The 39 Steps, The Fifth Column, The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, Ghosts
by Richard Seff, NY Theatre Buzz columnist
Take a London concoction, fly one of four actors across the pond to recreate his role, add three zany and original other actors, stir – don’t shake, and what have you got? Spring, on a stage, that’s what. I’m talking about Roundabout Theatre Company’s “The 39 Steps,” an amusingly conceived and executed spoof of the low budget Alfred Hitchcock classic film of that name, which helped establish the director’s reputation in l935. I don’t know the playwright Patrick Barlow’s work, but in England he is famous for his hilarious two man “National Theatre of Brent,” which has become legendary on stage, in tv and on radio. His other titles “Shakespeare: The Truth!” and “The Complete History of the Whole World” give you an indication of the kind of nuttiness that buzzes about his head. I’ve recently seen the Hitchcock film on which this burlesque is based, and I take off my hat to the imaginative Mr. Barlow for his willingness to adapt an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, which in turn was based on a book by John Buchan. All well and good, but it’s Mr. Barlow who has taken the film’s screenplay, and scene by scene, has managed to turn suspense, drama, melodrama and heavy romance into pure hilarity. And he’s done it without missing a scene from the film, without distorting the dialogue, and that means including air crashes, rainstorms, hiding under waterfalls, and some brilliant homages to Mr. Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre. Wow!
Blessed with a cast of fresh faces and no inhibitions, and a director in Maria Aitken who knows how to tend to this sort of flock, I found myself succumbing to this soufflé about four lines into the matinee. It took that long because I had a very bad seat, way over by the side wall of the theatre, and I was in a temper because one third of the stage was not visible to me. My temper disappeared just as soon as Charles Edwards (the import from Britain) settled into an armchair and gave us his opening monologue. For here before us was Robert Donat, who created the role in the film, plus every other square-jawed British leading man who ever faced a camera or trod the boards. Early on, an actress called Jennifer Ferrin joined him as Annabella Schmidt (think Dietrich as played by Madeline Kahn) but as Fraulein Schmidt was bumped off early in the show, she reappeared later as the Madeleine Carroll character, the leading lady, and again as another woman. Ms. Ferrin is making her Broadway debut, arriving via a run in the daytime serial “As the World Turns”, for which she’s garnered two daytime Emmy nominations. Who would have dreamed? All very well done.
But it was the antics of Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton as “Man #1” and “Man #2, two roles that morphed almost instantaneously into at least forty other roles, that blew me away. Saunders, Bilbo Baggins in the musical “Lord of the Rings” in Canada, a jolly jovial man with a voice that can reach high enough so that only dogs can hear him, and low enough to sound like Eugene Pallette, is fun from start to finish. And Arnie Burton, younger, more raffish, on his way to being an offbeat leading man if he wants to be, throws all that away to favor us with a collection of lunatics. Watch this cast entering a room during a raging windstorm, fleeing a train compartment through the window, then running on top of the train from car to car, watch Mr. Burton play two people at the same time, and I defy you not to laugh out loud. He ranges from an elderly Scottish innkeeper’s wife to a tacky compère in a music hall to a toothy English toff to – well, there are just so many variations, one cannot keep up. But the precision, the bravery, the range, the polish, all I can say is, it’s as refreshing as an autumn breeze in August. I would not like to be the understudy to anyone in this cast. They are a very tough act to follow.
Happy ending. This Roundabout production, which closed March 29th at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street, is moving to the Cort Theatre on Broadway in early May. I went back to visit Mr. Burton after the performance, and asked him what he was going to do with his month off.
“Are you kidding?”, he asked. “It’s an actors’ dream scenario. A month off, with a Broadway hit comedy waiting for me at the end of it. I’m going to my favorite holiday town, Palm Springs, and just goof off for a whole month. It’s a first for me!” No one deserves it as much as this charming light comic actor. Except perhaps his three colleagues in this very merry romp.
I don’t want you to think New York is only capable of coming up with winners. Every now and then a clinker comes along. I’m devoted to the Mint Theatre, which operates in a small theatre in an office building on West 43rd Street. There, bossman Jonathan Bank has rescued many a gem from the ash heap of forgotten works. Plays like Walking Down Broadway, Susan and God, DH Lawrence’s The Daughter-In-Law, John Galsworthy’s The Skin Game, Miss Lulu Bett, Mr. Pim Passes By, The Voysey Inheritance and so many others have come vividly to life under his direction or supervision, with startlingly good performances from gifted actors who are not just dropping in from a tv series or between “major motion pictures.”
So all is forgiven for the misstep called The Fifth Column, a heretofore unproduced play from 1937 by – yes, you’re reading it right – Ernest Hemingway. The master novelist ultimately gave up on having this one mounted, but the Theatre Guild went ahead anyway in 1940 and staged a version of it, as adapted by someone called Benjamin Glazer. It starred Franchot Tone and Katherine Locke and featured Lee J. Cobb, but it just eked out its subscription run of six weeks and then was heard no more. I have no idea how the Guild got the rights, for Hemingway was certainly alive, and deep into a new novel. But he was wise to divorce himself from the production, for the play, “adapted” or not, is badly constructed, cinematically formulated with dozens of sets or suggestions of sets. Its central love story, set against the Franco fascist battle for control of Madrid in 1937-39, reminds one of the Rick-Ilse story in Casablanca but only in the fact that a macho man and a foreign lady of beauty and intelligence try to find romance while war and other bad things are going on all around them. The play is preachy, very long, and I do believe that if you don’t read the program notes, you’d never know you were in the middle of the Spanish Civil War.
Maybe David Ives should have been brought in to do for Mr. Hemingway what he did for Mark Twain, another novelist with hopes of being a playwright, in pruning, cutting, shaping Twain’s Is He Dead? earlier this season. Heidi Armbruster and Kelly AuCoin did nothing to make us care about this play’s Dorothy Bridges and Philip Rawlings, but to be fair, the dialog and characterization in the writing did not offer them much opportunity. OK, an expensive miss (there were at least 13 actors aboard, playing 22 characters), with lots of set changes, lighting arrangements to let us know it was pouring rain or showering down explosives as Franco’s troops get closer and closer. Hemingway wrote in his introduction to the published play in 1938, “the title refers to the Spanish rebel statement in the fall of 1936 that they had four columns advancing on Madrid and a Fifth Column of sympathizers inside the city to attack the defenders from the rear.” I only wish they were a more interesting or engaging group of combatants.
Next up for me was an odd little musical at the Vineyard. I won’t tell you much about this little treasure, for it’s come and gone, and was more promising than rewarding. Called The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, it had an amusing score by Mark Mulcahy, with libretto and drawings by Ben Tachor. The drawings were delightful, very whimsical in the manner of Ludwig Bemelmans (that dates me; Bemelmans was a talented artist whose drawings enlivened the New Yorker Magazine for years). It was all very relevant, dealing with the almost slave labor of these poor inhabitants of the mythical Kayrol Island, who do all the dirty work in the preparation of products for American consumption, thus keeping the costs down and the prices up, for the benefit of corporate America. It featured a talented cast of 7, and introduced us to a charming offbeat leading lady, Jody Flader, a 2007 graduate of the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. Veteran actor Peter Friedman, who created the role of Tateh in Ragtime, helped tell this fey tale of “who’s happy now?” A piece of fluff, forgotten an hour after final curtain, but easy to take.
To add a darker color to this round of playgoing, I dropped in at the Pearl Theatre on St. Marks Place to see its take on Ibsen’s Ghosts. I didn’t look forward to it; it’s not the sort of thing one wants to see on a pleasant early spring afternoon. But – aha! – the moment I sat down and had a chance to study Harry Feiner’s moody set of a drawing room in Mrs. Alving’s country house in Western Norway, I thought, “hmmmm.” The play began and it was immediately clear that Regge Life’s direction was not going to impose itself on Henrik Ibsen; he and his actors were just going to do the play as the Master wrote it. No imposed themes, no scenic concepts, no attempt to make it relevant – it turned out to be very relevant on its own. The director’s notes in the program tell us “the mark of a great play is its ability to transcend time, culture and nationality – Ghosts is one of those plays – it speaks to us all.” Hear, Hear! It does indeed.
On two levels it involves us. Like the characters in the play who struggle to live and speak their truth but are bound by rules laid down by society, today we too struggle to find our voice, to find our truth in a world that has changed dramatically, is always changing. Secondly, it asks us to question the baggage we carry from generation to generation. Everything returns, the ghosts of the ages will return to haunt our lives.
Joanne Camp is giving the performance of her career as Mrs. Alving. The surface polish is all there, but the pain and confusion and fear beneath is always suggested. As Ibsen takes her inexorably toward her tragic end, the explosion that occurs in the last scene is earned by the actress and is cathartic to us all out front. It’s not easy to tread the thin line between melodrama and tragedy, and this lady’s screams of terror at the realization that she is losing her only joy in life, make us cringe while feeling compassion for her. In her journey, she is greatly aided by John Behlmann as her doomed son Osvald, and by TJ Edwards and Tom Galantich as Engstrand and Pastor Manders. Keiana Richard is miscast as Regina, but does well to make us forget that; she understands Regina, and plays with conviction. Ibsen wrote this play in 1881-82, and its dealings with venereal disease, illegitimacy, and adultery were too much for its time. It arrived in New York a decade later, and it’s been revived dozens of times since. The Pearl is in top form with this one, and it offers its leading lady Ms. Camp a field day in which to exercise her considerable talents.
Next time: South Pacific and Juno come home to roost, and a new Paul Rudnick play brings Linda Lavin back to the New York stage. Come on along. It’ll be fun.