A rumination by David Spencer

Everybody, of course, knows about "The Ginger Man", the famously controversial late-50s first and career-making novel about an extravagant, charismatic moocher and wastrel, by the renowned Irish writer J.P. Donleavy. Arguably almost as famous is the fate that awaited his dramatization of the novel: it played a respectable engagement in London’s West End, with a young Richard Harris in the lead role, then came to Dublin riding a burst of glory…only to fold after three performances, because the critical storm and cry over its "licentious" and "immoral" goings on turned it into a scandal. Then it came to the United States where it was again doomed to a short run, bad timing now the villain, because the night of its Broadway opening fell on the day John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. All of this places J.P. Donleavy’s "The Ginger Man" among the most enduring of theatrical near-miss legends, right up there with the nine performances of Sondheim and Laurents’s "Anyone Can Whistle" in the early 60s and—

Excuse me, what’s that, sir? You’re a devoted theatre aficionado and you don’t know this story? And you, ma’am, you never read "The Ginger Man"? And this young person here, yes, you say you know all about the Sondheim cannon and popular theatre lore but you never even heard of J.P. Donleavy?

Well, don’t feel too bad, because even though I had a peripheral awareness of him, I really didn’t know anything much about his work either, when I attended the revival of "The Ginger Man" at the Irish Arts Center. The theatrical legend is not one of "ours"—and the production was imported from the Dublin Theatre Company, where what is the equivalent of a minimal budget off-off Broadway production created a local industry stir, not only because it resurrected the play for the first time since 1963, but because it heralded a new Irish star (David Murray in the title role) and showcased a beloved one (Mary McEvoy, who is still, after 16 years, a mainstay of the teevee series "Glenroe") in a new way.

At the Irish Arts, a theatre of maybe a hundred or so seats, I caught the play, with three weeks left to its run, performing to a house that was at least one-third empty. And for all the stir it made in the Emerald Isle, you could only make so many allowances before, exhausted, you had to give in to the sad fact:

It was bad.

More than that, it was ridiculous.

To be sure, Mr. Murray’s performance was more than respectable, Ms. McEvoy’s television stardom and charisma easily understandable, and their fellow players (Julie Hale and Karl Hayden) were fine too…

But the direction by Ronan Wilmot (on what looked to be a rehearsal-studio assemblage of available pieces, against a backdrop of black curtains) seemed a barely present element.

And the play, itself?: It’s mildly dated, loaded with redundant dialogue (none of it poetic enough, in the manner of say O’Neill, to justify the indulgence), haphazardly structured, its "salaciousness" outrageously ho-hum, even by some 60s standards—and finally, you couldn’t give a shit less about its hero or his petty-ass existence: he’s a drunken lout, the neglectful father of an infant, an unrepentant people-user and (offstage) a wife-beater—without even the ambition it would take to live for a false dream, let alone a real goal. Why is he supposed to fascinate us…because he’s passingly ingratiating and has the patience-trying wit of grandiloquence? Add rampant implausibility to the mix: both male characters are supposed to be native Americans in their twenties who didn’t arrive in Ireland until their twenties—yet the title character (this is in the text) speaks with an English accent; his best friend has adopted an Irish lilt; and both casually use idioms and locutions that are specific to Irish diction and belie any sense of American rhythm at all.

You couldn’t possibly miss the play’s innate awfulness or the production’s cheesiness; certainly the audience didn’t the night I attended, not from the intermission and exit talk I overheard.

And yet, in Ireland—magic time.

How is this possible? And how does such a production get imported?

I think the answer is: misplaced hero worship. In Ireland, Donleavy is more than a literary figure, he’s a literary icon. "The Ginger Man"’s deceptive theatrical history implies the romance of a neglected sleeper—hence this new production acquired the mystique of an "event." (It’s the same thinking that inspires revivals of late Tennessee Williams plays. At the post-masterpiece point of his career, he was drug-besotted, his failing powers exacerbated—if not caused—by that, and the plays reflected an incoherence of intellect. But because the by-line is his name, and because the scripts retain undeveloped flashes of the heralded Williams brilliance, there are always artistic directors who will try to resurrect these slow tortures as under-appreciated gems. Similarly, no revival of "Do I Hear a Waltz?" will make that musical work better. Whether it’s produced badly—as it was last October at the George Street Playhouse—or brilliantly, it still falls far short of the finest hour for Sondheim, Laurents and Rodgers. There’s just no saving it. Failure is an integral part of its matrix. Yet people will try.)

If "The Ginger Man" had been a new, untested play, you might claim a certain innocence. But it was a failure first time out. And a chapter that its theatrical legend curiously sidesteps is what the New York critical reaction to it was—despite Kennedy’s assassination stealing its thunder. And, just as curiously, a review of the new production that the current press kit duplicates, along with the Irish raves, is this one by Luke Clancy of The Irish Times (the italics in the quote are mine):

"It has taken J.P. Donleavy’s dramatisation of his novel more than 25 years to make it to the Dublin stage. First seen in 1959 with Richard Harris in the title role, the play ran for three performances before closing after a universal panning. Back then, Ireland was clearly not ready for Donleavy’s bawdy look at undergraduate morality. A little later, however, the antics of Sebastian Dangerfield and his depressive sidekick, Kenneth O’Keefe, appear curious rather than outrageous." Mr. Clancy goes on, briefly, to add that "the welcome return to the stage of Mary McEvoy…provides most of the show’s appeal."

Polite, that. But the clearly observable truth. "The Ginger Man"’s quick demise here was easily predictable.

* * * * * *

Here’s another:

The American-made musical "Enter the Guardsman" has been floating around for a little while. The winner of a 1997 "Best Musical of the Year" international competition held in Denmark, it had its debut in the prestigious Donmar Warehouse of London, and its American premiere earlier this season at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. Written by the husband-wife team of Scott Wentworth (librettist-director) and Marion Adler (lyrics) in collaboration with composer Craig Bohmler—the team perhaps best-known for the cult musical "Gunmetal Blues"—it’s a romantic comedy based on Ferenc ("The Play’s the Thing") Molnar’s romantic comedy, "The Guardsman". It just completed its own three-week run, as an independent commercial production using the Vineyard Theatre space.

The source play is a backstage confection about a husband-and-wife acting team (it pays to note, Mr. Wentworth and Ms. Adler are not only married, they are actors who would not be miscast in the roles themselves). He (Robert Cuccioli) is in a jealous rage because she (Marla Schaffel) has been receiving an abundance of roses regularly from a secret admirer and expresses no upset or sense of impropriety—she seems, in fact, intrigued. An observing playwright, who is best friends to both (Mark Jacoby) discovers who the admirer is: the husband himself. His wife has a history of short romances and now that her "six month limit" is up, the actor feels compelled to test her commitment. And now, having created the very ambivalence he had hoped to disprove, he dives even further into the deception by creating a character for himself to play: The Guardsman behind the roses. In short, the husband contrives to become his wife’s lover.

It’s clear that this is a gentle farce and comedy of manners, there’s really only one possible ending—reconciliation and a hint of mystery as to whether or not the actress really knew—and it never leaves the backstage area. Its conflicts remain insular, rendering the single locale claustrophobic, and because we don’t learn that the driving force is the actor until well into the first act—at which time he has become his own victim—the "ensemble" nature of the piece seems soft at the center. We don’t know why we’re being told the story. It feels like an ephemeral vehicle for romantic leads. (Strangely, the direction by Scott Wentworth didn’t help his own material: where a gossamer touch was required, his hand was very heavy indeed, encouraging lots of mugging and overwrought "business." As an author, Mr. Wentworth fares better; the lines are good, the characterizations sharp. Ms. Adler’s lyrics are always graceful, occasionally hitting a genuinely original idea, and Mr. Bohmler’s music is generally literate and tuneful, if usually reminiscent of other romantic scores—"A Little Night Music" most conspicuously.)

With such a pedigree—understated though it may be—and such virtues—however limited—how could one predict the failure of "Enter the Guardsman" to ignite?

In this: it’s an antique, with antique aspirations. It consists of foursquare, scene-song construction combined with a quaint—often static—narrative set in a prosaic, literal universe. (Of all the lasting off-Broadway musicals, virtually none are earthbound. All create rarefied and sometimes even expansive universes by working on the audience’s imagination: "Little Shop…", "The Fantasticks!", "You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown" [not the horrific, recent Broadway revival, but the original, undoctored version]—they work, in part, because they make you forget the confines of a small space.)

You can see how "Guardsman" might be welcomed in certain regional venues where a new musical creates a buzz often on those terms alone, and other venues (Denmark, for example, and I don’t mention it disrepectfully) where state-of-the-art musical theatre sophistication is not a part of the everyday landscape.

But "Enter the Guardsman" was simply not a show for New York in 2000. It couldn’t click, because it didn’t speak to the sensibility. Not of the audience, not of the era, not of the craft…

* * * * * *

Collectively, New York is a "tougher house" than any other theatre center with perhaps the exception of London.

As screenwriter William Goldman has famously observed about showbiz—no kidding, legitimately famously—"Nobody knows anything." And I think that homily is mostly true. But not always.

We can all agree, I think, that there is no business more full of self-delusion than the entertainment industry, and when a rippingly inept endeavor passes our way, we can only shake our heads in wonder at the sheer blind will that manages to get such dreck financed and on its feet. That particular brand of failure is borne of brain-laziness, craft-ignorance and stupidity, and lies outside of the Goldman dictum by dint of amateurism.

The exception to the rule that I’m talking about here is fueled by the often willful denial of common sense and the clear messages theatre history sends us—a denial often made by people of integrity, ability, taste, intelligence and good will, which a great many—perhaps all—of the people involved with "The Ginger Man" and "Enter the Guardsman" are.

As a dramatic analyst, I wouldn’t have given you a plug nickel for "Rent" as a piece of writing on its own terms…but it was clear there was something "in the air" about the totality of the event; what with its aggressively downtown production, its experimental nature, the high-profile death of its author, Jonathan Larson, the street "buzz," it heralded a place we hadn’t quite been to before; whatever your opinion, only a fool would have been surprised or bewildered at its success.

Similarly, both this season’s "Wild Party"s—for all their flaws—could have gone either way (LaChiusa’s still might, though the Tony shutout makes that harder).

Same with "Dirty Blonde" and "Copenhagen" this season: the first (despite its comic inspiration) might have been deemed a Mae West fan’s silly indulgence; the second (despite its graceful erudition) a static talkfest. You could weigh in with your extremely educated opinion, borne of long experience, and more often than not you’d observe correctly, because such perceptiveness is not developed for naught—but you couldn’t possibly know which way the wind would blow…until it blew. And that’s because—even though the real-life characters portrayed are decades dead—new theatrical territory was being explored. "Nobody knows anything" is precisely right.

But with shows like "The Ginger Man" and "Enter the Guardsman", the danger signs are apparent from the start, especially with the weight of previous production as evidence. Should either one of these been denied their forum in New York even so? That’s a judgment I can’t pass, as it’s dependent on many extraneous factors that are different for each.

I just wish such things could be mounted—if they had to be—with the understanding of precisely what they are, and precisely what they mean to achieve (e.g. "Enter the Guardsman"’s New York engagement is certainly a way to up its stock-and-amateur premium, and "The Ginger Man" could be a literary curiosity of a subscription season)…and without the heartbreak of blind ambitions and false hopes…

* * * * *

And speaking of the Tony shutout…

The aforementioned Mr. Goldman, in writing of the Oscars, has often made the plea for a release of the vote-count in the various categories, for a better understanding of the industry climate. I think he’s right, and I think the same should be revealed about the Tonys, especially in the wake of this year’s best musical theatre score award.

Clearly "The Dead" was not going to win best score. The theatrical community knew the show was a play with music—despite the advertising and credit attributions—and its score simply didn’t hold up in true musical theatre terms, nor in base-level musical theatre quality. And few on the street took "Aida"’s naïve, pop-rock Euro-kitsch seriously. Both Michael-John LaChiusa’s scores for "The Wild Party" and "Marie Christine" were far superior—whatever you thought of them—and if you had to vote fairly, those were the only choices you had.

So why did "Aida" get the win?

Two possibilities. And only two. Say I.

The first: LaChiusa split his own vote with two entries—one of which is current, another of which has had a cast album out for a number of weeks. That might have split voter sympathies.

The second possibility—and this is the one I favor, but we’ll never know unless we learn the numbers—is that the voters were making a statement. LaChiusa’s scores are notoriously inaccessible to the untrained ear—especially upon a first listening—and assiduously avoid the neatness of straight-ahead construction. Plus, his shows all suffer from bad dramaturgy; after numerous mainstream opportunities, many believe (despite controversy over "Hello Again" and "The Wild Party") that he has never delivered, and has been a favored son for too long.

If that belief held sway, then the vote was political. I hope the secretly held numbers prove me wrong, but I don’t think the 2000 Tony for best score was about the best score. I think it was a message. This message:

"And the winner is—anybody but Michael John LaChiusa."

Say what you will about his work, Michael John didn’t deserve that. Not personally and not professionally. Petty—or even real—resentments can’t be part of the vote, if the vote is to have meaning.

Not only does the win for "Aida" have no meaning…it does harm. Because it encourages more of the same kind of work. At least LaChiusa takes legitimate theatrical risk. And that was the choice: between a genuine artist and appalling pabulum for the masses. Given the choice, a voter should have had no choice but to take it seriously. Look: I wasn’t a champion of Michael John’s work this season (I found it suffused with brilliance, but under-conceived and undisciplined)…but I wouldn’t have hesitated to give him the nod. How could a responsible professional do less?

As I say, I hope the numbers prove me way, way wrong. But if they don’t, I think there are some people who ought to be a little bit ashamed. Personally. And professionally. The business is hard enough. Let critics, audience response and box office receipts teach an artist whatever lessons are to be taught. Where the valuation of excellence in a fair competition is concerned, the truth is all that matters—especially when the contrast makes the truth so objectively clear. No matter how painful or irritating to the truth-teller…

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