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After the Night and the Music, at MTC's Biltmore Theatre

Ben Brantley didn't like it, but we thought it was great: Elaine May's After the Night and the Music. So did the rest of the audience, apparently. Perhaps it's generational. The title refers, I think, to the aftermath of the famous song, "You and the Night and the Music." What happens when all the goodies promised by Howard Dietz's lyrics have been worn out, washed out, or smashed up? This is not, perhaps, a show for younger audiences - and, of course, it didn't have one last night. After the Night and the Music is directed by Daniel Sullivan, with sets by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Michael Krass, and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. It's produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, at MTC's Biltmore Theatre on West 47th Street, the dandiest house on Broadway.

There were moments here and there that I might have snipped, but they never bogged down and were forgotten at once (except for the purpose of writing this page). Great cast, great production, great choreography. (I'll get to that.) To Mr Brantley, After the Night and the Music was no more than an assemblage of skits. While I see his point, I don't take it. Billed as "Three New Plays in Two Acts," After the Night and the Music is actually a one-act play preceded by a curtain raiser, a quartet of interlaced monologues, and an intermission. The curtain raiser might be considered a skit if it were merely funny or satirical, but in fact it's about generosity rewarded.

Ten-odd minutes of appetizing fun, "Curtain Raiser" (as it's aptly called) takes place at the bar of a dance hall. A very severe woman in a suit rebuffs the advances of a man. The man leaves, and another, rather nebbishy guy has a go at her. All he wants is one dance. Instead of accepting her refusals, he states his case: he's a former dance instructor who's too plain and too rotund to appeal to the ladies who frequent the dance hall. By this time, we know that the woman is neither interested in men nor happy to be where she is. Her girlfriend likes to dance, but not with her. So we're well set up for the surprise that leads to the guy's victory: when the woman says that she can't follow, but only lead, he replies that he can follow; dance instructors have to know how. Pretty soon, he's teaching her how improve her leading, something that no one has ever undertaken. Their dancing gets better and better, and soon the dancers attracted a crowd, including the girlfriend. "Curtain Raiser" is much the same kind of lighthearted look at heavy hearts as was "Did You Move?", the middle show in Contact. Eddie Korbich is a nimble and delightful dance instructor, and J Smith-Cameron - a queen of off-Broadway and the only member of the company who appears in all three acts - is magnificent as a grim, harsh woman who warms up to the surprise of someone's giving her something.

In "Giving Up Smoking," we find Joanne (Jeannie Berlin) sitting in a comfortable armchair by the telephone. She leans forward and addresses us on the "reasons why I am not depressed," but her manner suggests that she is not a happy camperl. Joanne is in that most depressing of all states: longing for someone special to call. This is a state that I know well. Whenever Kathleen travels, I have to talk to her at least every morning and every night (her time, wherever she is), and I also have hear from her when (a) she's still at the airport because the flight is late, (b) she lands - each time she lands in the case of multiple flights, and (c) when she checks in at her hotel or arrives at some other destination. Normal life simply stops for me when I become aware of waiting for one of these calls, and is replaced by a cold hell. Joanne, however, is not worried about the health or safety of the man she's hoping to hear from. She's worried about herself. She has gotten out of a marriage that she now rather misses. She hates the loneliness of being a middle-aged woman waiting for dates - in tonight's case, a certain Mel. Joanne's monologue is vintage Elaine May, loaded with neurotic humor that I, for one, found fresh, even if it did depend on Joanne's holding out against modern telephony. Presently, she is interrupted by the emergence from the opposite wing of another platform with another couch and another lonely person. This is Sherman, Joanne's best friend, Sherman (Jere Burns). Sherman's situation is even worse than Joanne's, because he's a middle-aged gay man who, although in good shape, still pines for young lovers, and he is waiting to hear from a certain Gavin. Sherman worries about winding up like his mother, of whom he speaks with a patented mixture of affectionate, self-deprecating contempt. Angry, anxious, and bored, he does what you can do with a modern phone: he calls his best friend. But Joanne, who doesn't have any of the new features, can't talk without risking sending Mel a busy signal, in the unlikely event that he calls. So she lies to Sherman about just getting into the bathtub. Presently a third platform comes out: it's Mel (Brian Kerwin), and boy, is he a jerk. He plays the guitar and congratulates himself on having gotten out of a marriage that was all demands and no gratification. He has discovered that women - all women - are great for five or six dates. The trick is to dump them before they get needy and demanding. In later segments of his monologue, Mel makes it clear that all of this talk about avoiding family and using women is bluff and bluster, the chatter of a man who knows better trying to live high-school-with-money.

The most radiant performance in "Giving Up Smoking" is J Smith-Cameron's, playing Kathleen, Sherman's mother. She turns out to be anything but the lost and miserable old lady that Sherman made her out to be. True, she is very ill; she's got cancer just about everywhere. But because she's so sick, she's eligible for a pilot chemotherapy program, and "the people are so nice there." Kathleen looks on the bright side - even the bright side of losing a much loved husband. If "Giving Up Smoking" weren't so firmly anchored in itchy dramatic irony, Ms Smith-Cameron would have had me blubbering, for when Kathleen plays an old tape of her husband singing along to his own accordion accompaniment, or when Kathleen starts singing along, too, tear ducts will tend to open. It's an interesting touch to have Sherman blubbering on his platform below her, as The Wizard of Oz comes to an end on his TV. By this time, Joanne is sitting right next to him; she has come to his house to make up. That lie about the bathtub just got harder to sustain, through Sherman's repeated call-backs, and at the dramatic heart of the show he leaves a message on her machine announcing the end of their friendship - while she sits impotently by. The moment Sherman hangs up, the phone rings again. It's Mel! And what does Joanne say? It doesn't take long. At the end, everybody is doing well enough, except Mel, who's not trying.

Telling stupid little lies is a theme that links "Giving Up Smoking" to "Swing Time," the solid one-act play that makes up After the Night and the Music's second half. Given the prominent dancing in "Curtain Call" (nicely choreographed by Randy Skinner), I suspected going in that the title had to refer to some other kind of swinging, and it didn't take me long to guess what kind that might be. As the curtain goes up, Mitzi Grade (Ms Smith-Cameron) and her husband, Darryl (Mr Burns), are getting ready to host a party. But what kind of a party calls for sandwiches, potato salad and cole slaw - from the deli? Why is Mitzi so tense? We know that she's high strung, but nobody could be this antsy all the time and survive. And why is Darryl so sure that their guests won't notice the carpeting or the furniture, all of which Mitzi would like to replace? Kathleen (my Kathleen, not Sherman's mother) can call a movie plot five minutes from the start, so I was surprised after the show to hear she didn't catch on even when Mitzi started wailing about not having matching undergarments. By that point, I was wilting in my seat: oh, please, Elaine, please, no. When the doorbell rang, I was as rattled as Mitzi. For a moment, it seems that neither she nor Darryl is going to answer the door, but eventually of course Darryl, and in walk Gail (Ms Berlin) and Ron (Mr Kerwin), another married couple.

From here to the unexpected climax, I just wanted to leave the theatre. It wasn't the prospect of nudity. I could deal with Frankie and Johnnie, after all. What I couldn't handle was the stomach-churning awkwardness of watching two couples, old friends, swing, especially knowing how unwilling Mitzi, afflicted by poor self-esteem, really is to participate. The initial proposition, we're not surprised to learn, was made in the middle of a boozy dinner at The Palm, in response to one of the husbands' joking, "Take my wife, please..." That each should have been ogling the other's wife is no surprise, since Mitzi is after all very pretty and Gail is an aerobics instructor. (Ms Berlin is a year younger than I am but in terrific shape.) Gail herself is one of those warm and kind but utterly humorless babes who do seem overrepresented in the physical therapies. But Mitzi's discomfort simply overflows the stage. The deli sandwiches are dealt with perfunctorily, coffee is sipped, wine is declined, and the couples dance a little bit. Ron's acerbic commentary has a torpifying effect upon Ron, so he proposes taking Mitzi into the bedroom (yay!). This is not part of Gail's plan, however; it seems that she's looking forward to turning her husband on by having him watch her make love with Darryl. So the lights are dimmed, and sheets are spread on the floor. (No, please, Elaine, please.) Clothes come off. Mitzi's bra is removed by Ron, although he has to be told that it opens in the front. Oh, the horror!

And then, just when you think you're going to scream, you're saved by the bell! The telephone rings and Mitzi, saying that it's a call on the "private line," wraps herself in a sheet and takes the call, to everyone else's dismay. The caller is the Grade's grown son, who lives downtown. The notion of talking to one's child while engaging in group sex is not one that you want to have to confront in the dark of a theatre, and that's why God invented laughing audiences to make the pain bearable. Mitzi is off the phone in a hurry, but the damage has been done. What's this about a private line and you didn't give us the number? How could you?

Ron and Gail work themselves in to insulted indignation plenty quick, and any unhappiness that I felt about what was clearly the breakup of an old friendship was obscured by the relief of watching Mr Burns and Ms Berlin put their clothes back on. Mitzi and Darryl beg Ron and Gail to stay, but they're in apologetic host mode. We only gave the number to five people, wails Mitzi, stipulating a figure that has increased to fifteen the next time the claim is made. We only had it installed last week/month, the uncoordinated spouses blurt out. As the train wreck continues, we're invited to take the measure of couples who are willing to grope each other but who don't really know each other at all well; perhaps we're invited to conclude that that's why they're in this mess. After Ron and Gail finally leave, Ms May levels the final blow: the private line was installed in order to avoid taking phone calls from Gail: she talks for hours and you can't get her off the phone.

And yet, ten minutes ago, they were all on the floor. The inversion of humane norms is complete. I will sleep with your spouse but I won't forgive your withholding telephone number. I will let you take off my bra but I will not give your wife access to my private phone line. The topsy-turviness is very funny, at least as enacted by these capable players. I laughed my way out of the theatre and we talked about After the Night and the Music all the way up Broadway to Brooklyn Diner USA.

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