Supplanted by the TV sitcom, the ancient form of the Broadway comedy has almost entirely died out. Neil Simon, its last (and by no means best) ultra-successful practitioner, finds audiences and critics increasingly unenthused about his recent works. Broadway’s nonmusical ventures now come from other venues, bearing newer themes and less comforting tactics. But the old species survives, apparently, in the minds of producers whose only notion is to give some ancient “property” a new jolt of electricity, so it can make money for them as it did for their predecessors.
First staged in 1979, Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond is a late, nakedly inferior specimen of the genre. It deals with a retired college professor and his wife facing yet another summer at their cottage by a tranquil lake in Maine, and you can practically carbon-date it by its relentless emphasis on the main characters’ age and decrepitude: The Broadway comedies of the 1920s dealt with courting couples and young marrieds; as the decades wore on, the protagonists got progressively older. Nothing about On Golden Pond is particularly true or exciting; it’s the kind of script that tries to get laughs by having 70-year-olds use slang expressions like “suck face,” and its hero is a classic warmhearted grouch, always ready with a gag line, even while flat on the floor recuperating from a heart attack. But the electric charge is supplied here by making the couple, improbably, black: Nobody ever accused James Earl Jones of lacking electricity, or Leslie Uggams of lacking warmth. Their presence is so powerfully reassuring, in fact, that it creates something of a first: an electric blanket that keeps you awake all during this snooze of a script.