Stage & Screen
After the theatre one night, Kathleen and I wandered around in the rain in search of a late dinner. We knew where we were going, but it felt like wandering because of the rain. The long blocks of Central Park South never seemed so endless. When at last we reached our destination, we were extremely annoyed to find that it had been pre-empted by movie-makers. Persisting, we tried another door and got in. Yes, the Palm Court was still serving. The moment we arranged our dripping coats over a chair and sat down at our banquette, the bank of blazing lights on the other side of the tall glass doors was shut off, and the film crew departed. Within fifteen minutes, you wouldn't have known they'd been there. The lobby at the Plaza Hotel was back to regular business.
How many movies with scenes at the Plaza can you think of? The only one that, to my mind, makes the hotel look more interesting than it really is is Hitchcock's 'North By Northwest,' but then I'm not sure I'd personally want the Plaza to be that interesting. At the beginning of that thriller, you'll recall, Cary Grant is kidnapped at the Oak Room doorway by a pair of nasty goons who mistake him for a nonexistent counterespionage agent. Things might happen in this wedding-cake of a building that hardly anyone would ever find out about. The people who were coming in to the Palm Court as we were leaving, for example, probably had no idea that an upcoming film called (according to a placard) "It Had To Be You" had just become a few feet longer on the other side of those French doors. I regret to say that I've no idea who the stars are, or if any of them were on location. As a self-respecting New Yorker, I wouldn't have dreamed of asking.
Doug Wright's one-man play, I Am My Own Wife, starring Jefferson Mays in a production directed by Moisés Kaufman, was not on my list of shows to see this season. The real-life story of a transvestite who survived the Nazis and then the Communists in East Germany while running a museum devoted to the decorative arts of the Second Reich had, as such, no appeal for me. It promised a too-highly seasoned immersion in bad taste. Happily, I was not left to my own philistinism. An out-of-town friend, here on a theatre junket, invited us to join her for a Monday evening performance, and at that point in the holidays almost anything seemed interesting. I Am My Own Wife far surpassed my minimal expectations. The show is almost as intelligently as it is stupefyingly entertaining.
Now that I've already told you what the play is about, let me point out how interestingly the playwright lays out his material. He makes his hero/heroine, Lothar Berfeld/Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (1928-2002), instantly sympathetic, by presenting the character entirely against the expected grain. Instead of a flamboyantly expressive diva, his Charlotte is a prim, black-clad spinster in a head scarf, easy mistaken for a nun were it not for her strand of pearls. When Charlotte speaks, one can almost count the dozens of words that she has rejected for everyone one that she speaks. Her obsession with the Gründerzeit - the era of ponderous ornamentation that followed the German victory over France in 1871 - is austere without being hieratic, and her air of withholding, as intense as her beloved clocks and curios but utterly light-handed, draws us in like moths. Before we even get to the furniture, however, we're slyly seduced by Charlotte's fascination with early phonographs and gramophones, especially those of American manufacture.
Then, a few minutes in, the play opens up into a miracle of ventriloquism, as Jefferson Mays begins to add a host of other impersonations, including one of the playwright himself. Except for a brief spell at the beginning of the second act, Charlotte's costume never disappears, but Mr Mays finds a way of using it to bring each of his many voices to life - even, most hilariously, that of a smarmy Berlin talk-show host (think David Rasche as Stig in The Big Tease). This is the stupefying aspect of I Am My Own Wife: I won't even try to convince you that Mr Mays pulls off the most acrobatic theatrical act I've ever seen, even if his feet are always planted firmly on the stage. Nothing short of the altogether unprecedented spectacle itself would convince you - which is probably why this show wasn't on my list. I can only bully you into giving I Am My Own Wife a chance to delight you.
There is more to I Am My Own Wife, however, than the circus act of a peculiar life lived in turbulent times. As I say, Mr Wright begins the play by making his unlikely heroine sympathetic - the better, we soon find, to pull away the props of our support. Charlotte may not be such a nice person after all (not that she's ever actually nice); she may have spied for the Stasi, the GDR's dreadful security police. Well, didn't everyone in East Germany? Mr Wright's primary interest, however, is not Charlotte's culpability, which in any case can seem justifiable under the circumstances, but rather in the difficulty, and perhaps the impossibility, of fixing an identity in the twentieth century. Charlotte's transvestitism is only the first of her disguises. Looking back from the culmination of the play, we realize that Charlotte was never demonstrably forthcoming, and that her reticence may have had roots other than prim discretion. So Mr Wright puts us in his own shoes. Attracted to Charlotte's story in the early 90s not least because it would prove a 'slam dunk' at obtaining grant money (for him), the playwright had to learn that his subject was no simple victim. His play recreates this emotional trajectory for us, and it leaves us with an unsettled ambivalence that would be unpleasant were it not for the thumping, trumping, triumphing wizardry of Jefferson Mays's performance.
Which raises the question of a road show. I ought to be a believer: if Mr Mays can do this show - which I was sure wouldn't be very interesting - surely there must be other actors who can do so, too; but I still find it hard to believe. With luck, an actor, in a theatre near you, will once again prove my doubts ungrounded. If so, let's hope that the Lyceum's quartet of designers - Derek McLane (scenery), David Lander (lighting), Janice Pytel (costume), and Andre J. Pluess (sound) - are retained to recreate their superb work. Rarely have such contributions been so magically coordinated. (January 2004)
Tovah Feldshuh's impersonation of Golda Meir, in William Gibson's Golda's Balcony, brought me as close as anything ever will to sympathy for the Zionist project. Holding the stage for about ninety minutes, the accomplished Ms Feldshuh projects a personality more than sufficiently dramatic to draw attention away from what is basically an interestingly disjointed, animated history lesson. How did a Milwaukee girl wind up as the Israeli head of state? It's a story that's entwined with that of the establishment of Israel itself; Goldie Meyerson was in at the birth. She was drawn to Palestine in 1921 by the dream, which seemed genuinely realizable in the wake of World War I, of a Socialist utopia for Jews in their ancestral homeland. Already a burgeoning leader, she made a mark as the representative of her kibbutz, and was subsequently given an important post at the Histadrut (a trade union). In 1948, she went to Moscow, as Israel's first ambassador to the Soviet Union. And so on. It was the sort of career that, given the secular progressivism that characterized Zionism, was bound to befall some woman sooner rather than later.
Opening with the sound of a horrific explosion, Golda's Balcony dwells on the Yom Kippur war, in which Meir's government blackmailed - Henry Kissinger's term - the United States into supplying Israel with desperately needed jet fighters. It did so, the story goes, by threatening to deploy a nuclear arsenal the existence of which Israel has never actually confirmed. The title refers the nickname given to a control room, which Meir visited often, that overlooked the nuclear program's subterranean laboratories at Dimona, in the middle of the Negev desert. The crux of the drama is the tension, brought to unbearable pitch by Israel's crisis, between Meir's humanity and her determination to protect her people by whatever force was required.
So on top of the juggling of family and career that beset all ambitious women, Golda Meir had to consider initiating a holocaust of her own: rich material for the theatre. It is difficult - and perfectly unnecessary - to say where Mr Gibson's skill as a playwright gives way to Ms Feldshuh's as an actor; Golda's Balcony appears to be a very successful collaboration. Tovah Feldshuh has been demonstrating her command of the stage for years, most recently in another one-woman show (with minor male assist), Tallulah Hallelujah! Entertaining as that show was, however - and I'll never forget her arrival on stage in a long mink coat, singing a perfectly monotone 'Bye, Bye Blackbird' - the new play provides Ms Feldshuh with a figure of major significance in a compelling dramatic situation that holds one's attention from the start. Golda's Balcony also has a regrettable timeliness, as it becomes ever more apparent that the worst threats to Israel's survival might come from within.
As ambassador in Moscow, Golda Meir made a famous appearance outside the principal synagogue, where she was mobbed by Jews who could hardly believe that such a wonder existed. She thanked them, in Yiddish, for having remained Jews. This perplexing attachment to the past in a woman who devoted herself to looking forward is perhaps the secret of Meir's power. (November 2003)
I've never read the book, but I've seen the movie a few dozen times, and I was curious to see what the glittering cast would make of Matthew Barber's stage adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim's Enchanted April. When Kathleen called from West 44th Street, right outside the Belasco Theatre, in the middle of a rainy round of errands, I suggested that she try to get a pair of good seats at the box office, and that was that. It was almost as easy as slipping my Laser Disc copy of the movie into the Yamaha.
Enchanted April, no doubt about it, is a feel-good show. Depressed by London rains that were all too familiar to this season's New York audiences, Lotty Wilson persuades an almost-total stranger, Rose Arnott, to take the lease of an Italian castle for the month of April, 1922. To cover their expenses, these ladies enlist two other strangers, Lady Caroline Bramble, a bright young thing with a broken heart, and Mrs Graves, an elderly widow who lives on the memories of her childhood, as the daughter of a literary lion who knew everybody (but not Shakespeare or Keats). Because all four women have reasons to be dissatisfied with Men, their one interest in common, aside from the castle, will be the absence of the opposite sex. Lotty is married to a priggish bully, a solicitor on the make - can somebody please tell me what kind of a name 'Mellersh' is? Rose and her husband, Frederick, have drifted apart, ostensibly because of a miscarriage but more likely because Frederick, the author of naughty historical novels, has a taste for parties that pious Rose doesn't share. Although everyone takes Lotty and Rose to be war widows, it's Lady Caroline whom the war has robbed of a husband. And Mrs Graves has a view of marriage that's heavily inflected by Wildean paradox.
They're hardly established at San Salvatore, however, before this ban is broken, and the birds and the bees and the wisteria crown a lovers' paradise. First on the scene is the castle's owner, Antony Wilding. He is very taken with Rose, whom he believes to be available, and this interest in another woman, something new to Lady Caroline, excites her interest in Antony. Then both the husbands show up, apparently at their wives' invitation but not, in fact, the case so far as Frederick is concerned. Mellersh wants to take a bath, despite warnings that the castle's plumbing is pericoloso, and the high point of the comedy is his towel-draped introduction to a member of the titled aristocracy. Finally, with a little prodding from Mrs Graves, all three couples find themselves together, and happiness pours off the stage with the freshness of spring rain.
Amazingly, Enchanted April manages not to be treacly. The stage play makes far better use of the dark background of the Great War than the film version does, and the brown, severely underdecorated first act setting makes the loggia at San Salvatore, when it appears after the intermission, a vision of heaven. (Sets were designed by Tony Straiges, costumes by Jess Goldstein, and lighting by Rui Rita.) But it is of course the acting that staves off the saccharine potentialities of this slight, happily-ending tale. Alas, the actor whom I most wanted to see, Jayne Atkinson (as Lotty), was indisposed. I've read great things about Ms Atkinson but so far missed her work. Her place was taken by Isabel Keating (not an understudy, apparently), and taken very nicely. Somewhat submerged beneath an excess of hat and coat in the first act, Ms Keating emerged as a figure of birdlike curiosity and grace in the second. Molly Ringwald, said by the women in the row behind us to be well along in pregnancy, and not only that, but pregnant with a girl (they could tell), seemed every so slightly somnolent as Rose, but she made up for drawled delivery with the best English accent in the cast. Dagmara Dominzyck's impersonation of Lady Caroline was so close to Polly Walker's in the film that it underscored the different directions taken by the other actors, and it was perhaps to conceal this resemblance that she appeared onstage as a platinum blonde. Elizabeth Ashley did not eat up quite as much scenery, as Mrs Graves, as I thought she might, but she garnered the lion's share of the laughs. Michael Cumpsty, whom I last saw in Copenhagen, gave a superbly modulated performance that made the most of his embarrassing half-masted presentation to Lady Caroline, and his response to a passionate kiss from Lotty had a touch of the miraculous about it, so transfigured did he seem. Understudy John Feltch ably covered the part of Frederick for Daniel Gerroll, and made the most of Frederick's divided attention. Michael Hayden was an engaging Antony Wilding - the most difficult role in the play, certainly. It's a much bigger part than its correspondent in the film, and this only intensifies Antony's oddness - his independence of means, his career as a portraitist, his war wounds, and his profound gentlemanliness. Indeed, Antony is the model man compared to whom both Mellersh and Frederick are somewhat swinish inferiors, and yet they're rather more vital. It's difficult to play such a nice guy without losing the audience, but Mr Hayden pulled it off. As Costanza, the castle's housekeeper, Patricia Connelly had a huge amount of fun deploying her excellent Italian and mocking the linguistic shortcomings of the Inglesi. Director Michael Wilson has every reason to be satisfied with this production. (June 2003)
Israel Horovitz has written a great many plays, but until the other night I'd never seen one. I came away from 'My Old Lady' thinking that perhaps Mr Horovitz has written too many plays, or, more exactly, that he'd been a little too easily satisfied when it came time to deciding that his plays were complete. Certainly 'My Old Lady' needs more. The play so complete fails to resolve its central problem that it seems to stand for the idea that drama doesn't need to be resolved, that all it takes is a vatic line or two at the end, and a quick curtain.
And a fine cast. 'My Old Lady' has that. I called up Telecharge and ordered a pair of tickets because of the two ladies in the three-actor cast, Siân Phillips - notable for an eminent stage career but unforgettable for those of us not lucky enough to live near London's West End theatres for a riveting performance as the Reverend Mother in David Lynch's 'Dune' - and Jan Maxwell, whom I fell in love with over the summer after seeing her in Alan Ackroyd's 'House.' Ms Maxwell was tremendous as the wife (Trish Platt) who has had enough of her husband's philandering and finally decided not to recognize his very existence. I jumped at the chance to see her again.
The ladies of 'My Old Lady' both play Parisiennes. This means that the actress impersonating them speak with Frenzh aksans all the way through, something that both Ms Phillips and Ms Maxwell manage very well. More than that, they really impersonate French ladies; they recoil in proper French fashion from the aggressive, undisciplined, and sarcastic gusto of their American visitor, who, in addition to his other faults, drinks too much. Both ladies declare, with high Continental propriety, that his excessive drinking is 'disgusting.' No enablers they. They have the advantage, however, over the audience, of being able to leave the room whenever their guest became too unpleasant.
Insofar as any play ought to offer the opportunity to spend, as the cliché has it, a few hours in the company of interesting people, 'My Old Lady' does two thirds of the job very well. My problem was with the American man, played by Peter Friedman. Mr Friedman threw himself into the role of Matthias Gold, and obviously had a lot of fun with it, but he was unable to dispel my complete disenchantment with the character. Matthias is a fifty year-old self-declared loser who is bitter about his failures (bad parental relationships, three divorces, and not a penny in his pocket) but so indisposed to adjusting his behavior that it doesn't matter that he has, probably, arguably, a good heart. He is that most wearying of Broadway tropes, the Big Baby. And the humor of 'My Old Lady' rests almost entirely on the incongruity of a man's changing his emotional diapers in the salon of a shabby but respectable flat overlooking the Luxembourg - a very old joke indeed.
Matthias, the loser, has inherited something from his rich father's estate: an apartment in Paris. What he doesn't know until he arrives on the premises - having spent his last dime on the plane ticket from New York - is that the apartment is what the French call a viager. They're not unknown here in New York. They're apartments inhabited by oldish people that purchasers can buy at a steep discount, on the understanding that they, the purchasers, will pay the maintenance on the apartment for the life of the tenant, who remains in possession; when the tenant dies, the purchaser gets the apartment. Matthias is thunderstruck to discover that he not only doesn't really have an apartment but actually owes money on it, a dismay that is only slightly leavened by the satisfaction of knowing that his father, ordinarily a shrewd businessman, had been paying the charges for twenty-seven years. Madame Giffard, the old lady in the apartment, is ninety-four.
Suffice it to say that the transaction between Matthias Gold's father and Mme Giffard wasn't at arm's length, and that Mme Giffard's daughter, Chloe, is more to Matthias than a woman he'll be able to evict when her mother dies. The actual relationships among the parties, as they emerge, prove to be quite predictable; the unexpected element is the symmetry between Matthias and Chloe. Chloe is angry about her childhood, too, although she's much better-behaved about it. While Matthias sympathized with his mother' unhappiness in her marriage, Chloe longed for the love of her father. This gives them something in common, once they get past an initial hostility that Mr Horovitz doesn't quite manage to invest with the screwball heat that his story really needs.
All Mr Horovitz does, really, is set up a mildly intriguing situation - perhaps it would be better to call it a situation that excellent actors could make mildly interesting - and then let his characters talk at each other, revealing little secrets at strategically-timed moments and announcing, rather than showing, their changes of heart. There may be a happy ending, but there is no resolution, no concord among the characters. For the young people to subscribe to Mme Giffard's philosophy would be to understand that their lives up to the final curtain had been wasted; if, on the contrary, the Matthias and Chloe are right to think of themselves as wounded beings, then Mme Giffard ought to have been crushed by her selfishness. Instead, she chirps 'La vie est belle' at the end, whereupon Chloe shakes her head in qualification, 'No, life is better.' Better than death, presumably; but she doesn't say. We are never obliged to judge whether Mme Giffard's liberated views on life and love are charming or dangerous. Mr Horovitz, somewhat lazily, wants it both ways.
Under David Esbjornson's direction, Peter Friedman works the audience for laughs, but Siân Phillips, using every trick in the book, including a dead faint from standing position, is in every way the greater entertainer, and she well deserves her top billing. Jan Maxwell charmingly conveys the persistence of a smart little girl's wariness in a mature woman's makeup; her Chloe is anything but a big baby. She is also the only character to force issues, and this Ms Maxwell manages without the stridency that usually accompanies such obligations. There is a gentleness about her exasperation that could probably - has probably - make one of Tennessee Williams's damaged heroines appealing. But here's hoping that her next role will be as comic as Ms Phillips's. (October 2002)
Proof, if any was wanted, that New York has more theatrical talent than it knows what to do with was on offer last weekend at the Metropolitan Playhouse, a rather grandly-named loft in Alphabet City. To be perfectly honest, Kathleen and I went to see 'Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom,' David Zellnik's OOBR-winning play, because a friend of ours was in the cast. That's how we knew about the revival, briskly directed by Liz Ortiz-Mackes, in the first place. It would not have occurred to us to look through TONY's 'Gay and Lesbian' section to see what was playing Off-Off-Broadway, and we would have found no listing in the magazine's 'Theater' section. I hadn't understood the extent to which a play on gay themes might be marginalized. Shame on TONY.
'Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom' is a well-made play - and I mean that as a compliment - about two old friends, Puppy and Jake. Puppy requires the services of a wheelchair, while Jake tries to cope with the fact, thanks to effective medication, that he is not about to die of AIDS. Who's the cripple here? Puppy writes pornography with a whimsical political slant for a publisher named Al, a sleazy number who in this production appears to have asked for the Mrs Norman Bates look. When Puppy's not writing, he's probably listening to Jake complain about his lover, Samson. That Jake and Sam should have trouble getting along is no surprise, since their relationship was formed in the teeth of a death threat that, for the time being anyway, has evaporated. What hasn't evaporated is Sam's phobia about sex - he and Jake haven't had any in about five months. (He says that his skin hurts because of the medication.) The situation isn't helped by Jake's joblessness, either. Jake is a writer, or wants to be a writer, but he has nothing like Puppy's industry or imagination. So he stops taking his medication for a few days and lands in the hospital.
Puppy's current work-in-progress concerns the fate, as it were, of a group of Chinese prisoners, all of whom have landed in jail because they took Mao's exhortation to 'let a hundred flowers bloom' literally. Puppy tells Jake how no one believed Mao at first - no one believed that criticism would go unpunished - but then someone spoke out, and nothing happened, and a few other people spoke out, and nothing happened, and so on - until finally Mao had everybody arrested and executed. Puppy sees an AIDS allegory in this (don't ask), but the title of the play has much more bearing on the action than that, for Puppy convinces disconsolate Jake that he should have a little fling while Sam's out of town. The little fling becomes something more like a hundred flings. Appalled to discover that Jake isn't practicing safe sex, Puppy spills the beans to Sam - a not entirely disinterested gesture, since Puppy harbors longings for Jake, and if Jake needs another place to stay, Puppy's happy to provide.
To get things going, Puppy pushes Jake into the ambiguous armature of a Latino shoe salesman named Addison. Addison is a hunk, and responsive, up to a point, but he insists that he is not gay, and to back this up he prohibits kissing on the mouth and limits Jake to two encounters. 'Two times. That's the rule with guys. Two times so you don't get addicted to me.' Addison's swaggering denial of the implications of his frolics with Jake came straight to mind a day or so after we saw the play when I read that some Islamic businessmen had figured out a way to get round the prohibition against negotiating with a woman: by calling her 'Mister.'
The four principals - Jon-Michael Hernandez as Puppy, Jonathan Vaughan as Jake, Peter Byrnes as Samson (and Al), and Todd d'Amour (not a stage name!) as Addison and a number of other hunks - all gave great performances. Mr Hernandez, who is himself disabled, inflected his role with the wryly bluffing vulnerability of a very winning loser but arrived at the happy ending with all flags flying. Mr Vaughan managed to hold my sympathy even though he brought Jake's passive-aggressive reflexes to the fore. When the inevitable go-away-and-don't-come-back scene came his way, Mr Byrnes's indignation was so righteously intense that his spectacles blazed. As for Mr d'Amour, he has a great body now, but in thirty years he will still have a supple, agile, and very rich voice.
The text of 'Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom' is available on the Web at http://zellnik.com/david/hundred.pdf. It reads very well, but then I've got the memory of four fine performances to fill it out.
1 August 2002: Having ordered tickets the moment they went on special sale to American Express cardholders, we saw the revival of Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune from Row E; any closer, and we’d have been looking up Edie Falco’s robe. Missing the original production in 1987, which starred F. Murray Abraham and Kathy Bates, is high on my list of theatrical regrets, so missing Ms Falco and Stanley Tucci was out of the question. They're terrific together, funny and heartbreaking – McNally’s favorite blend. It's probably not fair to pin all the nudity on director Joe Mantello.
What’s most amazing about this play is the speed with which McNally brings you into synch with the world of two Greek coffee shop employees. The hallmark of his deftness is that notwithstanding the title of the play, and the fact that 'Clair de lune' composition is played twice, to great effect, on the onstage radio, the piece is never identified, and Frankie and Johnny themselves have no idea what it’s called. Johnny is sure – or wants to be sure - that all you have to do is go into a fancy record store and ask for the most beautiful piece of music in the world, and that’s what they’ll sell you. Frankie is more skeptical. She thinks it’s much more likely that you’ll end up with ‘Michelle,’ or ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’ or the soundtrack to ‘The Sound of Music.’ The wonder of it is that not once do you look down on these characters for not knowing Debussy's extraordinarily famous composition. You want to choke, rather, thinking of how much they have to learn, how much they have to teach themselves – and you know that they’ll try. What you, brought up in bourgeois, professional comfort, learned without any effort whatsoever, lies over the horizon here, you hate to think how far. McNally has put two 'ordinary' people on the stage, and clothed them with dignity.
The struggle is heroic: Frankie and Johnny are determined to fall in love. That's to say that Johnny's ready to fall in love, and Frankie is determined not to fall in any other direction. Johnny is romantic, Frankie practical. They work together in a Greek coffee shop (as if there were any other kind in New York); this could be just an opportunistic one-night stand. But something tells them that this coming together is a big chance. They may blow it. Frankie’s pretty sure that they’ll blow it, and at one point Johnny lets on that he’s doubtful, too, for all his bravado (“I’m no good with people… Sooner or later, I hang myself.”) But the chance is real, not a daydream. The road may be bumpy, but it won't necessarily throw these two apart.
You’re familiar, I’m sure, with Chekhov’s law: if a gun appears in the first act, it must go off in the third. So when Johnny swears, as a kind of allegiance to his own identity, that he would never hit a woman, you wait for him to fail the test. McNally’s staging of a small scuffle that erupts at an impatient moment – Frankie, as usual, the impatient party – quite wonderfully lays Chekhov to rest: Johnny does not, not anything like, hit Frankie. He doesn’t even hold back from wanting to. Frankie slaps Johnny, twice, but that’s different; women get to. But Johnny's first-act declaration remains a gauntlet thrown thrillingly down.
The curtain goes up on two people making love in the dark. After their climax, the lights go up a bit as they sprawl in bed. I would say that Edie Falco is naked, for all to see, for about five minutes; Stanley Tucci prolongs his nakedness by at least twice that. There were moments when I fell for the picture of two unabashed lovers coming up for air, but as it happens these were not two unabashed lovers, and their relish in the naked afterglow was a little dishonest. Frankie’s was, anyway. Johnny’s nakedness was really a kind of nudity, an aggressive unclothedness, part of his desperate attempt to be the compleat lover. But I don’t think anything would have been lost if Frankie had been wearing a robe when the lights went up. I expect that the director would disagree; he’d argue that Frankie’s postcoital nakedness was a rare, and daring, moment of freedom, almost as willed as Johnny’s. But in fact we were looking at Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci (who has a very good body for a middle-aged man, by the way), not Frankie and Johnny. Edie Falco may not be the beauty that Michelle Pfeiffer is (Pfeiffer, incredibly, had the part in the bad movie adaptation), but neither she nor her costar is hard on the eyes, either, and one can be sure that if they were they’d be robed from the get-go. What keeps me off the high horse is knowing that scenes such as this are keeping Broadway financially healthy. ‘Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,’ after all, is really an off-Broadway show, but star power and nudity will keep the Belasco Theatre filled at least for the length of the production’s ‘limited engagement.’ (August 2002)
Have you seen the ad for ‘Design for Living’ in the Times, or perhaps in The New Yorker? It’s immensely misleading and largely responsible for the bad reviews. Showing the three principals as carefree cutups en route to a perpetual party, the photograph doesn’t remotely convey an idea of what these people look like on stage. Someone in search of frothy and clever entertainment from Noel Coward is bound to be awfully disappointed.
‘Design for Living’ may anything but carefree, but is it any good? And what about this revival? As to the first question, any play holding that three people can live together ‘as a couple’ will provoke a resistance quite different nowadays from the titillated scandal of its première. In 1933, ménage à trois was a myth because hardly anyone had had the opportunity to conduct such sexual experiments. A powerful man might have a wife and a mistress, more or less openly, but neither of the women had much say in the arrangement, and in any case Coward endows one woman with two men. On the other side of the late sexual revolution, however, we speak with somewhat more experience when we ask to see successful examples of such threesomes. The idea remains fabulous: a myth because it can't happen.
When there is the Proust problem. By this I mean the questionable value of a homosexual's theorizing about heterosexual love and the erotic life of women. While I doubt that Coward had no experience whatsoever with women, he was not a bisexual, and when we look at Gilda, the heroine of ‘Design for Living,’ we find a woman who not only doesn’t much like herself but seems to have no idea who she is or might be. She talks a big game of independence but she doesn’t believe in it. She cannot sit still; she rushes about in search of madder music and stronger wine. Two years of respectable married life nearly kills her. Evaluated realistically, her character compares to that of a unicorn in need of a twelve-step program.
I’m not sufficiently familiar with ‘Design for Living’ to know where the script stops and the interpretation begins, but I’m pretty sure that Gilda needn’t be played as gravely as Jennifer Ehle plays her. The seriousness of this performance has all the signs of a well thought-out miscalculation, an attempt to do something with the role that, while interesting so far as the role itself goes, can’t be made to fit with the rest of the play. When the curtain goes up, Gilda is seen sitting in a slip in front of a whirring fan, lost in thoughts that, even if they’re happy (we’ll find that she’s just made love) are far from light. As if oppressed by an existential burden, Ehle holds the pose for about twice as long as an actress untutored by director Joe Mantello would, pushing the audience into wondering if something’s the matter with her – Ehle, not Gilda – and perhaps even drumming its fingers with impatience, lest we be in for an evening of Tennessee Williams. Ehle has a rich low voice, which she puts at the service of interpretive complexity: her simplest ‘no’ suggests hours of knotty deliberation, but for all that it’s unlikely to be a final answer.
One clear improvement, in my book, from the original production (as it must have been) is the openness with which the men express their, er, mutual affection. That they should carry on together is only questioned once, where it would have had to be in 1933: after Gilda runs off to New York, Otto (Alan Cummings) asks Leo (Dominic West) ‘What now?’ When the two pop up in Gilda’s New York penthouse after a prolonged sojourn on a tramp steamer, there’s no need to guess whether they did or they didn’t; it was clear by the kisses that answer Otto’s question that they were going to. Their easy sexuality together, contrasted not only with Ehle’s seriousness but with the men’s gentlemanly treatment of her, may have led one reviewer to pronounce Gilda’s the loser in this production – or at least the odd man out. We come back to the stubborn proposition that three is still a crowd and that somebody’s going to be left out. Since ‘Design for Living’ ends when the new relationship begins, we can’t look to Coward for answers.
It would be interesting to know how many members of the audience shared the disgust, if not the priggishness, of Gilda's soon-to-be ex-husband Ernest (John Cunningham) at the end. I'd also like to know if anybody but me fell all unwilling beneath the spell of Robert Brill's glamorously hideous design for a stylish London flat, featuring a livid green the likes of which I'm happy to say I'd never seen before. (March 2001)
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