A Catered Affair

  • Date:
    April 1, 2008
    Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    Paddy Chayefsky is not exactly a household name to today's generation of theatergoers. But those of us of a certain age, however, remember him for his powerful dramas written for live -- yes, live! -- television, most notably, "Marty," which subsequently became a movie and an Oscar winner. Among his other outstanding dramas was the 1953 "A Catered Affair," adapted for film by Gore Vidal, and re-adapted for Broadway by Harvey Fierstein.

    This was a play that had embedded itself into Fierstein's psyche and, according to a "Playbill" interview, he couldn't shake. Frustrated at all the silly plays he was asked to write, he took his musical version to Kander and Ebb ten years ago, only to have it rejected. This year, he thought, it was time to try again, and this time, he made it happen.

    "Affair" is anything but a silly play, dealing with the hopes and disappointments in marriage, dreams never realized, mother and daughter love, and love never fulfilled. What prevents it from becoming a maudlin, tear-jerker is the disciplined pen of Fierstein, the thoughtful music and lyrics of John Bucchino, and the stark, spare sets of David Gallo, all fashioned together to create a poignant story that will win your hearts.

    In this complex family drama, Janey, daughter of Tom and Aggie, agrees to marry Ralph in a quickie City Hall ceremony because Janey can get her friend's car, drive it to California, and turn the trip into a honeymoon. Not exactly the stuff of throbbing heartbeats, but it's good enough for Janey. Never having seen love between her parents, she just didn't know any better.

    Her parents are poor, hard-working people who never had a shot at the good life. Forced to get married because she had a "thick waist," Aggie spends her days as a housewife in an old apartment building in the Bronx, while Tom works double shifts driving a cab he doesn't own. His dream, if you can call it that, was to save every penny so he could buy the cab's Medallion with his friend Sam and be his own boss.

    But Uncle Winston and Ralph's parents have different ideas about the wedding, and that means money. With the bereavement check the couple receives after the death in Korea of their son, Aggie decides to go along with a big, catered affair -- it'll be the wedding she never had -- and Tom passively accepts that he'll never get the Medallion.

    The planning of this wedding is what brings to the surface all the buried dreams and emotions that have been burrowing so deeply inside Aggie and Tom. Their loveless marriage, the realization that they favored their son, and their loneliness in each other's company all come together in one cathartic scene when Aggie sings of her "Vision" for the life she wish she had, and Tom fights back in his powerful song, "I Stayed."

    Minimalist director, John Doyle, shows his gift for saying a lot with little in a wrenching moment of a long silence when Tom walks out and Aggie stares off into space. After she leaves, we are left looking at their small kitchen with the chair Tom knocked over, his jacket on the floor, and the folded American flag from Terrence's coffin on the table. No words, no music, but the set says it all.

    The only departure from Chayefsky's script is the character of Uncle Winston, a drunken Irishman and confirmed bachelor in the original, Fierstein rewrote him, instead, as a lonely gay man. It works. Uncle Winston and Aggie are kindred spirits -- they both have no life.

    But the story doesn't end on this low note. Unlike Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets, to whom Chayefsky is often compared, it all ends with a rainbow, the clearing of the storm clouds, and the possibility of, for lack of a better phrase, a do-over. It's a beautiful play, definitely an affair to remember, and worth a trip to New York.

    Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus

     

    "So low key that it often seems to sink below stage level. From Mr. Bucchino�s trickling, self-effacing score to the tight-lipped stoicism of its leading performances, from David Gallo�s tidy tenement-scape set to Zachary Borovay�s tentative photographic projections, this show is all pale, tasteful understatement that seems to be apologizing for asking for your attention. "
    Ben Brantley
    New York Times

    "Well-intentioned but doesn't deliver enough story, substance or satisfaction. It's about poor people, yes, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't have meat on the bone and icing on the cake. "
    Joe Dziemianowicz
    New York Daily News

    "Humor, yes, but humanity? That's rare in a Broadway musical. When it does come along... hug it to your heart. "
    Clive Barnes
    New York Post

    "This heartfelt "A Catered Affair" may prove too gentle a show to win long-running Broadway popularity, but the bittersweet musical certainly is worthy of admiration. "
    Michael Sommers
    Star-Ledger

    "For all the trials these characters endure, A Catered Affair is ultimately a celebration of life � neither flashy nor flawless, but well worth attending."
    Elysa Gardner
    USA Today

    "A Broadway musical created by, for, and about grown-ups."
    Eric Grode
    New York Sun

    "Though not exactly boring, cannot escape the feel of a rehashed, thrice-told tale."
    John Simon
    Bloomberg

    "A wan, ceaselessly grim little show that barely registers as a musical."
    Jacques Le Sourd
    Journal News

    "Woeful book, dreadful songs and clueless staging"
    Robert Feldberg
    The Record

    "A most unusual little musical that has the courage of its low-key, yet heartfelt convictions. " & "Demands serious attention from an audience, but the effort is worth it. It's a bittersweet musical that is unafraid to stand still and let theatergoers linger in the nuance of love lost and then, most joyously, found. "
    Michael Kuchwara
    Associated Press

    "The show resonates due to its modesty, grace, gentleness and emotional integrity -- qualities not often front and center in musicals. "
    David Rooney
    Variety