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April 2, 2014

A Killingly Bad Play

So Maggie went to the theater again the other night (good lord, doesn’t she do anything else?). No dead bodies this time, but the play, sad to say, was pretty much DOA. Though the cast features the brilliant Tony Shalhoub (mystery fans know him as TV’s obsessive-compulsive sleuth, Adrian Monk – and see, there IS a felonious connection!) and the talented but somewhat overwrought Andrea Martin, the play is nevertheless upstaged by its own set, an extraordinary, multi-level behemoth that revolves from a Bronx tenement to a country-mansion cocktail party complete with grand piano, from a seedy dressing room to the lobby of a swank hotel, with eleventy-seven more locations besides, and all not so much in the blink of an eye, but with the creaking majesty of an ocean-liner switching course. Despite all kinds of activity during the set-shifts – actors bounding up stairs and down, doors flying open, frantic jazz from backstage, and costume-changes like you wouldn’t believe – it’s the set that commands the attention.

Some of the blame for this misplaced emphasis belongs to the set-designer, the fabulously named Beowulf Boritt (and yes, apparently, that is his real name). He is to some extent Mr. Revolving Stage (see, for example, this video about his work on Grace, in 2012) , and although this can’t have been an easy project to design – it does have just an insane number of locations, often for scenes lasting no more than a minute – I can’t help thinking that there should have been a less showily massive, less tectonic way of moving from one to the next.

Most of the blame, though, belongs to James Lapine, and that’s a shocker: He’s a longtime collaborator of Stephen Sondheim’s, and has what you might call a background in good theater. But in adapting Moss Hart’s bestselling memoir, Act One, for the stage, Lapine appears to have been almost fatally hampered by two things: The material itself (in reviewing the 1963 film based on the book, the New York Times noted that “…it lacks wit, it lacks zip…it’s a routine and humorless rendition of the struggle of a young person to be a theatrical success”) and the lack of a collaborator’s editorial eye. It’s this lack that delivers the mortal blow. The playwright George S. Kaufman, with whom Hart wrote several Broadway gems, was famous for killing his darlings, paring back each scene to the point where only the wit and the essential plot-points survive. Lapine, by contrast, appears to be fatally kind-hearted: He killed nothing, and – as both the writer and the director – had no collaborator to wave a helpful carving knife. The result is a script clotted with pointless scenes and uninteresting characters, on hand only – one assumes – because they appeared in the original memoir.

In retrospect, perhaps the set is appropriate after all. Like the production itself, it is clearly the product of stunning talent and intelligence and hard work. And like the production itself, what it delivers, sadly, is much less than the sum of these parts.



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