Monday, July 20, 2009

The last of the stone-cold kill-joys

Ken Baltin and Karen MacDonald re-heat Last of the Red Hot Lovers.

It sometimes seems that certain local critics just don't want you to have a good time - unlikely couple Louise Kennedy and Bill Marx come immediately to mind, following their pans of Gloucester Stage's Last of the Red Hot Lovers, which closed last weekend (I guess you could call Marx's screed a pan-once-removed, as he smeared the show without even seeing it). Yesterday I made the trek up to Gloucester to catch the last performance, while delivering the first check of the Bill Marx Theatrical Benevolent Fund (see post below) - and was unsurprised to discover that, just as I'd heard, Macdonald's performance was among the best of the year, and that Baltin's was nearly as good. If you skipped Lover because of those stone-cold kill-joys Kennedy and Marx, then you missed out on a red-hot evening.

Now I'm not here to pretend that Neil Simon is Chekhov, much less Shakespeare - still, (dare I say it?) he has his mild virtues in his better plays, and Last of the Red Hot Lovers is one such play - or at least was revealed to be one in David Zoffoli's sensitively-directed production, which struck me as superior to the miscast, mediocre film (which featured an unlikeable Alan Arkin). Red Hot is certainly several cuts above the likes of, say, the ART's Trojan Barbie or The Communist Dracula Pageant - fatuous dreck I couldn't even bring myself to review - or, yes, the Huntington's How Shakespeare Won the West or The Miracle at Naples. And it's certainly rooted in timeless human experience - in a word, the eternal urge of even the happily-married man to rove. When Bill Marx wrote "what planet is this play on?", I could only think "Uh, Bill - what planet are you on?"

Of course it's true that Simon is severely limited as an artist. Indeed, maybe he isn't really an 'artist.' He can't seem to envision a character who is knowingly cruel (much less evil), and when it comes to the ravages of such social ills as racism, poverty, classism (you name it), he can't relate. He's a politically-blindered craftsman of white (okay, Jewish) domestic comedy, and rarely swims into even the deep end of that shallow stream. Hence he can't manage much in the way of a developing arc; Simon is all about premise, not plot, and depends on tics or repeated gags to get him through an entire act. Indeed, the basic structure of Red Hot repeats itself three times, with minor variations (take that, Beckett!).

And yet there are stretches in the play where you feel Simon's suddenly much better than the paragraph above would lead you to believe he could be. His nebbishy middle-aged hero, Barney Cashman, is attempting to have a "fling" (in his mother's apartment, no less), because he's driven by a dawning awareness that everyone who reaches a certain age eventually shares: that death is on the horizon, growing slightly closer every day, and that what life we have left looks increasingly circumscribed. Men feel this, women feel this, everybody feels this, and it has its poignance, clich├ęd as that may sound - and to give Simon his due, he not only evokes this sentiment expertly in Barney, but then has his first "conquest" slam it to the mat with even more expertise. Other masculine delusions take even broader body-blows, because, of course, the point of this three-part exercise in attempted adultery is to guide the errant Barney back into the arms of the good woman he has at home.

Yet this time-honored tale strikes Bill Marx as "representative of the zombie-like dependence on the hopelessly dated." I kid you not. He rattles on: "does anyone think that the one-liner ridden Last of the Red Hot Lovers would have even a tangential connection with life-as-we-know it? Even mildly misogynistic escapism has moved on." Instead, Marx proclaims, the theatre should take a hint from (wait for it) the academy's favorite schizophrenic Shakespeare-hater, Antonin Artaud (at right), and "supply us with new “myths” that meditate on reality, fresh ways of looking at the conflicts in today’s world that provide a sense of context as well."

Wow. That sounds like fun, doesn't it. Somehow I rarely get the yen, on a warm summer evening, to meditate on reality in a fresh way that provides a sense of context. Indeed, I can't imagine anyone suggesting that while the sun was setting over a nearby bay - not even Antonin Artaud, the poor schmuck. But hold that thought, because I'd like to take a glance at Louise Kennedy's caveats, too.

Unsurprisingly, where Marx found mild misogyny, Kennedy found, yes, sexism. To her, Red Hot is "too old, too stale, and too dated in its approach to men and women to feel like a real comedy of human life." And why? Well, because "Simon stacks the deck so much in Barney’s favor that we start to get annoyed on behalf of the women."

And let me say upfront: that's flat wrong. Simon simply doesn't stack the deck in Barney's favor - indeed, in the final scene, for a while Barney looks like something of a shit, and the playwright comes closer to judgment than he does in the case of any of his women.

Kennedy likewise says that Simon's women "exist only as fantasy figures - and disappointing fantasy figures at that . . . They’re props, not people." But again, dead wrong. The lines just don't work that way. All three female roles are complex, and Karen Macdonald has a heyday with each. There's Elaine, the tough, suburban sex addict hiding psychological (and probably physical) wounds from her brutal husband; Bobbi, the 60's butterfly whose "freedom" is a mask for her instability; and finally the hilariously morose Jeanette, whose loss of faith in humanity (because her husband's best friend is - Barney!) finally brings our "hero" to his senses.

But then Kennedy gives herself away with this line: "Barney, apparently, has a right to reinvent himself, to explore the sexual revolution, to be free" while those fantasy-figure women, apparently, do not. Simon, however, makes it clear that Barney doesn't have that right; indeed, that highly conventional moral is the point of the play. So how did Kennedy get things so wrong? I don't know, but her review - like so many others about plays that deal with the battle of the sexes - has the feel of a template of personal grievance pounded down onto artistic material that actually doesn't fit the mold she wants to see. Kennedy mentions that in the performance she attended, an audience member whispered "It's all about him" - when actually, as usual, Kennedy would prefer that it be all about her.

So I just want to say, once and for all: "Louise Kennedy, you have the right to reinvent yourself, to explore the sexual revolution, to be free. Just like Barney Cashman." There. Let's hope that takes care of it.

Meanwhile, Marx would prefer that theatre be all about what the professor said it should be (never mind that no, Bill is not actually a professor). This is a tougher nut to crack - in fact, it may be uncrackable. Is there a cure, after all, for anhedonia? Maybe, but it would require years of therapy.

So let's get back to Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Surely director Zoffoli's most inspired gambit was to turn all three of the show's female roles over to Karen Macdonald, the long-under-utilized mainstay of the A.R.T. This both gives the script a conceptual punch it otherwise lacks, and of course, gives this talented actress a chance to show us exactly what she can do. And no one could deny that Macdonald went to town - indeed, she acts as if she's just gotten out of prison (which is in a way what the A.R.T., which seems to be dismantling its acting company, amounted to). Macdonald has worked through different accents, different body languages, different everything for her three women, and pretty much commands the stage every second she's on it. Baltin plays well off her, and develops an awkward sweetnes that actually works better than the nervous frustration of Alan Arkin (and, I imagine, James Coco, the role's originator on Broadway). But basically this is Macdonald's show. Here's hoping she has many more like it.

Before signing off, however, I have to praise the design work of Frances Nelson McSherry (costumes), Rachel Padula-Shufelt (wigs and makeup) and Eric Levenson (set), who together expertly conjure the late sixties without quite tipping over into self-conscious parody. Which, of course, also provides the perfect frame for the "dated" attitudes that bug Marx and Kennedy. This production did play as "dated" - precisely dated; it brought me back immediately to the year of its premiere (1969) in a way that many conjurations of the 60's (like TV's "Mad Men") do not. That within that musty frame a few human truths might lurk seems to have never occurred to these critics. But the many middle-aged (or older) couples roaring with laughter at the performance I attended seemed to understand the play just fine.

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