Monday, April 28, 2014

Funny Men: Act One & Beyond Therapy

Tony Shalhoub and Santino Fontana in Act One, at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The three plays I consider the funniest in the American canon came out within four years of one another: The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (1926), Chicago by Maurine Watkins (1928), and Once in a Lifetime by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart (1930). All three are hard-boiled comedies, a genre that has, unhappily, all but disappeared, though you’d think that the huge success of the movie musical version of Chicago, which restores more of the original text of the play than the stage musical did, might have had the effect of bringing it back into the culture. (The last great cinematic example of the genre before Chicago was probably Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, in 1970.) Hard-boiled comedies are tough, spirited and satirical. They view the world as essentially a lousy place, certainly a corrupt one, though if you’re clear-eyed and quick-witted and skillful at what you do, you can manage to succeed in it. The hard-boiled comic hero, often the representative of an exclusive group – like the Chicago reporters in The Front Page – is a wised-up pro with a sense of irony and a nose for bullshit, and though his (or her) behavior may not be saintly nor his motives pure, the fact that he’s neither pretentious nor hypocritical places us firmly on his side. The real target in a hard-boiled comedy tends to be institutional or cultural, anyway: politics (The Front Page) or the justice system (The Front Page, Chicago) or the American hunger for celebrity (Chicago).

Once in a Lifetime, my favorite American comedy, is about Hollywood during the chaotic, panicked transition from silents to sound, and its protagonists are a trio of vaudevillians who – since the talkies are killing what’s left of vaudeville – trek out to the coast to start a school of “elocution and voice culture” to take advantage of the general chaos and lack of direction at one of the big studios. (The play provided the obvious inspiration for Betty Comden and Adolph Green when they penned the best hard-boiled movie musical before Chicago, Singin’ in the Rain.) The script for Once in a Lifetime was a collaboration between a twenty-six-year-old novice named Moss Hart, who came up with the idea for it, and the most successful comic playwright of the era, George S. Kaufman; it began a collaboration that spanned a decade and included seven more plays, two of which, You Can’t Take It with You and The Man Who Came to Dinner, were turned into famous movies and are revived often. The only reason that Once in a Lifetime isn’t is that, as befits its subject matter, it’s extremely extravagant, with a massive cast and six sets, including a starry L.A. club and a Hollywood soundstage. The 1932 movie version preserves most of the original script and it’s quite enjoyable, though with a couple of exceptions it doesn’t have the cast the material deserves. The Broadway production is legendary, and the trials and tribulations that led to its ultimate triumph forms the last section of Hart’s 1959 memoir, Act One, which, dramatized by James Lapine, is currently occupying Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. (Lapine is also the show’s director.)

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1937
Hart was born into a poor family of English-Jewish émigrés in the Bronx; his hard-working parents took in boarders and he dropped out of high school to go to work for a furrier. But his love of the theatre, cultivated by his Aunt Kate, his mother’s sister – who lived with the Harts for several years until his father, driven to distraction by her selfishness and high-handedness, threw her out – led Moss to quit the fur business and take a job as an office boy for a theatrical manager named Augustus Pitou, who wound up producing his first, disastrous foray at playwriting, The Beloved Bandit. (This section of the book is convulsively funny.) From there he worked as a little-theatre director and, in the summers, as a social director at a series of adult summer camps in the Catskills, until finally the celebrated Broadway producer Sam Harris read the first draft of Once in a Lifetime and sent it to Kaufman.

There seems little doubt that Act One is the most inspiriting theatrical memoir ever published, even though, as Hart’s biographer Steven Bach has pointed out, he invented much of it. (Bach doesn’t dispute the quality of the book.) It’s a moving version of the archetypal first-generation-American tale, with its hero battling to get himself and his family out of numbing poverty. For any young person in love with the theatre, it’s a must-read. And once Hart begins to collaborate with Kaufman, the book becomes at once a fascinating depiction of the development of a great comic play – which nearly goes under in the process, until, through a combination of invention, persistence and serendipity, Hart figures out how to save it – a compendium of theatrical traditions, truisms and observations, and a marvelous portrait of Kaufman, eccentric, irascible and formidable, from the point of view of his writing partner. Here’s a sample:
". . . unlike most of us, [Kaufman] was not driven by a savage necessity to be liked. He cared little for the good opinion or the admiration of the special world he moved in and was a celebrated part of. He adhered strictly to his own standards and judgments, and they were stern ones. The most striking characteristic of the personality he presented to the world at large was an almost studied aloofness and indifference, and it struck me as remarkable how the world at large continually tried to break through this wall and win his approval on any terms he chose to make. Indifference can be a wonderful weapon – whether it is used as ammunition in a warfare between lovers or as a mask for timidity and shyness, for behind that mask of disdain and unconcern lay the diffident and modest man whom it never entered my mind to be afraid of."
Perhaps better than most I came to know that this seeming indifference was the protective coloring of a temperament whose secret and inmost recesses held a deep reservoir of emotion; that it was the superficial exterior of a man who chose to reveal himself only to a very few, but whose emotions could be fervent and profound. I knew how quickly he could be seized and touched emotionally and how susceptible he was to the dark doubts that licked at other men’s souls.As a loving appreciation of a collaborator, Act One is equaled only, perhaps, by the screenwriter Samson Raphaelson’s tribute to the filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch, “Freundschaft: How It Was with Lubitsch and Me.”

Andrea Martin and Matthew Schechter (Photo: Joan Marcus)
A 1963 movie of Act One didn’t come close to getting the feeling of the book (and it was miserably miscast). Lapine’s adaptation is clumsy and there are a hundred things wrong with it, but it’s clear that he’s in love with the book, and he conveys enough of its spirit to make the play satisfying. This is a big show, covering a decade and a half, with a complicated, constantly revolving multi-level set (designed by Beowulf Boritt) that sometimes feels like a Rube Goldberg contraption and a cast of twenty-two actors playing close to fifty roles. Three different ones alternate as Hart: Matthew Schechter, who plays him as a child (and steps in later as his kid brother Bernie); Santino Fontana, playing Hart as a young man; and Tony Shalhoub, who impersonates the older Hart – the author of the memoir, which was written when he was in his mid-fifties – and shares narrating duties with Fontana. The doubling of the narrator is extraneous and finally confusing, since Shalhoub also plays Hart’s father Barnett (mostly in the first act) and Kaufman (mostly in the second); Kaufman is on stage for so much of act two that by the time Shalhoub returns as the middle-aged Hart at the end of the play you’ve forgotten there is a second narrator. The book has a built-in dramatic structure that Lapine can simply transpose, though he has trouble figuring out how to get started. He begins with Andrea Martin as Aunt Kate watching a production of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance from a balcony seat, which would only make sense as a starting point for Hart’s story if he, as a child, were sitting next to her; this isn’t, after all, a story about Aunt Kate’s love for the theatre.

The play is weakest when it deals with Moss’s family. The roles of Barnett and Lillie Hart (Mimi Lieber) are underwritten; we don’t get a sense of his relationships with either of them, except for his resentment of his father for exiling Aunt Kate, a scene that’s played for melodrama. (Martin, always more comfortable in comedy, is better served by the role of Frieda Fishbein, the boisterous agent who provides a liaison between Moss and Sam Harris, played by Bob Stillman.) According to the book Hart didn’t have much affection for his mother, who lacked warmth, but Lapine omits that element and doesn’t fill in with anything else, so Lillie just seems like a cipher. And since years go by between Aunt Kate’s departure and the triumphant opening night of Once in a Lifetime, by the time Moss and his father reconcile at the end of the play the moment doesn’t build on anything; it’s hard to believe that a twenty-six-year-old man is still pissed at his father for a single incident from his childhood. Lapine also invents a scene between Moss and his younger brother in which Bernie reveals that he’s dropping out of school to take a job at the furrier’s and moreover that he’s become involved with bootleggers, and Moss’s appalled response prompts his decision not to give up on the play even when a depleted Kaufman is ready to do so. Does Moss need another reason to keep going besides his belief in the play and his commitment to a life in the theatre and a loathing for the poverty and deprivation of his childhood to keep going? That’s melodrama, too, and ridiculously overstuffed melodrama: the filthy fur company job and bootleggers, too?

Matthew Schechter, Mimi Lieber and Fontana (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Still, Act One becomes entertaining once Moss ventures into the world of the theatre – when, employed by the ulcerated, cheapskate producer Augustus Pitou (an amusing Will LeBow), who calls Moss “Mouse,” he’s able to attend shows for free every night with his new gang, the other theatrical office boys. (In this impossibly abundant age, on occasion eleven new plays open the same night. The thought of it makes any theatre buff salivate.) The Beloved Bandit episode is fun, especially the detail that Moss continues to run errands for Pitou as if he hadn’t graduated to the position of playwright. But the tech rehearsal should be livelier – more imaginatively written and staged. Then, after the failure of this early attempt at playwriting Moss tries out, briefly, a career as an actor, and lands in a revival of O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones opposite the towering African American performer Charles Gilpin, and Chuck Cooper gives the role some wasted grandeur and authority, a whiff of dashed greatness. Finally Shalhoub, with upbrushed hair and specs, re-enters as Kaufman, phobic about germs, a chronic look of befuddled distaste about his mouth and nose, so horrified by any kind of sentimentality that he literally skitters away every time Moss tries to articulate his gratitude. It’s a wonderful piece of caricature that deepens into something more in the second act. The set gets a facelift as Moss begins to write with Kaufman in his Manhattan house and, through the famous man’s kind, aristocratic wife Beatrice (Martin), he comes in contact with a more elevated social circle: the Algonquin Group, who were the Kaufmans’ closest friends. LeBow has a perfectly calibrated bit as Alexander Woollcott (later to be the inspiration for Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner), and Matthew Salivar makes a charming Harpo Marx. And Lapine comes up with a clever way of illustrating the writing process: as a scene from Once in a Lifetime is acted out on the floor of the stage, a tier above the duo shapes it and the actors shift the dialogue accordingly. (It’s a pity that the three members of the ensemble who play the vaudevillians are all cast wrong.)

Fontana is an appealing Moss; then, as the stakes get higher – as the play goes into crisis mode – his performance becomes more impassioned, and unlike the version of himself that Hart presents in the book this young man isn’t entirely pleasant when his ambition drives him. Lapine has given him a scene with Beatrice Kaufman where, after she makes it clear that she’s lost hope in the play’s prospects, he accuses her of condescending to him. But we don’t see it that way; he’s acting out because of his disappointment, and yet we’re on his side because we understand that disappointment – that, dedicated as Kaufman is to Once in a Lifetime, rescuing it has to mean more to Hart than it could possibly mean to a seasoned playwright with half a dozen hits under his belt. And, of course, we have the advantage of hindsight: we know that Once in a Lifetime turned out to be the beginning of the most celebrated writing collaboration in the American theatre.

When Kaufman helps Hart shape the first-act train scene from Once in a Lifetime, he encourages his young writing partner to expand on the Hollywood columnist Helen Hobart’s description of her absurdly expansive home in Beverly Hills, so Hart adds four dogs to her menagerie. “Make it eight,” Kaufman corrects him. “Let’s make it twelve,” Hart enthuses, but Kaufman insists, “No. Eight.” Eight dogs are funnier than four, and twelve are too many – they flatten the joke.

Karl Kenzler and Liv Rooth in Beyond Therapy (Photo: Marielle Solan)

The kind of comic instinct that can split hairs in this way is a mystery – magic. In Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy, which just enjoyed a lively off-Broadway revival by The Actors Company Theatre, Bruce (Mark Alhadeff) invites his new girl friend, Prudence (Liv Rooth), home for dinner; he’s counting on his live-in boy friend, Bob (Jeffrey C. Hawkins) – the fact of whom Prudence is still struggling to accept – to make himself scarce. But Bob hangs around, and he even calls his mother, Sadie, to tell her that Bruce’s insistence on dating women is making him so miserable that he plans to commit suicide. Though we never meet Sadie, she has plenty to say via telephone to both Bruce and Prudence on the subject of their relationship and how it’s ruining his son’s life, and when Bruce tries to get a word in edgewise she drowns him out by singing “Rose’s Turn” from Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy. That’s pretty funny – the interfering mother of a neurotic gay man belting maybe the most celebrated diva turn in the history of musicals so she doesn’t have to listen to his lover’s excuses. But the joke has a capper: her next selection is “Welcome to Kanagawa,” the song of the Japanese whores from Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures. Now that’s hilarious, in a way that a less narrative-specific song from a less esoteric show wouldn’t be.

Analysand comedies had a period of popularity on both stage and screen in the seventies and eighties, and Beyond Therapy, originally produced in 1981, is perhaps the craziest of them. It’s part high comedy, which (like hard-boiled comedy) is always set among an exclusive group that forms a sort of aristocracy: of the six characters in the play, two are analysts and the other four are patients. It’s part sex farce, recalibrated for absurdism. And it’s part egghead parody, though to a lesser degree than other early Durangs like The History of the American Film and The Idiots Karamazov (or his last, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike). When the entire cast of characters winds up at the restaurant where, we know from previous scenes in this locale, it’s almost impossible to get any service, and Bob quips, “This is a very existential restaurant,” the reference isn’t just to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot but also to Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, where the characters march from restaurant to restaurant, unable to score any food.

Beyond Therapy is also part romantic comedy – and that’s the sweetness at the heart of the play. Bruce puts a personal ad in the paper and Prudence, who is rebounding from an affair with her therapist, Stuart (Karl Kenzler), answers it. But when they meet and he immediately alludes to Bob, she’s put off. And his insistence on reading every sentence out of her mouth as either an affirmation or a contradiction of his model for an ideal (female) romantic partner (“We agree on everything. I want you to have my children,” “You missed the metaphor. I could never love anyone who missed the metaphor”) makes her feel nervous and trapped. They end up in a terrible row, dunking glasses of water on each other’s heads. Then, on the advice of his therapist, Charlotte (Cynthia Darlow), he retools his ad, and it’s so different from the first one that she answers it too, showing up once again in the existential restaurant. Their second date is a big improvement on their first; they go to bed together, and next time he invites her to dinner. At the end of the play, after everyone else – including the waiter (Michael Schantz), who finally shows up and turns out to be a patient of Charlotte - traipses offstage, Bruce and Prudence are alone once more, and it looks as if they’re going to try to make a go of it. Life is so crazy that if you think you’ve found someone who makes you happy, it would be foolish to let your bisexuality or her stalking ex-lover shrink get in the way.

Mark Alhadeff and Cynthia Darlow (Photo: Marielle Solan)
I’ve resisted calling Beyond Therapy a satire because, though it makes jokes about gender stereotyping and sexual stereotyping and certainly about psychiatry, it’s light-hearted; it doesn’t have an agenda. Stuart pretends that his objections to Prudence’s dating Bruce is purely a professional concern when it’s obviously sexual jealousy; Charlotte uses a stuffed Snoopy to soothe her patients, she gets them mixed up when she can’t get immediate access to their files, and she has a unique brand of malapropping. (When she can’t remember what she was going to tell Bruce during one of their sessions, he helpfully suggests various words while she waves away his suggestions as if they were playing a game of charades.) But Durang isn’t trying to tell us that therapists are idiots or predators; he’s having fun – he gets a kick out of these ridiculous characters. (He treats Charlotte with genuine affection.) His trademark tone of fastidious, hopeful sincerity – the struggle of a human being caught in an impossible situation to make sense of it, to fight for sanity – is linked to comedy; only in his masterpiece, the semi-autobiographical The Marriage of Bette and Boo, is it linked to tragedy too.

The TACT production, staged by Scott Alan Evans, is quite good, though occasionally – at least during the matinee performance I attended –legitimate energy fades into faux energy, as when Kenzler’s Stuart gets drunk in the final scene (an invention of either the actor or the director). Kenzler’s better in the first act, when he isn’t trying so hard. Rooth is a tall, leggy blonde – a Cynthia Nixon type – and she has such a pleasingly shiny look that it took me a while to register that she was commenting on her lines rather than playing them straight, a tendency that she never fell out of. She has a few nice comic moments: when Bruce throws his head down on the table at the restaurant to cry (which upsets Prudence who doesn’t think men should cry unless something falls on them), she slips her napkin surreptitiously under his head. I liked all four of the other performers, including Schantz in the cameo role of the waiter (who turns out, conveniently for the rejected-feeling Bob, to be gay). Alhadeff has the look of an earnest poodle, and he plays Bruce’s fidelity to the principles he’s learned during his sessions with Charlotte as a kind of cheerleading; when he persuades Bruce to go for a session with Charlotte, he leaves him with a supportive hug and a look of hopeful sympathy, like a kind-hearted camp counselor. Darlow approaches Charlotte as if she were a kind of hippie version of Madame Arcati, the dotty and eternally upbeat medium in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit. And Hawkins is the best Bob I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t make the mistake of most actors in this role of making him effeminate, to counter Bruce’s sensitive-straight-man vibe. He underplays throughout, which makes for better orchestration of the chaos as well as establishing Bob as the most reasonable of the characters.

The final scene in the restaurant is the peak of that chaos (and, speaking of Noël Coward, it’s somewhat reminiscent of the end of Private Lives). When it’s well played, as it is here, Durang seems like a wizard.

– 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 and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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