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By Glenn Loney, February 1, 2004

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.

[01] Rose's Dilemma
[02] Demon Baby
[03] Eden
[04] These Very Serious Jokes
[05] Wonderful Town
[06] Iolanthe

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Make Way for 2004's Theatrical Adventures!

When it's time to change your watches & clocks again—to take advantage of Daylight Saving Time, for what it's worth—we will all be reminding ourselves & others: SPRING FORWARD/FALL BACKWARD!

The Theatre Fall of 2003 was certainly backward, if not downright retrograde: a Backward Fall, so to speak. There were no important Broadway openings until October, which began with the revival of Little Shop of Horrors. Fortunately, this show was fun, and it was followed by two vibrant new musicals: Wicked & The Boy from Oz. The latter was more notable for the performance of Hugh Jackman than for its bio-musical book and Peter Allen songs. November brought the charming revival of Wonderful Town and the costume-spattered Boy George bio-musical, Taboo—which will have closed by the time you read this. Never Gonna Dance tapped its way on stage in December—but not necessarily into the hearts of Broadway Musical Buffs.

As for Serious Theatre, the fall season was very, very thin. Nilo Cruz's prize-winning Anna in the Tropics was of interest, if Richard Greenberg's bizarre The Violet Hour was not. That was IT for new plays. I Am My Own Wife and Golda's Balcony were Off-Broadway transfers. For the rest, there were only three serious productions, all of them revivals: The Caretaker, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Henry IV [both parts].

There were a few other doomed entries, some of which mercifully closed in previews. All in all, Fall 2003 was one of the most dismal on Broadway in recent memory. It's the Economy, Stupid! This, despite the notable victories President Bush has been celebrating in Iraq and on Mars. Didn't he fly to Baghdad to force Saddam Hussein to eat Thanksgiving Turkey in a spider-hole?

The Broadway Cupboard was so bare in December and January that the New York Times' various drama-critics were reduced to reviewing books about theatre, forecasting the Spring Season, looking backward at the Fall, reviewing cast-replacements in long-running musicals, and even reporting theatre-events promised elsewhere in America, including Tennessee Williams' very first play, soon to be given its World Premiere in St. Louis. That is surely a sign of desperation?

Theatre-lovers can only hope Spring will bring some forward-movement on the New York Theatre-Scene. But the now-previewing revival of Fiddler on the Roof hardly seems a cutting-edge innovation. Only if it were updated and re-positioned—from a Shtetl in Eastern Europe, to a Palestinian Refugee-Camp in the Gaza Strip—could it provide new dramatic dimensions to a beloved old musical. Don't hold your breath for such innovative break-throughs, however…

The most you can expect—should you really be interested in the Middle East or in Asia as thematic materials for new musicals—is the London Import, Bombay Dreams. It has been promised as the stuff of Bollywood Films, only all-singing, all-dancing on-stage. I saw it recently in London and enjoyed the colorful sets & costumes. But it is an entirely formula-musical, not all that exotic or daring. I wish it well, as it's depressing to come down Broadway and see the Broadway Theatre marquee dark.

Stephen Sondheim's problematic Assassins is promised for Studio 54—not a mainstream Broadway venue exactly—replacing Cabaret. This curious musical was long ago showcased at Playwrights' Horizons, but it did not move to Broadway, owing to discouraging reviews. Since then, I have had the opportunity to see it performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by collegians. It was & is still problematic…

·Plays New & Old

·Rose's Dilemma

This new Neil Simon play is not to be confused with Rose's Turn. Nor is it a prequel to Sophie's Choice. In its initial incarnation, it was titled Rose and Walsh, which in fact is the title of the new book written by a nice young man from Quogue [David Aaron Baker] who has come to her Hamptons beach-house to help terminally-blocked author Rose Steiner [Patricia Hodges] complete the unfinished novel of her dead lover, Walsh McLaren [John Cullum]. She needs the money this manuscript will earn for her to pay for her foolishly extravagant life-style: filling the house with expensive floral-displays and cooking lobster! In addition to living well above her non-existent income, she also has not been able to give up Walsh, who regularly appears to her—but not to her daughter, Arlene Moss [Geneva Carr]—to rewarm the embers of their passionate affair. For a dead man, John Cullum looked pretty good, and David Aaron Baker was an absolute cutie-pie. Hodges, on the other hand, seemed—despite the lobster—terminally thin and permanently termagantly on edge.

The Big News about this production was not that it was a Golden Senior Moment for the Richest Playwright Who Has Ever Lived, but that Simon had done the Unthinkable: it was reported that he'd written an unpleasant letter to his original choice for the Manhattan Theatre Club's production, Mary Tyler Moore, which caused her to leave the show. In the event, Hodges proved a strong replacement. And the play—which is neither Vintage Simon nor a Breakthrough—is sentimental and pleasant enough to delight regional and community-theatre audiences for some time to come.

Lynne Meadow staged, in a beautiful set by Thomas Lynch. Wigs were by the hair-styling genius Paul Huntley, with costumes by William Ivey Long and lighting by Pat Collins. Whatever one may say of the new plays unveiled at the Manhattan Theatre Club, the sets are always striking! This is a constant that the MTC's upscale and aging audience has come to expect. Considering the fact that there are only four actors in this production, why did casting require a group of three experts?

SCHRECKLICH!--Big Red Garden Dwarf [aka the Demon Baby] squats on forlorn American wife all at sea in London, played by Heidi Schreck.

·Demon Baby

The Demon Baby from which this curious play takes its name is, in fact, an adult-sized Garden Dwarf, first discovered sitting on top of Erin Courtney's heroine Wren [Heidi Schreck]. German Garden Dwarves' caps are always red and usually crumpled, but this one's pointy red cap stands straight up like a Dunce Cap—or one of those Holy Week Penitentes. Visually, he is the best thing in the show, but initially no one can see him but poor Wren, who is not taking her husband's business-transfer to London very well.

Why the playwright chose to call this oversize garden-adornment both Baby and Demon is as puzzling as the play itself. This jolly giant [Glenn Fleshler] is certainly not an infant—except perhaps in his emotions—but his influence on Wren may be intended as demonic. Actually, he puts words in her mouth—and, later, of others as well, some who begin to see him. But the words are often the Truth, or what people are really thinking. Since when is Truth-Telling demonic? Well, perhaps it can lead to someone falling off a roof while trying to smash a Mexican Pińata. In London? You have to see or read this play to get that one.

I was hoping the Demon Baby would prove to be a fetus in Wren's womb, inseminated by the man in the pointy-cap. Another Rosemary's Baby, but more avant-garde? Apparently not… The press-release notes that the Demon Baby is in fact Anxiety! Can it be mere coincidence that Wren is played by an actress with the last name of Schreck? Before there was a jolly animation hero of that name, the word was a German watchword for Horror…

As the various vestigial characters' motivations are often obscure—or simply impulsive—the effect of much that transpires is Surreal. Perhaps this is an effort at Hispanic Magic Realism, translated to a World of Gringos?

At the Ohio Theatre, the play was handsomely, if economically, mounted and well lit. The cast was able and often amusing, given the quixotic roles and situations provided them.

The drama was previously seen at the Public Theatre in a new plays festival. A Rockefeller Foundation grant helped Courtney complete the script. She has also won a MacDowell Fellowship and a New York State Council of the Arts grant. Can a MacArthur Genius Award be waiting in her future?

The press-release notes that fellow-playwright Mac Wellman is on record as saying that Demon Baby was one of the three plays he was most looking forward to seeing in the coming season. Considering his own output—my favorite is Seven Blow-Jobs—he surely sees a kindred spirit in Courtney. Also, there have been so few interesting new plays in a season almost half-over that Wellman obviously didn't have much to choose from. Currently, when not writing new plays, Wellman teaches playwriting at Brooklyn College, where he has replaced the recently deceased Jack Gelber. At Brooklyn, playwriting is taught in the English Department, not in the Theatre Department—which should tell you everything you need to know about their focus.


The Irish Idea of intertwined monologues as serious drama was brilliantly celebrated in Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney. It is much less successful in Eugene O'Brien's Eden, now at the Irish Repertory Theatre, staged by John Tillinger. Part of the problem about this work is that its male-pole, Billy, is a pathetic excuse for a man, a lover, a husband, a father, and a friend. Its female-component, Breda, on the other hand, is an elemental Irish Life-Force without a life, as her husband Billy avoids, deceives, disses, and bitterly disappoints her.

The problem with these monologues as a play is that each segment is too long. They do not inter-twine often enough.

Billy's most eloquent image is himself as James Galway with his Golden Flute. The distinguished Irish flautist does indeed have a Golden Flute, in fact, several of them, and silver ones as well. Billy is, of course, tiresomely referring to his male-member—which fails him in crisis. Catherine Byrne is earthy and moving as Breda. Ciarán O'Reilly is impressive as the frustrated, drunken, hopeless failure, Billy. But do we need to go to the theatre for an evening with these people? You can get that in any Irish Pub! Plus Guinness & Chips!

·These Very Serious Jokes

Among Target Margin Theater's various avant-garde triumphs have been ingenious and stylish productions of such works as Beaumarchais' Marriage of Figaro, Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Julian Green's South. Not to overlook Mamba's Daughters, by Dorothy & Dubose Heyward, of Porgy fame.

Last season, Target Margin was occupied with a series of workshops, examining Goethe's epic drama, Faust, among other classics. Unfortunately, there was no program of major productions, something many theatre-adventurers Off-off-Broadway look forward to. Artistic Director David Herskovits has repeatedly shown himself both knowledgeable about the classics he investigates on stage and highly original and imaginative in bringing them to a sometimes Deconstructed Life.

The first fruits of last season's Faust explorations were plucked recently at HERE. Herskovits calls this initial segment of the 12,000+ lines of verse in Goethe's Two-Part philosophical morality play These Very Serious Jokes. This is a phrase plucked from a remark by Goethe near his death.

The first installment of the Target Margin Faust was indeed very serious—but not all that witty or amusing. Of course, there's wounding wit and ingenious insight in Goethe's lines, but they did not emerge powerfully in the general haphazardness of the production.

The jokiness was a more serious handicap to any Goethean impact TM may have had in mind. The jokiness was to be found in the specially-built props, such as a huge phonograph horn held up by a crutch. The cast seemed very, very serious about hanging, moving, manipulating, placing, unrolling, unpacking, shifting a variety of these props, some of them almost small sculptures. Unfortunately, they were often fussy distractions from interesting character interactions or reflections dictated by the text. The cast & crew seemed more intent on getting the props to work than in generating any heat or light from character clashes or potentially potent scenes.

In previous productions, Herskovits has always managed to have one or two special visual devices or cast-actions carry through the action, possibly as a kind of Trade-Mark or insider's joke. The X seen on the scenery in South turned up in subsequent productions, including Dido. And actors made a point of touching the scenery as they entered and exited.

When I saw that same X on the Dido Toy-Theatre set, I asked Herskovits if this was just a Mannerism, an attempt to mystify or to make a mark? He told me that the X—resonant in South, which was about southern slavery—was the only mark that illiterate slaves could make on documents. I surmised that, as Dido was a slave to the sexuality of Aeneas, the X might also be relevant.

There were so many odd props on stage in Serious Jokes that I may have missed any Xes Herskovits introduced. But there was one special prop that carried through: most of the cast wore a blue finger-stall on their index-fingers.

Most interesting of the performances was that of David Greenspan as Mephistopheles. It was a refreshing change from some of his drag or screaming roles, as he projected both incisive wit and agile thought. But then he was largely alone on stage among the witless, including Faust. He looked especially apt in a bright red suit. No horns, no tail… How could Herskovits have failed to "prop him up"?

This new Faust attempt was less horrendous than the fecal Faust cookery-show Richard Schechner once served up at LaMaMa. But, in its oddly offhand performances—verging on deliberate amateurishness—it offered echoes of Richard Maxwell and his disastrous Henry IV at BAM.

One can only hope that subsequent Target Margin installments of Goethe's very long—but deeply thoughtful—poetic drama will be more focused, more powerful, more meaningful—not just jokey seriousness.

A decade ago, I would have said you could not expect to see this kind of avant-garde kidding-the-classics production at the Burg-Theater in Vienna any time soon. Now, however, this High Classic Temple of German Drama is even more trendy than Off-off-Broadway. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if Target Margin's completed Faust is invited to the Salzburg Festival, where the trendiest of EuroTrash stagings are shown in the great Salt-Drying-Hall of the Hallein Salt Mines.

·Musicals Old But None New

·Wonderful Town

Thanks to a wonderful cast, led by Donna Murphy as Ruth Sherwood, but very strongly partnered—in the performance I witnessed—by Nancy Anderson as Sister Eileen, Wonderful Town is a wonderfully vital show. It's not just another respectful retread of bygone Broadway Musical Masterworks.

Thanks are also due director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall who has recreated the styles and the steps of the Thirties and Forties with verve and relish. This is a Live Show, pulsing with energy and good-will, recalling times that were not nearly as good as they seem on stage in this production.

The time is set as 1935, but some things are visually World War II-flavored. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are both colorful and generally generic, but Zoot Suits were not yet Fashion Statements in 1935. John Lee Beatty's gold-leafed scaffold-settings are showy yet simple, aiding the rapid flow of the action. Instead of solid sets—which often confine not only the performers but also the audience's fantasy—Beatty's skeletal evocations of Manhattan and street-facades make the onstage elevated orchestra part of the show.

It's the same Visual Aesthetic as developed by the City Center Encores, which carried over so powerfully in the Broadway revival of Chicago. And this stripped-down visual simplicity also inspired the new Chicago film. Considering that success, perhaps it's time for a new film of Wonderful Town, reworked in this visual vein.

By now, almost every melody in the show is a Leonard Bernstein Classic. Nor do some of the now dated references to people, passions, and products long since forgotten really spoil the snappy effect of the Comden & Green lyrics. Those who surely have never heard of Mothersills or Helen Wills Moody—not to overlook Major Bowes—seemed to laugh as loudly as though they used to be big fans of the Major's weekly radio Amateur Hour. Younger spectators were not even born then…

During the holidays, the small basement apartment in Greenwich Village—which Ruth made famous in My Sister, Eileen—caught fire and was gutted. Too late to Landmark it…

Wonderful Town's handsome home is the theatre built and named for producer Martin Beck. But it is now the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, with an animated electric self-caricature of Hirshfeld over the marquee. Its upper lobby is handsomely decorated with a number of the New York Times' long-time theatre caricaturist's most memorable drawings. The facade box-office, however, still bears the name of Martin Beck in bronze.

Perhaps the owners will preserve this tiny memory of New York Theatre History? Landmarking a theatre-exterior obviously does not extend to its name. The Virginia, for instance, was long the ANTA Theatre. Before that it was the Guild, the home-stage of the fabled Theatre Guild.

Who now remembers where Maxine Elliott's Theatre was? Or the Nora Bayes Theatre? Or the Empire, home of the Princess Musicals? Before it was the Lunt-Fontanne, what was that theatre's name? For that matter, who now remembers having seen Maxine Elliott on stage? Or Alfred Lunt? George M. Cohan?


Anyone who has ever looked through a book of black & white theatre-photos of productions in Victorian London must have wondered what these shows really looked like on stage. The two-dimensional sets—painted on wrinkled canvas or muslin-covered flats—look especially pathetic under the harsh lighting of the time. Even when electric-light had replaced gas, both interiors & exteriors still looked ghastly, made even more so with the painted shadows which never changed, although the lighting did.

Having to freeze-in-place until the photographic-plate was totally exposed made the actors look almost as fake as the sets. In those days—and even up to World War I—performers usually had to provide their own costumes, unless a designed production-number was involved. This could lead to a riot of clashing styles & colors in actresses' gowns, though gentlemen's attire was fairly standardized.

The Gilbert & Sullivan Players arrived—in the midst of the cold snap—at City Center with a repertory of Iolanthe, H. M. S. Pinafore, and The Mikado. Fortunately, all the costumes for Iolanthe were designed by the same hand, so there was no clash of styles. The visual problem was, however, that this looked like a vintage production in brand-new costumes. Complete with shabby elemental settings with painted shadows… The staging of the set-piece songs was also vintage: drill-team precision, repeated and repeated. The white lining of the Peers' cloaks led to a great deal of precision cloak-flapping, as a kind of dance routine.

No attempt was made to humanize any of the characters. Each and all were presented as vintage caricatures, with stock gestures and mechanical grimaces. Mugging would not be far off the mark… This wouldn't have proved so leaden and deadening had there been a general sense of fun, of spoofing the conventions, not only of G&S operettas, but also of Queen Victoria's Theatre. Had this been staged by the late Charles Ludlam—of the Theatre of the Ridiculous—it could have been great fun as a hilarious send-up. But it is Jonathan Miller who has set the standard for updating Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. His wonderfully Edwardian Mikado at City Opera is a model for all!

Fortunately, the voices at City Center were generally very good, and Stephen O'Brien, as the Lord Chancellor, did wonders with his patter-song. One encore was really quite enough, although he was urged on to more by the conductor. Albert Bergeret led the band and also directed, with Jan Holland. Standing on stage in line is not, however, very interesting for audiences to watch. Even when the chorus weaves in and out of the line now and again… And again…

Copyright Glenn Loney, 2004. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

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