Dismaying Experience


Elaine May’s case is a curious one. Since the brilliant days of her early work with Mike Nichols, her career has been a succession of public misfires, disasters, and false starts. (She has had a string of what might be called private triumphs doctoring screenplays.) The never quite right films she directed in mid-career, Mikey and Nicky and A New Leaf, have a certain cachet: An astute mind was obviously at work in them, struggling to shape a real sense of life’s agony into quasi-comic form.

But the succession of mostly short plays that May has unveiled in the last decade or so displays an ominous sense of having given up the struggle. Any old gag or gimmick, they imply, is good enough; the most overworked themes will do, and nothing fresh need be made of them. May’s full-length Broadway disgrace of a few years back Taller Than a Dwarf was a minimal reworking of her ’60s pre-Broadway flop A Matter of Position. Her recent short plays likewise have the musty feel of objects unpacked from an old trunk. Even when they produce a mild sputter of laughs, every 10 minutes or so, they seem archaic, suburban, small-minded. That May’s aura can still make people finance this turkey farm is an ongoing puzzle.

Part of the puzzle is that May, a woman presumably in her seventies, seems to write only about getting laid. Of the three plays in her current bill After the Night and the Music, the first deals with dancing, a metaphor for seduction; the second centers on unhappy people waiting at home for bar pickups from last night to phone them; in the final one, two couples attempt group sex, which quickly turns into neurotic bickering. But then, almost everything in these plays that isn’t a successful consummation turns into neurotic bickering; May’s palette is aesthetically bipolar. The characters never rise to become a comic quintessence; they aren’t cartoon monsters of lust. At the same time, they don’t seem to have any lives beyond their desire; though jobs are occasionally mentioned, you rarely get a glimpse of the world beyond the bedroom. Forget politics, culture, society. In a millennial time of global upheavals and catastrophes, May’s characters are still uncomfortably comfortable, whiny, urban Americans bitching about their relationship problems.

The first piece in After the Night and the Music, grudgingly titled Curtain Raiser, is the best, though it also sets the tone for the evening’s nondescript refusal to place itself convincingly in any specific world. In a “dance hall” (when were there last dance halls?), a lesbian sulks at the bar while her partner, uneasy about being seen dancing with another woman, waltzes off with a succession of men. A goofy-looking bespectacled chap who accosts the sulking Sapphic turns out to be a retired dance instructor who can’t find a partner and who, used to teaching both men and women, has no problem about who leads. Soon they’re making beautiful footwork together. Clinch, sort of, and fadeout. Charmingly performed by twinkle-toed Eddie Korbich and twinkling-eyed J. Smith-Cameron (the latter in a severe Louise Brooks black bob), this improbable trifle gets a lot of help from Randy Skinner’s choreography, which Korbich in particular animates extravagantly.

Nothing so animated happens in the next piece, Giving Up Smoking, an extended kvetch in quartet form that looks to have been inspired by Dorothy Parker’s famous short story “A Telephone Call.” Lonely, neurotic Joanne waits at home for Mel, a hunk she met in a bar, to phone her (the era of cell phones and call waiting has only incompletely entered May’s consciousness). Meantime, her gay male best buddy, Sherman, calls periodically while waiting for Gavin, whom he met in a bar, to phone him. In due time, we see Mel, in a funk about his recent divorce and wondering whether to call Joanne, whose name he can scarcely remember. Their woeful monologues alternate with confusions, meant to be funny, over who does and doesn’t call whom when. For an obbligato, a phoneless fourth monologue goes to Sherman’s widowed mother, who reflects on the happiness of her own marriage, presumably as evidence that humans were more loving before voice mail. Brian Kerwin, as Mel, and Smith-Cameron, white-wigged in this one, as the mom, add some vitality, but Sherman and Joanne, baskets of complaints rather than human beings, are a lugubriously unfunny pair of characters, and the performances of Jere Burns and Jeannie Berlin only redouble the mournful feeling by squeezing every last drop of whine from their roles.

After intermission, there’s Swing Time, in which a nervously overexcited couple (Smith-Cameron and Kerwin) welcome their best friends (Berlin and Burns) over for a first-time bout of group sex. The second couple turns out to be just as jittery about the prospect, remarks are made at just the wrong time, the phone rings, and the erotic bout is a disaster before you can say, “Bob and Carol and Ted and . . . ” May has found one or two laughs here, but the material feels even wearier than in Giving Up Smoking, and Daniel Sullivan’s direction can’t find any way to enliven it. (Berlin, improbably cast as the erotic target of both men’s desire, is a particular problem here.) Only Smith-Cameron’s elegant fits of hysterics and Kerwin’s snappish reactions to them offer any relief. If this is the essence of May, we can only hope June will be better.