Monday, October 31, 2011

Three Comedies from Different Eras

Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 comedy The Servant of Two Masters, which translated commedia dell’ arte into scripted form, was mostly consigned to the reading of theatre history scholars until Giorgio Strehler, Jacques LeCoq and Amleto Sartori mounted their famous production in Italy in 1947 and brought it back into the public consciousness. In it, an Arlecchino figure – a tricky servant – manages to serve two employers simultaneously without either of them knowing it, and without realizing that they’re separated lovers. (One, the story’s heroine, is disguised as a man.) The play is entertaining but I prefer One Man, Two Guv’nors, Richard Bean’s revision, which was given a tip-top production at the National Theatre in London by Nicholas Hytner that has moved to the West End. (It was recently shown widely on HD.)

Bean has transplanted the Goldoni text to 1963 England – providing just enough distance from the audience’s experience to allow for a stylized period farce – and the scenes are interspersed with songs by Grant Olding, who leads a combo in shiny mauve suits called The Craze. (Olding, who sings lead vocals and plays guitar, wears heavy-frame specs like Buddy Holly.) The songs evoke a variety of early-sixties groups, including Herman’s Hermits and, inevitably, The Beatles. The servant with two governors is Francis Henshall, played by the ingenious James Corden, whom aficionados of British film will recall from Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing and Hytner’s The History Boys. His employers are a prep-school twit named Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) and the woman of his dreams, Rachel Crabbe (Jemma Rooper), who hatch a plan to emigrate to Australia after Stanley kills her twin brother Roscoe in self-defense; in the meantime Rachel pretends to be Roscoe to keep everyone off the scent. That means that she also has to pretend to be engaged to a brainless ingénue named Pauline (Claire Lams) – a match of convenience arranged by Roscoe, who was gay, and Pauline’s Mafioso dad, Charlie “The Duck” Clench (Fred Ridgeway). Pauline is really in love with a highly dramatic actor named Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby) whose father (Martyn Ellis) is the slippery solicitor Charlie and his friends typically employ to get them out of scrapes. The other characters, rounding out the cast of commedia types, are “The Duck”’s wised-up bookkeeper Dolly (Suzie Toase), the object of Henshall’s amorous inclinations, a Caribbean called Lloyd (Trevor Laird) who runs a pub-restaurant, and a pair of waiters (David Benson and Tom Edden).

Commedia was established in the middle of the sixteenth century, but many of the figures who inhabit it had begun as staples of Roman street comedy, which influenced Shakespeare and other Renaissance comic playwrights. (Making the Capitano, a ridiculous supporting character in commedia scenarios, into a lawyer gives Bean an excuse to indulge the archetype’s fondness for spouting Latin.) The enduring legacy of the form is apparent in TV sitcoms and farce-based movie comedies, and especially in silent film comedy, where Charlie Chaplin provided a link to the music hall, England’s counterpart to American vaudeville. Hytner and his superb set designer, Mark Thompson, pay tribute to this branch of the commedia tree with a neon curtain that frames the Lyttleton stage while The Craze stand in for the musical acts a music-hall audience would have seen in between the comedians and the acrobats. And in Thompson’s street set, my favorite of the four or five he dreamed up for One Man, cardboard cut-out thoroughfares allude wittily to the two-dimensional quality that the best farce transcends, especially when Henshall and some of the other actors race up and down in the gaps between them.

Suzie Toase and James Corden. Photo by Alastair Muir
The cast is superlative; only Rooper fails to bring much color to her performance. Oliver Chris, with his John Cleese vocal rhythms, can double you up with laughter, but the evening belongs to Corden, a sublimely relaxed physical comic whose line readings convey a constant air of pop-up ironic surprise. He makes a marvelous entrance at the end of a long scene at Charlie’s that sets up the complicated plot, deliberately bringing the play to a halt as if he’d put a DVD on pause long enough to comment tacitly on how boring it is and then injecting his own sped-up pace to give it some fresh life. Just as Bean’s source for a number of the routines – like the one involving the ancient, palsied waiter played hilariously by Tom Edden – is obviously Chaplin pictures, Corden looks to Chaplin for his amused-observer character, while his monologues let us in on the joke and in on Henshall’s cleverness at outwitting everyone. Corden is at his most inspired in the dinner scene at the end of the first half, where Henshall serves food to both his masters, located in private rooms across the hall from each other, while feeding his own face. (His perpetual state of hunger is one of the play’s running gags.) The scene is straight out of Goldoni, but in this adaptation it’s a bit of a miscalculation, because it’s so brilliantly staged and so uproariously extended that nothing in the second half could possibly match it. Indeed, Act II is something of a letdown, and it goes on way too long (especially the wrap-up). Really, you can’t sustain a farce for nearly three hours. But One Man, Two Guv’nors builds up a great deal of good will during Act I that it can draw on in Act II.

The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur may be the finest comedy ever written by Americans. The play, set in the offices of a Chicago tabloid, was first produced in 1928, at a time – invariably nostalgic for us now – when a big city housed so many daily newspapers that competition for readership was cutthroat. Also in 1928, Broadway was in the midst of a golden era of hard-boiled comedy. What Price Glory?, which chronicles the friendship and rivalry between two career soldiers in World War I, came in 1924, Chicago (the source for the musical) in 1926, and Once in a Lifetime, Kaufman and Hart’s sardonic commentary on Hollywood and the talking picture revolution, in 1930. Hard-boiled comedies aren’t discussed much any more, because they belong mostly to the twenties and thirties, but the best of them were joyous specimens. (Robert Altman resurrected the genre in 1970 with M*A*S*H and in the 2002 movie version of Chicago screenwriter Bill Condon restored much of the original dialogue from the Maurine Watkins play.) They’re set among an exclusive group – hard-bitten veteran warriors in What Price Glory?, the tough dames on Murderers’ Row in Chicago, Chicago scribes in The Front Page – with rules for membership and shared attitudes that are as iron-bound as those of the aristocrats in a high comedy. By contrast with high comedy, though, the world of these plays is seedy, low-rent (Once in a Lifetime is an intriguing exception) and rigged; it’s a crummy place but you can do all right in it if you’re wised-up and inventive. Hard-boiled heroes are cynical, terrific at their job, and have a finely tuned radar for bullshit. And though they’re not above lying and cheating – the lengths to which the editor Walter Burns and his star reporter Hildy Johnson will go for a scoop are the stuff of legend – by comparison to the representatives of corrupt institutions who are generally their adversaries, they’re almost virtuous. Hard-boiled comedy thrives on satire, in the case of The Front Page of Chicago’s political and law and order systems. A meek convicted murderer is railroaded by a mayor up for re-election and the sheriff, who try to push through his execution and go so far as to bribe a courier from the governor’s office to bury the poor bastard’s pardon. Anything Walter and Hildy can think of to hang these corrupt officials out to dry is fine by us.

Though its genre may have gone out of style, The Front Page never has: it’s been filmed four times. The first was a nifty early talkie by Lewis Milestone with Adolphe Menjou as Walter and Lee Tracy as Hildy that probably contains the first example of overlapping dialogue in movies. Billy Wilder (at far from his best) co-starred Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in one in 1974. But by far the most famous adaptation is His Girl Friday, which Hecht and MacArthur retooled for Howard Hawks in 1940, switching the character of Hildy, who’s quitting the paper to marry and move away from Chicago, from a man to a woman and making her not only Walter’s former employee but his ex-wife. This inspired gender shift and the peerless banter of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell turned Broadway’s greatest hard-boiled comedy into one of Hollywood’s beloved romantic comedies. The last of the movie versions, the underrated Switching Channels (1988), replayed the romantic element (with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner) and moved the plot to the world of broadcast journalism. The plot – breezily skilled, tough-talking professional claims to want to abandon his or her career for a staid, stuffy marriage but gets sucked back into the old excitement and camaraderie – has been stolen by other pictures, too, including Gunga Din (where Hecht and MacArthur themselves did the thieving) and Twister.

Phyllis Kay, Philippe Bowgen, & Angela Brazil in His Girl Friday. Photo by Mark Turek

Now His Girl Friday is a stage play, adapted by John Guare and receiving its east-coast premiere at Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence. It’s a fairly faithful recycling of Hawks’s movie, but in keeping with the updating of the script from the late twenties to the early forties Guare makes one serious – I’d say nearly disastrous – mistake: he turns Hildy’s fiancé, Bruce Baldwin (Stephen Thorne), into an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer. As Hecht and MacArthur wrote him Bruce is a hapless schlemiel whose promise of a respectable suburban married life is precisely what we don’t want Hildy to succumb to; luckily the hair-raising adventure of getting the scoop on the execution story reminds her in the nick of time what she’s giving up. But we’re not supposed to hate the guy – and it’s hard to hate Ralph Bellamy, who plays the role in the movie. Bellamy just has to sit across from Cary Grant at lunch for us to see what a mistake Russell’s Hildy is making; it isn’t necessary for the picture to make him repellent. This mistake sours an entire section of the play and Bruce has to slip out of it before it can recover.

Playwright John Guare
There are other, less significant mistakes in Guare’s version. Restructuring a three-act play as a two-act play misshapes it; Hildy’s “Oh, shit!” makes a lousy, pandering first-act curtain line; and sentimentalizing her response to the prostitute Mollie Molloy (Phyllis Kay), the convicted man’s only friend, suggests that Guare doesn’t trust a twenty-first-century audience to swallow a hard-boiled comedy from 1928 as it was written. (He wouldn’t think of rewriting his own savagely funny House of Blue Leaves to soften it for today’s theatergoers – nor should he.) But when all’s said and done, The Front Page still wins through. I felt the same way about Curt Columbus’s production. It’s too frantic, too loud; the first act wears you out. And Columbus doesn’t have a gift for staging big farce scenes – they’re such clumpy eyesores that you sometimes have the urge to get up there and move the actors around. As Hildy, Angela Brazil isn’t even in the ballpark. And Fred Sullivan, Jr,, Trinity’s funniest leading man, doesn’t have the right quality for Walter, a devastatingly charismatic son of a bitch for whom Hecht and MacArthur wrote the most carefully prepared-for entrance since Molière brought Tartuffe on in mid-comedy. We hear about Walter for an entire act (well, half an act in Guare’s revision), yet Sullivan’s entrance is pretty ordinary – which, to be fair, is as much Columbus’s fault as Sullivan’s.

Still, Sullivan is a terrific performer, and by the second half you’ve gotten used to him in the role and start to look forward to those trademark vocal rhythms of his. (He sounds like a snider Paul Lynde.) If you can’t quite buy him as a commanding editor from the golden age of newspapers, he certainly commands a stage. And the production has a genial company spirit that settles in after intermission and relaxes it. A regional theater company in 2011 couldn’t possibly afford to stage a full-cast revival of His Girl Friday, which has a cast of twenty, so Trinity makes a virtue of necessity. Everyone except for Sullivan and Brazil is double-cast, and the way the actors slide back and forth between characters, in terms of both character detail and staging tricks, is a running gag that becomes more and more pleasurable as the evening goes on. I particularly enjoyed Richard Donelly as the reporter Kruger and the mayor, Philippe Bowgen as the cop known as Woodenshoes and the convicted killer Holub, and Janice Duclos as Bruce’s harridan of a mother and a discombobulated minister. The ensemble carries the gag straight into the curtain call, and by then you’re having too much fun to worry about the show’s flaws and misfires.

Woody Allen, Ethan Coen and Elaine May: the playwrights of Relatively Speaking

Evenings of one-acts are always risky, especially when the plays are written by different playwrights: it’s tough to maintain consistency of quality and the link that’s supposed to hold the show together often feels forced. On the other hand, if one of the plays falls flat, it doesn’t necessarily wreck the whole production; you know it will be over soon and you’ve got the next one to look forward to. Relatively Speaking, which recently opened on Broadway, offers an example of both the down and the up sides. The three miniature comedies don’t have much in common, so the show feels disjointed. But the placement of Ethan Coen’s Talking Cure first on a bill that also includes George Is Dead by Elaine May and Honeymoon Motel by Woody Allen gives the trilogy a decided upward swing. The Coen piece, a series of conversations between a postal worker in a psychiatric hospital (Danny Hoch) and his therapist (Jason Kravits) followed by a flashback displaying the animosity between the patient’s parents – presumably to show that his fate was sealed before he was even born – is baffling. The pleasures of the evening are all to follow.

Marlo Thomas and Lisa Emery
George Is Dead is set mostly in the Manhattan apartment of Carla (Lisa Emery), who is nervously anticipating a blowout with her husband. He’s a high school history teacher who’s just given a speech at an Amnesty International convention but she had to miss it to tend to her difficult, aging mother. Enter Doreen (Marlo Thomas), a wealthy, unhinged dowager whose house Carla grew up in; her mother was nanny to Doreen’s daughter. Doreen announces that her husband has just died on a ski trip to Aspen and she’s so disconnected and dependent that she places herself in Carla’s capable hands – as if Carla were ready and able to drop everything and operate as an extension of the galvanizing role her mother evidently played in the household decades ago. It’s the kind of lopsided post-Freudian farce notion that you might expect from Elaine May, who specializes in comedy built around the behavior of nutballs holding fast to their pretzel logic in the face of rational opposition. Thomas gives a sensational performance: her Doreen suggests Gracie Allen as a WASP princess. She hands Saltines to her hostess to scrape the salt off; she demands – though sweetly – that Carla move the only TV set in the apartment to the living room so she can distract herself; she leaves Carla to make long-distance arrangements about the body because she simply doesn’t understand how such things are done and no one could expect her to deal with them from the depths of her grief. The play is small but original and diverting. Unfortunately, it goes under when Carla’s husband Michael (Grant Shaud) shows up, as infuriated as she feared, and then Nanny herself (Patricia O’Connell) appears to take charge of Doreen. The tone shifts – unsuccessfully – and you can’t tell whether the fault is in the writing or in John Turturro’s direction or both.

Unlike his recent movies, Vicki Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, Honeymoon Hotel doesn’t exhibit Woody Allen at his best, but it’s pretty funny. The setting is a cheap, gaudy motel that caters to horny couples, and that’s where middle-aged Jerry Spector (Steve Guttenberg, trying too hard) brings Nina Roth (Ari Graynor), who’s half his age, on their wedding night. Except it turns out not to be his wedding night at all: he’s just run off with his stepson’s brand-new bride, and in short order the wedding party stalks in on them to register their various objections. The interlopers include Caroline Aaron as Jerry’s cynical, long-suffering wife, Julie Kavner and Mark Linn-Baker as the parents of the bride, and the peerless Richard Libertini as the rabbi – and any show that includes this quartet reading Allen’s one-liners is eminently worth seeing. (In a better world, Libertini, who elevates the hilarity level of anything he appears in, would be as ubiquitous as Seth Rogen or Jonah Hill.) Honeymoon Hotel is a doodle, and Turturro has staged it poorly (the physical comedy is an embarrassment), but it provides a pleasing topper to the evening. And perhaps by now the production has worked out some of its kinks, like the flaws in timing; I saw it while it was still in previews.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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