Saturday, December 8, 2012

Play It As It Lays

Have you ever met someone blessed with the peculiar talent of failing upward? They're like cats who always manage to land on all four legs. No matter what kind of disaster surrounds them, they have the unique capacity to shake off any collateral damage and get promoted to a new position with higher pay.
  • They may be colossally incompetent (Condoleeza Rice).
  • They may not have any brains or talent to speak of (Jim DeMint).
  • They may not know much about geography (Sarah Palin).
  • They may not have any ethics (Ralph Reed, Jr.).
  • They may not be much help in a crisis (Michael Brown).
  • While others constantly wonder how they've kept rising, they may be so cluelessly self-confident that they remain totally oblivious to their good fortune. (Mitt Romney)
A friend of mine back East used to know a handsome young man who always had prime orchestra seats for any show on Broadway. When asked how (considering his noticeable lack of any kind of career path) he could afford such a luxury, he smiled sweetly and replied "I honestly don't know. These guys like to take me out to dinner in nice restaurants, take me to the theatre, take me home and fuck me..."

Despite what the cynics said, the young man's naiveté was genuine. Some people wait years to figure out who they are or what they were meant to do. Others have a winning combination of ambition, chutzpah, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of luck.


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Down at the Eureka Theatre42nd Street Moon recently presented a revival of 1940's Pal Joey, the great Rodgers and Hart musical based on a sleazy character that John O'Hara first introduced to audiences in The New Yorker magazine.

The original production ran only 11 months, racking up 374 performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the Shubert Theatre, and the St. James Theatre.
  • Some people were obviously put off by the title character (portrayed by Gene Kelly), an arrogant social climber who shows no interest in redemption.  
  • Some may have been shocked by the predatory behavior of the wealthy socialite, Vera Simpson (played by Vivienne Segal in the original production), who at 39 could boast that "I'm vexed again, perplexed again, thank God I can feel oversexed again!"
  • Considering the bad news coming from Europe during World War II, many may have avoided Pal Joey because of its cynical showcasing of a low-life antihero.
  • Ironically, the show closed a week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941).

If my memory is correct, I saw a 1963 revival of Pal Joey at the New York City Center that starred Viveca Lindfors, Bob Fosse, Rita Gardner. and Kay Medford.  At the time I was still in high school and much too naive to understand the dynamics of he relationship between Joey and Vera.

Several years later, a friend took me to a most unfortunate community theatre production of Pal Joey in Rhode Island. A friend of hers who had been cast in the role of Melba delivered a tragically unforgettable high-octane rendition of "Zip" that made one think of Ann Miller on speed. Lots and lots and lots of speed.

Tastes change, however, over time. While Pal Joey has had several revivals, Broadway audiences have learned to embrace such antiheroes as Fagin, Pseudolus, The Phantom of the Opera, Mack Sennett, Sweeney Todd, Billy Flynn, Max Bialystock, and a collection of Presidential assassins.

Vera Simpson (Deborah Del Masto) and Joey Evans
(Johnny Orenberg) in Pal Joey (Photo by:  David Allen)

The 42nd Street Moon production used the original script for Pal Joey, which proved to be surprisingly streamlined. Musical lead-ins were almost effortless and, with a score that contains such chestnuts as "I Could Write A Book," "What Is A Man?" and "In Our Little Den of Iniquity," it's hard to go wrong. As fate would have it, Pal Joey proved to be Lorenz Hart's next-to-last musical (By Jupiter premiered in 1942. Hart died on November 22, 1943, exactly 20 years before President John F. Kennedy would be assassinated). For a sobering appreciation of Hart's talent as a lyricist, listen to Marin Mazzie's rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."


Recently, 42nd Street Moon's offerings have begun to demonstrate stronger production values. Hector Zavala's sets and costumes for this production set the appropriate cheesy tone for a Chicago nightclub while Zack Thomas Wilde's direction and choreography kept things moving at a rapid pace.

Melba Snyder (Becky Saunders) and Joey Evans
(Johnny Orenberg) in Pal Joey (Photo by: David Allen)

The show was exceptionally well cast, with Johnny Orenberg a perfect choice for the role of Joey. He received solid support from Deborah del Mastro as Vera, and Chloe Condon as Linda English. Ryan Drummond scored strongly as Ludlow Lowell (a sleazy blackmailer) working in cahoots with Ashley Rae Little as Gladys Bumps. Becky Saunders did a beautiful job of underplaying Melba's intellectual striptease, "Zip."

The final moments of the show, however, are a notable departure from the feel-good musicals of the 1930s. Kicked to the curb by Vera, Joey finds himself hopeless, helpless, and homeless -- but not for long.

* * * * * * * * *
Over at Thick House on Potrero Hill, Theatre Rhinoceros presented the world premiere of Slugs and Kicks, a new work by John Fisher which resembled a soufflé whose carefully chosen ingredients stubbornly refused to stick together. His protagonist, the nebbishy and virginal Rory (Ben Calabrese), is the kind of young man who reminds you of an amiable slice of Wonder Bread. Although he confesses to the audience that he knows he's in a gay play, he's sure that he himself is not gay (a textbook case of ignorance being bliss).

Rory gains most of his strength and relevance from whatever is smeared on or whoever is slapped on top of him. In fact, he gains very little dramatic weight until, like a Hostess Twinkie, he finally attains some market value late in the evening. In some ways, Rory reminds me of the moment in The Mikado when Ko-Ko refers to "that lady from the provinces who dresses like a guy and who doesn't think she dances, but would rather like to try....."

Marty (Robert Kittler), Rory (Ben Calabrese) and
Porter  (Nicholas Trengrove) in Slugs and Kicks
(Photo by: Kent Taylor)

Most of Fisher's play takes place in the 1980s on the campus of Purgatoria State (described as a huge public university in a long western state). Among the intense personalities who add spice to Rory's innate blandness are:
  • Anis (Alexandra Izdebski), Rory's closest, bestest friend, an aspiring actress who hasn't had a whole lot of luck with the men in the theatre department. Not willing to think of herself as a fag hag, Anis wants more than a platonic relationship with Rory, who seems physically incapable of rising to her desires.
  • Marty (Robert Kittler), Rory's laidback stoner roommate who loves to read and, to Rory's utter shock and consternation, turns out to be gay.
  • Giles (Nicholas Trengove), the theatre department's resident straight hunk who can't remember his lines.  Although he can barely act (but is easily cast in any production), Jerry constantly refers to him as "Miss Giles."
  • Cynthia (Asali Echols), Giles's girlfriend who has gotten used to his narcissism and infidelity.
  • Jerry (Zachary Isen), the screaming queen of a grad student who is directing the play in which he has cast Anis and Rory. Because Jerry's only reason for casting men is to have sex with them, Rory's cluelessness about his own sexuality presents a bit of an obstacle.
Giles (Nicholas Trengrove), Jerry (Zachary Isen), and Anis
(Alexandra Izdebski) in Slugs and Kicks (Photo by: Kent Taylor)
Although Slugs and Kicks had a likable enough cast, Fisher's overwritten script (although filled with lots of laughs) took a helluva long time getting nowhere. Part of the problem is that neither Rory nor his roommate (and eventual lover) Marty are particularly exciting characters. They're the kind of guys that things happen to (or around).

Nicholas Trengove did a fine job of flexing his biceps and looking, um, meaty, while Alexandra Izdebski's Anis fumed, raged, nagged, and did a fairly solid job of alienating everyone. As Giles's neglected girlfriend, Cynthia, Asali Echols offered a touchingly bland portrayal of the woman who is always in someone else's shadow.

That left Zachary Isen as the insecure, oversexed, often inebriated and megalomaniacal Jerry, free to chew the air, scenery, and (if only he could) Miss Giles. One of the sadder parts of the evening was that, years later, Jerry's sobriety robbed him of his rabid divadom, leaving little else onstage of any genuine interest.

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