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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'Comic Potential'
Janie Dee is a wildly funny robotic soap opera star in Alan Ayckbourn's "Comic Potential."
Contents: December 23, 2000:
(1)"Comic Potential"
(2)"The Tale of the Allergist's Wife"
(3)"The Dinner Party"
(4)"Old Money"
(5)"The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe"

"Comic Potential"
by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by John Tillinger
produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55 Street
Opened November 16, 2000
Closes January 7, 2001
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar November 9, 2000
Alan Ayckbourn's wildly inventive, merry fantasy is a finely wrought combination of intelligence, wit, slapstick and subtlety. It is an illustrative lesson in comedy writing, with Ayckbourn telling us how it ought to be done, then doing it in perfect fashion. It's also a very funny satire on mindless television and the people who make it.

All of this is enhanced by the great comic sense, voice, expressions, and timing of Janie Dee, who plays Jacie, the wide-eyed, innocent robot actress. Director John Tillinger contributes a fast pace and light-hearted, farcical touch.

It's the future, and television has gotten even worse. Or, it's become totally transparent enroute to its logical conclusion. The formula plots are now designed by computer programs. The mechanical actors are "actoids," robots programmed by computer for the subnormal audience of "low-IQ tv."

An erstwhile movie director, Chandler Tate (Peter Michael Goetz in a safari suit) has fallen into the slough of despond where he makes tv soaps, in this case a hokey hospital show.

Actoid Jacie Triplethree (her part number is JCF31333), who plays a nurse in the soap, is programmed with a catalog of roles, including some from movies where she seems to have been a stevedore. With no original thoughts, she expresses herself through old dialogues. But, unaccountably, she also has some private feelings, and when they take over, she emits mood music.

A naive, idealistic young screenwriter, Adam (Alexander Chaplin), arrives determined to write comedy like it used to be. He decides that Jacie is just the star for his pilot. Alas, the world of television is hostile to shows not preset. The ensuing romp is hilariously funny.

Through Tate, we get Ayckbourn's expert dissection of what comedy ought to be, and what, in fact, he has done in the play. He extols the economy of comedy. It can't be overdone. There's the need to play on expectations and to exaggerate. We see every point played out.

Tate is a brilliant, but sexist movie director who gave up art to make junk and wallows in self-loathing and scotch. He points out that he drinks alone. Carla Pepperbloom (a delightful Kristine Nielsen) is a snooty redheaded tv exec who, reversing the old male-dominated casting couch, hits on young men. An observer comments, "Babes -- they get younger as she gets older."

The nasty studio chief, Lester Trainsmith (a devilishly sinister MacIntyre Dixon), in an industry where such people have mouthpieces to do their dirty work, actually has a live mouthpiece, Marmion (Carson Elrod), who divines his wishes through earphones.

Even designer John Lee Beatty has created a tongue-in-cheek set. The Grand Hotel lobby, restaurant and bedroom have the exact same beige, French provincial décor and wallpaper.

At one point, when Jacie bewails the fact she can't say anything but what is programmed, Adam consoles her, "We're all full of lines by other people. What is original these days?" That's easy: this play! Already a hit in London, it's a likely candidate for a Broadway run.

"The Tale of the Allergist's Wife"
by Charles Busch, directed by Lynne Meadow
produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47 Street
239-6200, 800-432-7250
Opened November 2, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 16, 2000 during run at City Center

Charles' Busch's wildly funny satire is a generous look at an upper middle class, Upper West Side, New York Jewish neurotic who turns angst into near vaudeville.

Marjorie (Linda Lavin) is Marjorie, a fiftyish depressive housewife who fills her life with intellectual self-improvement ("I'm no stranger to the New School for Social Research") but is still bored to desperation. She feels like a fraud, "a cultural poseur," insisting to her husband Ira, "We're Russian peasants from the shtetl. We shouldn't be allowed into art exhibitions from the Whitney." Lavin plays Marjorie to the obsessive hilt with a delicious whiney, nasal New York accent.

Ira (Tony Roberts) is a retired allergist who busies himself with good-works teaching and giving radio interviews. He's well-meaning but can't figure out what ails Marjorie. Roberts shifts expertly between perplexity and dismay. When, in a fit of self-destructive despair, Marjorie drops six porcelain figures in a Disney store, Ira remarks, "They though you were making a political statement about the Disney corporation."

Suddenly, to their Riverside Drive coop apartment -- with parquet floors, abstract prints, bookshelves, dining table and counter between kitchen and living room (designed by Santo Loquasto) -- comes Marjorie's childhood friend Lee Green (nee Lillian Greenblatt). Lee (a perky Michele Lee) is attractive where Marjorie is frumpy. A fundraiser for a political organization, she has been a food writer, restaurant manager, and art gallery manager in Berlin. She inspired Andy Warhol's Campbell soup cans. She's been everywhere, done everything, had the life Marjorie dreamed of.

Marjorie's self-confidence isn't helped by a negative, judgmental mother-you-love-to-hate (the comic Shirl Bernheim) who's always belittling her, when she's not complaining about her bodily functions.

Before everything is resolved, with love, forgiveness and acceptance of one's lot, there will be hash smoking, untraditional sex, and accusations of cult terrorism. All of it is very, very funny.

Busch's dialogue is subversively clever, both insular and universal. Marjorie declares: "I've always felt alienated from my group -- my religion, America, the West Side."

Director Lynne Meadow infuses the production with a sense of "you're not going to believe this, but it's absolutely true." The fun of show is that, like the best satire, it totters precariously between fantasy and reality.

"The Dinner Party"
by Neil Simon, directed by John Rando
produced by Emanuel Azenberg, Ira Pettelman, Eric Krebs, Scott Nederlander, ShowOnDemand.com, Center Theatre Group, Mark Taper Forum, Gordon Davidson
The Music Box, 239 W. 45 Street
239-6200, 800-432-7250
Opened October 19, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 24, 2000

This is a dinner party to which you don't want an invitation. It's thin fare. Even the conversation is desultory, bereft of the snappy one-liners that Neil Simon is known for.

It is a gorgeous setting -- a restaurant's private dining room with elegant French furniture and 18th century-style paintings of children in a formal garden. But the décor and the champagne on the bar cart seem out of place. This sitcom production demands beer and pretzels.

An unseen divorce lawyer has invited his clients to a dinner at the restaurant. He's also asked their former spouses. It's a twist on the old Agatha Christie conceit, "Why have we all been invited to spend the weekend at this strange, locked house?"

John Rando directs his sitcom stars as if they were still on television. Claude (John Ritter) asks, "Do you like Fragonard?" Albert (Henry Winkler) responds, "Not before dinner."

Claude announces that he wears a wedding band according to whether wants to be available or unavailable. He doesn't like organ meat. He has no problem with meat "as long as it doesn't have any body functions."

The guests arrive one at a time, the men first, so that we can "savor" the mystery. Claude wonders, "Who is next coming through that door?" Andre (Len Cariou) ripostes, "The tailor coming to collect Albert's rented suit."

We discover what went wrong in the marriages. Claude is jealous of his novelist wife Mariette (Jan Maxwell), because he taught her about novels and she found success writing the mediocre fiction the public wants. He wrote inferior versions of the classics. Is Simon telling us he really doesn't want to do low-brow theater?

The ex-partners yell at each other, insult each other, plead with each other. They argue about their sex lives: there was too much, there was not enough. Gabrielle (Penny Fuller) challenges them to a dangerous game, asking each other, "What is the worst thing your spouse ever did to you, what is the best thing?"

The women seem to have gotten the worst of the relationships. Simon, who was divorced three times, says he was inspired to write the play by his own divorces and those of his friends. If he's trying to suggest an answer to why marriages fall apart, it might be in the high level of nastiness and insensitivity shown by some of the characters in this play.

The best part of the production is Veanne Cox's nutty Yvonne, the ex-wife of Albert, who is filled with a wry pathos. Penny Fuller brings some spunk to the role of Gabrielle, and Ritter and Maxwell are convincing as the writers. But Winkler is downright silly as Albert, and Cariou is so stiff as Andre, that he seems embarrassed to be on the stage.

"Old Money"
by Wendy Wasserstein, directed by Mark Brokaw
produced by Lincoln Center
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65 Street
279-4200, 239-6200, 800-432-7250
Opened December 7, 2000
Closes January 12, 2001
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar December 8, 2000

It is true, as Wendy Wasserstein says, that American society is drowning in the worship of celebrity, that Hollywood movie producers can be crass and vulgar, that philistine corporate titans pay to get on museum boards, that some professional party-organizers try to schmooze or sleep their way to the top, and that creative people are often smothered by this dross.

Her play, "Old Money," uses a lot of funny lines and situations to skewer her targets. And the cast features some expert actors, especially Dan Butler as an outrageously crude movie producer who can't speak without the "F" word, a sincere young rich boy (Charlie Hofheimer), a curmudgeonly old scholar of architecture (John Cullum) and a feisty sculptor (Mary Beth Hurt).

However, the story line is so complicated and the flashing between past and present so erratic, that the glue that connects the social politics dries up. You also quickly tire of the name dropping, which is funny at the beginning, but finally pales by the time a departing guest chirps that Madeline Albright has offered her a ride.

This is all too bad, since Wasserstein's ideas and many bits in the play are quite clever. The notion is that Jeffrey Bernstein (Mark Harelik) a cool fortyish man in a white suit, who started out in a bunk bed on Coney Island Avenue, has become very rich through arbitrage and bought an East Side Manhattan mansion. It was once owned by Tobias Pfeiffer, a nasty robber baron modeled on Andrew Carnegie.

We see the huge, gorgeous living room designed by Thomas Lynch with cherry wood walls, carved molding and pediments, parquet floors, a crystal chandelier, elegant tables, an abstract nude sculpture, and doors opening on the garden. Jeffrey used to be a good guy -- he started the Yale human rights law journal and taught Head Start in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Now he's a cold fish who just cares about making it. He's having a big party on a Saturday night in August, held unseasonably in town to force guests to pay obeisance by journeying from the Hamptons or Connecticut.

The height of moneyed crudeness is represented by Sid Nercessian, the movie producer, who wants Buffy the Vampire Slayer to star in a revival of "Sense and Sensitivity." Sid's second wife (Jodi Long), in slinky green silk pants suit and spike heels, has a feng shui master who used to work at The Door Store and uses "Breast Express" so she can send mother's milk to her infant without the inconvenience of being there.

Sid's daughter Penny (Emily Bergl) who despises him, thinks variously of becoming a topless dancer, committing suicide, or seducing Ovid (Hofheimer), Jeffrey's son, who's trying to figure out what to do with his life.

And Flinty McGee (Kathryn Meisle), an opportunist in a slinky salmon spaghetti strap dress, organizes parties so she can be near these characters and the other "People" magazine types we are told are in the garden.

Jeffrey keeps trying to persuade his son why it's good to be rich. He says, "I want to be in the game, because it's a dull and inequitable world when you're not." Flinty sees that from the side of the powerless: "It must be so wonderful when people can't say no to you."

The play-currency of the party is sex. Rich people can command it, poor people use it to climb. Jeffrey's sculptor sister-in-law Saulina (Hurt) and Vivian (Cullum), the retired professor and grandson of the first owner, seem out of the loop.

The muddle arises when Wasserstein uses these same characters to represent Pfeiffer, his son, the house architect and guests at a party circa World War I. Jeffrey the Jewish Wall Street mogul becomes Arnold Strauss the department store magnate. And so on.

Among the issues are the behavior of the vulgar anti-Semitic rich (Pfeiffer), the vulgar Jewish rich, and celebrity-worshippers and the desire of sensitive people of all eras to pursue the finer arts.

Through the memories of Vivian, the characters flit in and out in time and circumstance, demonstrating quite admirably that the same sorts existed then as now, but weighting the play with terminal confusion. The people are mostly such shallow stereotypes, that they don't come across as real.

There are lots of clever Wasserstein quips: Jeffrey says there are three classes of people: "The players, those who wish they were the players and those who have no idea who the players are." The scholar, who taught at Columbia, declares, "I'm practically the last living dead white man."

Creeping through is a bit of social consciousness, as one is reminded ironically how robber baron Pfeiffer got his good reputation: "In every town where grandfather busted a union, he built a Pfeiffer library." When Tobias insists that the old rich built a nation, Jeffrey counters, "I never abused the workers." Is that a suggestion that this new rich fellow might be okay if he'd just lose his creepy friends?

Jeffrey wonders, "What's the matter with these people (the VIPs and celebrities). Everyone in America wants to be with these people." Wasserstein seems to be decrying that and reminding us how dreadful they are. She has a point, but the play is too cartoonish to make it.

"The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe"
by Jane Wagner , directed by Jane Wagner
produced by Lily Tomlin, Tomlin and Wagner Theatricalz
Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45 Street
239-6200, 800-432-7250
Opened November 16, 2000
Closes February 25, 2001
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar November 17, 2000

Lily Tomlin has revived her prize-winning, one-woman 1985 commentary about the state of America's neurotic inhabitants, and though her artistry has not diminished, the text seems dated.

Her chatter about angst, the New Age, ecology and feminism appears to come out of a time capsule or old reruns on television. And while the references are to matters that indeed affect peoples' lives, the quips skim the surface, offering very little of substance.

That said, Tomlin is a consummate performer, able to create more than a dozen characters with distinctive voices, facial expressions and body language. Dressed in black overblouse and pants, she is a master at mime, with elegant economy of gesture and enormous physical energy, whether she is dressing and undressing, exercising, lifting weights, or a hayseed clicking his tongue to clean his teeth.

The first half sets the scene, introducing Trudy, the bag lady, who has made contact with aliens searching for signs of intelligent life. On the Earth imagined by writer Jane Wagner, all she will find are people who are neurotic, unhappy, dissatisfied and utterly self-centered, often oddballs and outcasts.

Agnes Angst, a rebellious punk teen, is a performance artist like the mother who deserted her. Chrissy hopes some human potential movement will give her a sense of self and tells a friend at the gym that she considers it a step ahead if insights "leave you confused in a deeper way." Kate, a rich, bored, self-absorbed lady, is outraged at the arrogance of Bucci, the beautician. Among the others are a man in a gym, a couple of streetwalkers, and Agnes's put-upon grandparents.

In the second act, they will all impinge on the life of Lyn, a divorcing wife who was an activist in the 1970s feminist movement and is now holding a garage sale of the contents of her geodesic dome after the collapse of a marriage to a hypocritical New Age husband.

An adherent of transcendental meditation, acid and vegetarianism, he turned out to be passive aggressive, a condition which, Lyn notes, had passed for spirituality. He's in sensitivity training and she is in assertiveness training; nevertheless, he browbeats her into staying home with the twins so he can go to a sensitivity session! So much for the lasting impact of her feminism.

Most of the observations are wry but not memorable. Trudy notes that she's called crazy because she saves junk. "What should we call the people who buy it?" she wonders. And, "Going crazy was the best thing that ever happened to me. It's not for everybody. Some people can't cope." Also, "Reality is the leading cause of stress for those in touch with it."

Some of the dialogue is downright lame: "I worry that some of you came because friends invited you." And, "I worry about reflective flea collars. If cars can see them, so can the fleas." She says rats that are studied by scientists have certain symptoms "because their lab life style is so stressful."

There are only a few lines with substantive ironic content. One is her advice to Nabisco to pitch a marketing campaign to the developing world. She explains, "People in the third world don't know where their next meal is coming from, so between-meal snacks is something they never thought of." The other, about a woman working for a garment firm contracting in Latin America, advises, "It's hard to be politically conscious and upwardly mobile at the same time." Also funny: one of Lyn's sons pulls off Santa's beard and says, 'What animal got killed for this?' Perhaps those bits seem funny because the issues are fresh. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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