Let’s look on the bright side: There is good news to report from American Century Theater today. The company has just announced that it will begin next season with Hollywood Pinafore, an adaptation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore that has never been seen in D.C. and has only rarely been seen anywhere.
According to ACT spokespersons, this will be the first production in 55 years of the parody by George S. Kaufman (author of Marx Bros. routines and classic comedies) that reconceives the G&S loveboat as a movie studio. Kaufman set new lyrics to Arthur Sullivan’s music, turning the innocent ingenue, Blossom, into a starlet and forcing her to choose not between a tyrannical captain and a lowly sailor but between a tyrannical studio mogul and a lowly writer. Hi-jinks, as they say, ensue.
OK, enough looking on the bright side. ACT is, alas, closing out this season with Murray Schisgal’s Luv, a divorce-and-recrimination comedy that wasn’t very funny in 1964, when it was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Alan Arkin, Eli Wallach, and Anne Jackson—and whose hilarity is significantly reduced at Gunston Theater II.
The evening concerns two former high school buddies who have trod separate paths to their midlife crises. Milt (Tony Gudell) was an average student who became a business success and would be blissfully happy except for the wife (Karen Jadlos Shotts) he regards as a millstone ’round his neck. Harry (John Tweel) was the class genius but has been a failure at everything he’s attempted since, including romance, and is standing on a bridge railing preparing to end it all when Milt recognizes him and coaxes him back from the brink.
For a while, they compete to claim the rottenest childhood (“I never knew when my birthday was until I got a letter from my draft board”), but then it occurs to Milt that by combining their respective disasters, they might end up happy: If Milt’s wife, Ellen, were to fall for Harry, she could give Harry the love he’s been missing and Milt the divorce he craves, and Milt would be free of the millstone. Ellen then enters, competes with them both for the rottenest childhood title, and falls for Harry. Act 2 plays everything out in reverse—with Ellen now married to Harry, Milt begging her to come back, and lots more suicide attempts—and the resolution leaves them all exactly where they were at the outset.
Schisgal was lauded by some critics at Luv’s premiere for having domesticated the Theatre of the Absurd, a form Martin Esslin had named just two years earlier in his book of that title. Esslin defined absurdist theater as plays that depict human communication as impossible and life as essentially without meaning. In the eyes of a number of Broadway reviewers led by the redoubtable Walter Kerr, Schisgal had uncovered a new wrinkle in this downbeat message by humanizing and making comically specific many of absurdism’s notions of alienation and hopelessness.
Kerr, let’s note, had undermined his standing as dean of America’s theater critics by not much caring for Waiting for Godot just a few years before Luv premiered, and he wasn’t anxious to make the same mistake twice. The case he made for Luv was that Schisgal was working similar variations on burlesque schtick to the ones Beckett and Ionesco had worked in their groundbreaking avant-garde plays. There’s some truth to that assertion, but it’s misleading. Beckett and Ionesco were recycling vaudeville routines to create devastating social satires; Schisgal was using the techniques just as they’d been used by generations of baggy-pantsed comics: to make jokes about sex, henpecked husbands, and miserable wives.
Forget societal commentary. When Harry becomes a sort of psychological hypochondriac, going temporarily stiff with paralysis, and then blind, and then deaf, and then mute, the character isn’t a stand-in for humanity in its powerlessness and inability to see, hear, or speak—he’s just a walking disability joke. And if there’s no subtext to the jesting, then the jests had better be pretty flashy. In Luv, they aren’t.
My recollection of the original production (which played a pre-Broadway engagement at the National Theatre, where even to my teenage ears the dialogue sounded lame) is that Arkin made Harry’s suicide attempts anarchically funny and that the rest of the play just sat there. At Gunston, John Tweel’s Harry is less anarchic than easily distracted. Drifting toward the railing of Eric A. Grims’ solidly attractive bridge, he’s a picture of determination, but let Milt or Ellen engage him in a conversation, and he can shift focus in an instant, occasionally with amusing results. Gudell’s Milt is frenzied, and Shotts’ Ellen is harried, and all three of them are working awfully hard to keep up a comic head of steam. The play doesn’t cooperate, however, and by about the middle of the first act it will occur to you that Luv is essentially a 15-minute sketch stretched to epic length through repetition.
Stephen Jarrett throws every comic device he can think of at the script—including actor-dousing splashes and silly costume changes each time someone gets dunked in the water—and it’s hard to fault him for trying to goose things irrelevantly to life. Still, the tactic eventually produces diminishing returns. The staging doesn’t really ask the actors to do much character work, and between their tendency toward shrillness and a sameness in the way they approach slapstick, Luv ends up feeling dispiritingly like the sort of dinner theater that is immeasurably helped by the presence of a pitcher of frozen daiquiris. CP