Review by Polly Wittenberg
Written by: by Elaine May.
Directed by: Daniel Sullivan.
Cast: Jeanne Berlin, Jere Burns, J. Smith Cameron, Brian Kerwin and Eddie Korbich.
Synopsis: Three one-act plays looking at overweight chorus boys longing to dance, married couples longing for sex, aging singles looking for love.
Polly Wittenberg's Review.
I just finished putting together some capsule reviews of the varied and, for the most part, delightful shows I saw on a recent swing through London. The collection is posted on the sister website - London Theatre Guide In reviewing a loopy but enjoyable production of Tristan & Yseult that I saw at the National Theatre, I discussed the efforts being made by that great institution to attract younger audiences.
Like the National, our Manhattan Theatre Club has three theatres of varying sizes and a large relatively geriatric subscription audience. But, unlike whatï¿½s going on in London, there is absolutely no evidenceï¿½based on its last three productions at leastï¿½that the MTC has any interest in putting on shows which could appeal to potential theatergoers younger than late middle age.
First, thereï¿½s Jeffrey Hatcherï¿½s two-hander A Picasso at the smallest of the MTCï¿½s venues, Stage 2. Itï¿½s about a fictional encounter in a subterranean room in occupied Paris between the great Spanish painter (impersonated by Dennis Boutsakiris, the first time I think Iï¿½ve ever seen him minus the beard) and a Nazi functionary (played by the too-long-absent-from-the-New-York-stage Jill Eikenberry). I wonder if anyone under 30 would have the least interest, as I did, in the superficial but snappy repartee between them or the fact that he gets her to almost bare her breasts at the end. I doubt it.
Then, thereï¿½s Ron Hutchinsonï¿½s four-hander Moonlight and Magnolias at the MTCï¿½s middle-sized venue, Stage 1. Itï¿½s about the weekend when David Selznick, Victor Fleming and Ben Hecht purportedly put together the final script for the movie Gone with the Wind while locked up together in Selznickï¿½s office with only a secretary to keep them in touch with the outside world. While Iï¿½m quite sure that most members of Gens X and Y are familiar with the film and they probably can also relate to the complete mess writers can make when working intensely on a project, I doubt that many of those brought up on ï¿½Star Warsï¿½ have ever heard of these three famous members of the old Hollywood studio system or much care what that system was all about. Too bad, because Douglas Sills is terrific as Selznick and the set is a pip.
Which brings me to Elaine Mayï¿½s three short plays that are being produced by the MTC under the title After the Night and the Music at its newest and largest venue, the Biltmore. As a writer and comedian, Elaine May is familiar to anyone who wanted to laugh at the mores of the 1960s. But, whereas her performance partner in those days, Mike Nichols, has gone on (as a director) to embrace the contemporary folkways of the current blockbuster Spamalot, Ms. May isï¿½on the basis on the evidence presented at the Biltmoreï¿½still stuck writing stuff that would have seemed jolly back then but now seems just old hat.
Take the second of the three plays. (Iï¿½ll get back to the first one later.) Itï¿½s called Giving Up Smoking and presents four somewhat interlocking monologues which each begin with the statement ï¿½Hereï¿½s why Iï¿½m not depressed...ï¿½ after which the characters go on to whine about their various phobias and neuroses. For example, a couch-potato character named Joanne (Jeannie Berlin) moans as follows: ï¿½This is insane. Iï¿½m a feminist. If women didnï¿½t sit by the phone waiting for guys to call, why would you need a womanï¿½s movement?ï¿½ Now this sort of pop psychology stuff would have seemed quite clever in the long ago days before ï¿½Psychology Todayï¿½ was a best-selling magazine. It makes some TV situation comedy episodes look ï¿½deepï¿½ and is just about as funny as most of them, although May does get in an occasional good line, e.g. ï¿½If Heathcliff were alive today, heï¿½d be on Zoloft.ï¿½
The third play, called Swing Time, is about a dinner party where the host couple decides to spice it up by proposing that this hubby and wife switch as sex partners with the guests. Needless to say, it doesnï¿½t work out quite as planned and the ending is a triumph for traditional family values. It has a few good lines especially when the hosts are discussing their foodie tendencies. But even though itï¿½s efficiently directed by Daniel Sullivan as are all three plays and has a slick set by John Lee Beatty, itï¿½s a bore.
All of which brings me to the two reasons you might want to see After the Night and the Music despite what Iï¿½ve just written. The first is to see quirky actress J. Smith-Cameron strut her stuff in three quite varied roles. The second reason is to see the short (15-minute) first play called, appropriately enough, Curtain Raiser. Itï¿½s a classic. Itï¿½s set in a tacky bar where a nerdy but light-on-his-feet guy offers to teach a klutzy lesbian how to ballroom danceï¿½and to lead. Itï¿½s all perfectly choreographed by Randy Skinner and executed by Smith-Cameron and Eddie Korbich. A joy, but not by itself worth the high price of admission. And since ballroom dancing is a foreign language to young people today, surely none of them would care.
Iï¿½m sure the MTC is going to count this season as a success since one of its productionsï¿½John Patrick Shanleyï¿½s Doubtï¿½will probably win the Tony Award for Best New Play and deservedly so. But Iï¿½d have to say that most of the fare theyï¿½ve been serving up to their audiences will do nothing to help them build support in the future.
What the critics had to say.....
BEN BRENTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES says ï¿½Though .... dotted with tasty fillips of the deadpan hysteria for which Ms. May is celebrated, you may later find yourself unable to muster the energy to remember just what it was you saw.ï¿½
HOWARD KISSEL of NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says "...seems a holdover from another period."
ELYSA GARDNER of USA Today "The writer's insights into these characters are seldom fresh or funny."
MICHAEL SOMMERS ofSTAR-LEDGER "Sullivan's smooth ways with his mostly capable company render the plays with gloss sufficient to making them appear if not terribly amusing, at least not terrible. "
LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY says "For all the tired running gags about spilled potato salad and mismatched underwear, the four expert actors manage to make us squirm under their skin. Icky, yes, but in the nicest possible way."
MICHAEL FEINGOLD of THE VILLAGE VOICE says "May's recent short plays likewise have the musty feel of objects unpacked from an old trunk. Even when they produce a mild sputter of laughs, every 10 minutes or so, they seem archaic, suburban, small-minded. That May's aura can still make people finance this turkey farm is an ongoing puzzle."