida Webb, and Bob Greene as Owen O'Malley worked hard, they couldn't get this legendary comedy off the ground for the entire first act. Geno Carvalho failed to project as Lily's agent/lover. Gerry Hiken's portrayal of the religious fanatic, Matthew Clark, was lovable at best.

Act II fared better as sparks began to fly between Oscar Jaffe and Lily Garland. But the true mark that something was desperately wrong with this production was to be found in a tiny design detail. Set designer Andrea Bechert's unit set depicting multiple compartments of the 20th Century Limited was all a director could hope for in terms of clearly-delineated playing areas. But each time the secondary design elements in back of the train sprung into action (to create the sensation of a train pulling in and out of various stations), the effect completely stole the show. That's when you know that a play has been boring you and that something is terribly wrong with the performance you're watching. 

How ironic that Bechert's brilliantly designed and magnificently executed concept for incidental dramatic transitions brought more life to Twentieth Century than any of the actors onstage. It made me wonder if, like Stephen King's terrifying and yet unforgettable Christine, the 20th Century Limited might have had an agenda all its own.

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On Sunday night, a performance of John Guare's play, Rich and Famous, at the American Conservatory Theater was equally puzzling. Film director Louis Malle, who wrote a forward to a collection of Guare's plays, claims that:
"Guare practices a humor that is synonymous with lucidity, exploding genre and cliches, taking us to the core of human suffering: the awareness of corruption in our own bodies, death circling in. We try to fight it all by creating various mythologies, and it is Guare's peculiar aptitude for exposing these grandiose lies of ours that makes his work so magical."
First produced in 1974, Rich and Famous is set in New York during the 1970s and resembles the "bad dream" style of Charlie Kaufman's recent film entitled Synecdoche, New York. Bing Ringling is an inept playwright who finally manages to get a script (his 844th) produced in some hole of an off-Broadway theater. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, he finds himself hurtling through a nightmarish sequence of nonsensical encounters involving his girlfriend, his childhood schoolmate Tybalt Dunleavy, his parents, an insane theatrical producer,  a theatrical madman named Anatol Torah (a composite of three talented titans Guare had worked with in his early years: Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Joseph Papp) and a singularly untalented black actor named Aphro (short for Aphrodite).

Brooks Ashmanskas and Gregory Wallace (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Like a lot of bad dreams, there is some wonderful material to be found in Rich and Famous, most notably Mary Birdsong's portrayal of Veronica Gulpp-Vestige (an insane producer who has decided to make Bing Ringling's play her first official "flop"). Stephen DeRosa provides vivid characterizations of the insanely flamboyant Anatol Torah, the Hollywood legend Tybalt Dunleavy (a victim of his own celebrity who has already sold the rights to his suicide), and the playwright's father. 

Mary Birdsong (Photo by Kevin Berne)

While Guare's one-act play is structured like a vaudevillian nightmare for four talented performers, it suffers from one big problem.  In addition to some brilliant stretches of writing, it is weighed down by a fatal amount of drek. Not only do large parts of Rich and Famous seem hopelessly dated and overwrought, despite the best efforts of the talented cast and director John Rando, certain bits of stage business cross the footlights with the levity of a stale fart. 

Sadly, at the performance I attended, drek triumphed over all.

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