AISLE SAY New York
JULY IN BRIEF
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS
Adapted by Mark Brown
from the novel by Jules Verne
THE MARRIAGE OF BETTE AND BOO
by Christopher Durang
DAMN YANKEES at Encores!
If there's a substantive stylistic difference between Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps uptown at the Cort and Mark Brown's adaptation of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days in Chelsea at the Irish Rep, it's that Steps' delivery favors a raised eyebrow and an easy lob, not trying to convince you it's funny; 80 Days pushes its comedy and physicality harder, continually insisting that it's funny. Fortunately for 80 Days, it survives the overkill because the audience is so tickled to see an epic tale with dozens of characters performed in the equivalent of a "black box" by a cast numbering five, plus one who's a musician and Foley artist, (Mark Parenti) providing sound effects, music and other ambient noise. And because the cast is so amiable, and after awhile the comic pushiness settles in as a kind of "language" for the evening, that promises continual variations (Evan Zes' portrayal of the French sidekick Passepartout has perhaps the most involved relationship with the production's sense of physicality, not least because the permutations are intertwined with his broad and deliberately somewhat bogus and Vaudevilled accent as well.) Michael Evan Haney's direction is very exactingly staged—to a large measure even choreographed—and there's a good deal of shameless nationality stereotyping for good measure. As with 39 Steps, the evening's hero is reserved for the one actor who will play no other roles (Daniel Freedom Stewart as Phileas Fogg), while all the others do double, triple, quadruple and here-and-there cross-dressing duty (John Keating, Lauren Elise McCord, and Jay Russell). It's an ideal proposition for a summer entertainment.
I always try with Christopher Durang, I really do. I go with as open a mind as I possibly can, and I always wind up thinking he's a lucky scribe with a facile, once-distinctive gift for cruel (and in revues, more benign fanboy) satire, who showed up with the right material at the right time, and has been kept afloat by that early success ever since. What bothers me most about the dark reflex that informs his often (to me) alienating comedy is that he seems to be treating his characters with disdain: not merely dramatizing their extreme foibles, but painting them as idiots for having such foibles in a world where enlightenment could be theirs, had they but the vision to see and grab at it. (As opposed to: presenting broad-strokes characters in such a way that I can draw my own conclusions and bring my own amusement, outrage or sympathy to the table, because they haven't been pre-judged for me. Granted, in satire there's a fine line separating the two. But, to offer an iconic comparison, Doctor Strangelove walks it nimbly. Its political objective is clear, but its characters are in the grip of madness not stupidity, and the escalations is borne of misguided ways to reclaim sanity. Durang's characters are entrenched; they get sadder and stupider.)
The Roundabout revival of his semi(?)-autobiographical 1985 play The Marriage of Bette and Boo (at the Laura Pels) does absolutely nothing to make me a convert—but I'm honor bound to admit that unlike most of the other Durang evenings I've endured, this one seems—or at least seemed, the night I attended—to strike a chord with its audience, more so as it goes along. Essentially it tells the story of a marriage that deteriorates as a result of misplaced religious faith (the wife) and alcoholism (the father), combined with both partners having come from severely dysfunctional families. The story is narrated from the grown-up perspective of Bette (Kate Jennings Grant) and Boo's (Christopher Evan Welch) son (Charles Socarides), the part assayed by Durang himself in the original production), their first and only child (Bette, against medical advice and believing in divine intervention, will try—and fail via miscarriage—to have more children nearly half a dozen times before calling it quits). Though the characters are complex and tragic, Durang's tack is to present them as storybook, "Once Upon a Time" figures, which keeps them speaking in broad declarative sentences and expressing themselves in primary colors. Durang may have meant this as a distancing device—perhaps even to give himself perspective—and I'll even go so far as to allow that for him, that was an act of compassion...but I found it renders characters either na•ve, oblivious or hateful, as well as unsympathetic. As to the audience: I cannot attest with any certainty what they were feeling or if sympathy was involved. But they laughed. And seemed to be admiring the comic performances, which are indeed delivered by a generally first-rate cast (also including, among others, John Glover, Julie Hagerty, Terry Beaver and Victoria Clark) under the direction of Walter Bobbie—who does tend to know where the "funny" goes.
As many of you know, Damn Yankees, that famous Faustian baseball musical, was revived on Broadway in 1995, and very successfully, its libretto's sensibility (though not its era setting) updated to shake off the cobwebs of 1955. Indeed, I had the interesting experience of seeing a professional stock (i.e. dinner theatre) production of the show some months after the revival had closed and, sure enough, a lot of the lines were kind of appalling—the attitude toward women in particular, which seemed awfully middle-brow even by the middle-brow standards of the period. In 1996 it seemed horrifically unplayable. But all right: at a dinner theatre, call it naivete or expedience, as the creative team and producers try to capitalize on a popular title. But it would take a great deal of courage, and perhaps some insanity, to restage the show, without those '95 revisions or some equivalent, for Broadway. As originally written.
And yet director John Rando unequivocally pulls it off. In the Encores! budget-minded staging that's philosophically akin to the one given Gypsy last summer—the same Gypsy that's now at the St. James, with minimal changes to the production—he seems to be channeling not only George Abbott's sensibility, but the sensibility of the 1950s in such a way that the audience gets into the groove. I've been wracking my brain to explain why this should be possible, and the very best I can come up with is that the financial limitations of the production have forced Rando to mount it as if it were high class summer stock. Scenery is unapologetically flat, when "big" sets are being changed behind a curtain, the brief transitional scenes (originally written to cover such changes) are unabashedly undisguised crossovers. The production does everything possible to deny that the last half century even existed—and does it with nary an intentional wink; though when the dialogue as written creates its own wink via our 20-20 hindsight, Rando has the sense to pause a bit, so the knowing laughter has its due.
In the key roles, Sean Hayes is an easily self-amused Devil; Jane Krakowski is the enticing, kittenish Lola of anyone's dreams; Cheyenne Jackson is the epitome of All-American squeaky goodness as the newly transformed young Joe Boyd; P.J. Benjamin (who, ironically, played the Devil in that aforementioned dinner-theatre staging) is sweetly desperate as the old Joe we start out with; and as Joe's wife, Meg, Randy Graff provides the evening's human grounding. Among the delightful character actors in secondary roles, I will single out the ubiquitous, redoubtable and indestructible Michael Mulheren, doing the gruff-guy-with-a-you-know-what-of-gold as the Coach who prompts his losing team to have "Heart." And as always, musical director Rob Berman's baton could not be bettered, as he gives the light, frothy tunes of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross the same uncompromising respect he'd give Ravel or Stravinsky.