CLEVER LITTLE LIES
There's not enough evidence think in terms of trends, I guess, but some degree of evidence there is that oldschool intimate stage comedy is making a resurgence. Although, as will happen when a confluence of technology, pop culture shift, and economics come into play, the resurgence is not in the oldschool venues. Where such offerings used to be a staple of Broadway — in the days of Neil Simon, Herb Gardner and Bernard Slade — before the genre was usurped by increasingly sophisticated three-cam sitcom doing the sane thing at least as well — the same calibre of comedy, with enough new millennium indicia to hint at immediacy, is showing up off-Broadway and even off-off Broadway.
A recent example of the latter is Cut Throat, J.B. Reich's wry look at what it takes to get a toddler into a high end private nursury school. Featuring a cast of six — the two parents and a multiple cast ensemble — this is a deft dash through a social-status minefield. Though its brief NY run on the postage stamp June Havoc space at the Abingdon has closed (I should pause to mention here that the Abingdon seems to have an especial fondness for oldschool comedy), I promote it here as an ideal candidate for stock, amateur and regional venues looking for fresh, polished material. As director Mark Waldrop and his winning cast proved, you get laughs as frequently and as explosively from an audience of 50 as you can get from an audience of 500, if you play for real stakes and have an essential instinct for timing.
Sometimes, of course, it helps to have even more than that, in particular when your lead roles virtually cry out for the indelible nuance of seasoned senior pros; and fortunately, a pair of those carry out the wacky-wonderful premise of David Linday-Abaire's Ripcord at the Mahattan Theatre Club mainstage in City Center.
This one is firmly and unabashedly in the odd couple tradition. Set in the Bristol Place Assisted Living Facility, it gives us resident Abby Binder (Holland Taylor), fussy, formidable, tart-tongued and generally not of a disposition to make friends; her disposition has chased away several roommates, a development about which she is not altogether unhappy—she likes being alone just fine. But she meets more than her match in Marilyn Dunne (Marylouise Burke) who likes nothing more than to keep up her end of the conversation, and yours too, if you need help, and maintains a relentlessly sunny disposition, even in the face of resistance. Which is not to say she’s oblivious; she just refuses to get angry. Likewise, Abby refuses to be intimidated. The battle of wills mounts to an even bigger battle of wills.
If Abby can make Marilyn angry, Marilyn has to leave for another room. If Marilyn can scare Abby, Abby has to relinquish the bed by the window.
The lengths to which they go to win this bet are so extravagant as to make the principal setting of an Assistant Living Facility add to the fun; the last thing these two strong-willed broads need is living assistance, but Mr. Linday-Abaire has taken the comedy of opposites formula to delicious extremes. Add a sweet natured, long suffering but surprisingly resilient facility aide named Scotty (Nate Miller), Marilyn’s daughter and son-in-law (Rachel Dratch and Daoud Heidami), a role best not spoiled by identification (Glenn Fitzgerald), and various cameos (Dratch and Miller) add to the hilarity.
If there’s any director who really understands the balance that lets you play outrageous comic circumstance for real stakes, to maintain verisimilitude when just a few degrees of miscalculation would otherwise shatter the illusion, it’s David Hyde Pearce. Bringing his decades of acting and three-cam “live” sitcom experience to the table, he directs Ripcord at a pitch-perfect level; we’re talking the kind of expertise that Mike Nichols and Gene Saks brought to the party. Outstanding.
Not quite so outstanding but still awfully damn good is the very smart comedy of marriage, Clever Little Lies by the redoubtably funny Joe di Pietro. Grown son Billy (George Merrick) confides in father Bill Sr. (Greg Mullavey) that marriage and fatherhood are wearing him down. And that he’s started seeing a younger woman who really “gets” him, and offers him constant passion and excitement. He thinks he’s on the verge of leaving his wife Jane (Kate Wetherhead) for good. Bill Sr. doesn’t like being the keeper of this secret, especially because his wife Alice (Marlo Thomas) gets him, all too well after lo these many decades, and will know instinctively that he’s hiding something period, and once she gloms onto that, it’s but a matter of quick time before she excavates the rest out of him. Jane of course doesn’t know; she only knows that things at home have been getting more tense and Billy more distant. All of which will come to a head when son and daughter-in-law arrive for Friday dinner at his parents’ that week. How it plays out? Well, that’s the secret I’ll keep.
Like the best comedies of relationships, di Pietro’s is built on a foundation of serious truths—and he’s abetted by a director (David Saint) and a cast who play it truthfully, while sacrificing none of the jokes. Old pros Thomas and Mullavey in particular—as you might well imagine—are past masters of timing, and even, to the limited degree that it can be employed here, physical humor. Clever Little Lies won’t rock your world; but it might make your night…
Sylvia, which originated off-Broadway nearly 20 years ago, is having its first NYC revival on Broadway, at the Cort. I remember finding A.R. Gurney’s comedy of a man and his dog amusing and kind of dispensable when I first saw it, but having since become at first unexpectedly, then reluctantly and finally with resigned devotion, a pet-owner—there have been three dogs and many cats over the years—well, it lands a little bit more profoundly. The story it tells is simple: Upper middle-class NYC-dweller Greg (Matthew Broderick), upon a visit to the park during a break from work, has been adopted by a dog that he names Sylvia (Annaleigh Ashford); and he has decided to adopt her in turn; much to the dismay of his wife Kate (Julie White) who really isn’t a pet person. A fellow pet owner, a society matron and a shrink (all played by Robert Sella) also figure into the mix.
Gurney very affectionately charts the course of pet ownership and the way animals and humans have of knowing each other in a manner that can be kind of translated into verbal language (hence Sylvia’s lines); yet still always has around it an air of enigma. He also charts the course of human seduction…the manner in which a pet you’d rather not have becomes your cherished companion anyway, goddammit.
There are no false moves under the direction of Daniel Sullivan. Say what you will about Matthew Broderick and his one note samba of goofball sincerity—and I’ve said it a time or two myself—he has absolute mastery of its nuances. He can time a joke, a set up line, a reaction pause with the best of them, and that makes him the perfect foil. Annaleigh Ashford plays, as much as anyone can, the Soul of Dog with endearing understatement, deceptive simplicity and charm. The hamming is up to Robert Sella in the supporting roles; one male, opne female and one indeterminate. As to Julie White—odd to say this of an actress who is usually so strikingly notable, and notably funny; but in Sylvia she is more like structural glue. You just don’t get to relish what she does or how well she does it because Kate is basically “straight man” to her husband and his new canine love; since by design Kate must be the voice of moderation and tolerant reluctance, Ms. White is in a second banana position that is for her very unusual. But being the incomparable artist she is, she seems to embrace that her function is to provide wacky ride with balance. And so she does.
The interactive murder mystery, set in a hair salon, Shear Madness, has finally made its NYC debut after 30 years of recurring regional engagements and one in its originating city, Boston, that has never closed. How does it fare?
I can’t resist a personal note; please forgive the indulgence; I don’t usually insert my career into these reviews; but that said…
As many of you know, my and Alan Menken’s adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz opened this past Summer (to acclaim, sellout houses, standing Os, two extensions and a cast album, I’m happy, and more importantly, relived, to say) in Montreal, where much of the story takes place. In the show we got three, maybe four gratifying laughs that I knew we’d never get anywhere else in any future remounting or production. It was very important for me to get the authenticity of Montreal right, so aside from my own research and explorations of the city, I was always checking with my colleague-locals. If you were to run off to a flea-bag hotel, where would you go? Granby, an hour outside of town. I want Mr. Cohen to make a crack about the common room where the Bar-Mitzvah movie debuts: “So, here we are in the Temple Emanuel Beth-Sholem screening room.” Yes? No, that’s the wrong Temple. Use Shar Hashomayim. Dropping the exactly appropriate reference at exactly the right moment, properly integrated and with utter sincerity, added points to our street cred; we weren’t just Yanks ignorantly playing in a Canadian sandbox.
Shear Madness is designed differently. Oh, there are local (and NY-topical) references aplenty, but they show up in designated lines, designed to accept the substitution of a locale and/or a quality of the locale and/or a local politician and/or his administration/policies and etc. The lines are not endemic to the play (the salon is always located in whatever town or city the theatre is in) and the device is transparent. It’s meant to charm, and I don’t think it does; not here. Our brand of jingoism isn’t that easily seduced. As we meet the characters (suspects and one briefly undercover cop) and the broad, mildly slapstick, mildly farcical script leads up to the part where an offstage murder of an offstage victim is committed, it’s all a bit too overplayed, a bit too conspicuously, dare-I-say-it, regional. You can smell the mechanism.
Then comes the interactive part.
The cop solicits the audience to remember clues as scenes are re-enacted. The response of the actors—borne of a canny combination of prepared variations and improvisation—starts to wear down the tough New York resistance. By intermission, we’re pretty much putty in their hands. Oh, I’m not saying this is an A-plus event by a long shot. But one cannot deny that Shear Madness does exactly what it sets out to do. Oh and not incidentally, on any given night, the whodunit outcome can be different. It depends upon the collective you. One can smell the mechanism for that too, if you’re really alert, but by then you don’t care. Shear Madness has the insistence of a puppy, and after a while it’s just cruel not to admit you don’t mind it licking your hand.
The by-line is that of Paul Pörtner, who was an avant-garde German playwright, and the original script, which debuted in 1963, entitled Scherenschnitt oder Der Mörder sind Sie (Scissorcut or You Solve the Murder), met with similar countrywide success. International versions have played all over the world since. But too much of the script has been Americanized and “reculturalized” for much of Pörtner to have been retained, so that part of the evening that’s scripted, including the archetype particulars, is clearly the work of creators Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan. Jordan has also directed.
So, all right, then, Shear Madness. Welcome to New York, I guess…
Speaking of New York, there is, finally The New York Story, written and performed by Colin Quinn. As with his four previous stage shows, this one is basically a 70-ish minute, intermissionless themed stand-up set—and, like the last (Long Story Short) directed by Jerry Seinfeld. Drawing its material from his combination autobiography and historical rumination, The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Rave Relations in America (and perhaps even to coincide with its very recent publication; you think?), it’s a wry lesson in the origins in New York, how it collected its various ethnic factions and what they contributed not only to culture but attitude. As always, Quinn is a great raconteur-performer his oft-brilliant material stamped with a singular imprimatur; and as always, he makes the audience very happy. And as always, for me, about 45 minutes in, I start to check out, even though I promise myself it’ll be different this time. I have no explanation for this other than that Quinn isn’t really pursuing a narrative, he’s exploring a point of view, umbrella topic and subtopics; and after 45 minutes it’s like too much dessert, or too rich a dessert, the topic association loses me and I struggle to keep up till the end. I’ve discussed this with a few other people and discovered, surprisingly, that I’m not alone. But I’m also in what gives every appearance—by dint of laughter and its frequency and force—`sof being a small minority; nor would I use this as a reason to dissuade you from attending. Attend and laugh, by all means. But a few of you—a few—may find that staying on Quinn’s generally very worthwhile ride for the duration requires a little extra concentrated stamina.
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