Thinner at Eight


I’m sorry, but I have to insist: To save my sanity, you must all vote Democratic on November 7. Unless we get a Congress that will bring back a fully restored National Endowment for the Arts, the American theater will never be strong enough to do anything big on its own again. And my colleagues and I will go crazy sifting through the endless parade of small-scale, low-horizoned projects, geared to flatter wealthy wallets, that have replaced it. The theater is booming right now—booming with lowest-common-denominator peddlers trying to drag the stage down to the level of American film and TV. And guess which group of Americans, discriminated against by occupation, has to trudge to the sorry results—from six to nine times a week in a hectic month like this? Go on, tell me that’s not discriminatory. Well, we, the victims, demand compensation: We want greater plays, productions of higher stature, companies of actors who, like us, give their lives to the theater (and get fair recompense for doing so). And we can only have those things with substantially increased federal support. Don’t let the Republicans kid you—there is no longer any such thing as a purely commercial theater. Even the new work by ex-king of Broadway Neil Simon has come here from the shelter of a large nonprofit house in L.A. With subsidy scraping bottom, theaters that should be free to explore and enrich the culture have to stay afloat by playing whatever angles they can, and come up with half-baked items like the three discussed below.

From Simon’s point of view, I suppose, The Dinner Party does represent an attempt to do something new, at least for him: a French philosophic comedy with Absurdist overtones, circa 1955. Six people—who turn out to be three divorced couples—find themselves stuck in a private dining room at a swanky Paris restaurant. The first third of the intermissionless 95-minute evening, mainly for the three males, who arrive earlier (“Women generally take longer to dress”), is devoted to discovering the party’s purpose. The middle third, with two ex-wives added, is spent pondering who tricked them into it. The last section finally faces the play’s topic, ending in a draw, with one couple staying irrevocably divorced, the other two—maybe—getting back together.

This crepe-thin structure has to be filled, and Simon’s filling of choice—maddening, rat-tat-tat repetition—has a stale flavor that could make even the best Parisian restaurant lose its three stars. Not that the script offers much of Paris beyond the characters’ names—these folk are about as French as French’s Mustard. Simon’s no better at differentiating cultures than he is at differentiating characters; each gets a name and an occupation, but that’s it. The vulgar dimwits become magically articulate, the ultra-wealthy indulge in vaudeville wheezes (“I can vouch for that. I even kept the voucher”), and one ex-wife stays placidly in the closed room for a long stretch until the author suddenly requires her to be claustrophobic.

Still, it’s short, its falsity is relatively painless, John Rando’s staging keeps the cast gracefully in motion, and the actors do what they can to bring the drab occasion a touch of festivity. Having been at drama school with Henry Winkler, I particularly relished watching him go back, with renewed polish and vigor, to a hapless-goofball role of the kind he played so inventively in the pre-Fonz era. Veanne Cox, as his unbalanced ex, does her I’m-a-neurotic-mess act—a very fine act—more brilliantly than ever. Jan Maxwell, elegantly brittle, almost gives her character an inner life. Len Cariou is gravely charming and nasty as the tycoon, Penny Fuller sleekly smug as his long-estranged spouse. Only John Ritter, as Maxwell’s ex-hubby, leans grimly on one note throughout. Interestingly, when the couples do start rehashing their former spouses’ flaws and virtues, only the former ring true.

Almost nothing rings true in Arthur Laurents’s Big Potato, which I should decline to review, since both Laurents and his director, Richard Sabellico, have disavowed its production. Written some decades ago, it deals with a married couple, Holocaust survivors, who plot to capture an important ex-Nazi (a “big potato” as opposed to the small kind). The Jewish Rep’s production, in which Sabellico miscast and misdeployed five excellent actors, makes no case for the play. But the script’s innate speciousness, plainly visible under the production’s best and worst moments, amounts to an indictment of any theater that would choose to produce it. If what the JRT wanted was the prestige of a link to Arthur Laurents, it’s certainly gotten what it deserves, while Laurents and Sabellico, professionals who might have known better, have been duly punished for not leaving the script to sleep peacefully in their files. They should call it a draw and put the whole mess behind them; Jews don’t need any extra troubles these days.

Neena Beber’s Hard Feelings at least has qualities—lots of them—worth having in a play: verbal wit, a compassionate comic sense, imaginative flair, energy, and even an interest in people. Its problem is finding a form into which to pour them all—a project Beber’s barely begun with this tale of a wannabe writer (yeah, that again) and the eccentrics around her. A third of the script plays like sketch comedy, often extremely funny; another third touches almost dutifully on a string of issues (lesbian parenting, gender bias, generational conflict). In the best scenes, mostly between the heroine and her aging grandmother, something like drama is built up, only through a device most adult audiences would resist: The grandmother’s lucidity is dependent on a pair of green bunny slippers. Still, Beber’s writing isn’t glib even when her gimmicks are, and in the brain-scrambling oddity of her play, you can hear an individual voice taking form. I bet neither Simon nor Laurents ever wrote a play that was this big a mess—or this intriguing. Maria Mileaf’s production sensibly keeps the lunacy from overflowing its banks, getting especially good work along the way from Mary Fogarty, Guy Boyd, and Pamela J. Gray; Mileaf’s one shortfall is with Seana Kofoed, who initially tilts the heroine so far toward loserdom that empathizing with her becomes an effort. With strong aid from Beber’s better passages, Kofoed wins her way back, making the evening one of partial victories all round. For more sweeping triumphs, we’ll have to wait till the 7th—not that they’d help this season much.