I’ve long suspected that Brook Butterworth could carry a whole production on those slender shoulders of hers. Tall and thin, with a subtle, off-center beauty, the actress possesses both a flair for sophisticated banter and a low comedian’s ability to mug.
Though she has generally been cast in supporting roles in the several seasons she’s spent at local theaters (and though the support she’s offered has always been disciplined and modest), she nearly always leaves you thinking that if playwrights paid closer attention to their own plots, they’d realize that hers was the most interesting character and that they really ought to have given her more lines.
In TomorrowlandNeena Beber’s briskly hilarious comedy about a brittle New Yorker who abandons her doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf’s use of parentheses to write scripts for a kid-oriented cable networkButterworth finally has the lines, and boy does she make the most of them. She’s playing Anna, head writer for Emily’s Room, an insufferably chirpy, preadolescent kiddie show that is being filmed in the shadow of Orlando’s Disney World. Like many sophisticated New Yorkers, Anna wears basic black, but the TV world she enters in this astutely designed Theater J/Horizons Theatre production is fiercely pastel. Her new desk is peach with aqua trim. Her chair is lavender. Her secretary (Elizabeth Kitsos in perky overdrive) dresses entirely in fuchsia, the TV director (an oily Michael Jerome Johnson) in clashing purple and avocado. And the show’s brusquely pragmatic producer, Wyatt (Michael Wikes), carries a cell phone that wouldn’t look out of place in Barbie’s Dream House.
As if eye-frying hues weren’t shocking enough to Anna’s system, Emily’s Room is a decidedly troubled show when she arrives, and it’s her job to fix it. Emily (Janine Barris-Gerstl) has begun to develop breasts and to phone the male fans who write to her, one of whom, Rodger, is merely a horny adolescent (Kit Young, seemingly on a testosterone buzz), but others of whom are inmates. So one of Anna’s first assignments is to write the title character out of her show. (Lest anyone think this plot development unlikely, the general outline of Tomorrowland’s story is drawn directly from Beber’s experience on the writing staff of Nickelodeon’s Clarissa Explains It All, back before she became head writer for MTV’s Daria.) Anna has non-TV-related problems as well. She’s haunted by guilt over a romantic attachment she let slide and by issues of self-worth, none of which are easy to deal with while being dragged by bubbly officemates to the shopping mall.
Whether railing about a restaurant called SushiWorld or murmuring about those insistent little curves in the text of Mrs. Dalloway (“to parenthesize is to feminize; the contents recede”), Butterworth is a certified hoot. And even as the production’s star, she’s still terrific in support of the other performers. Her scenes with Kitsos, whose effervescent character appears to be 25-going-on-9-and-a-half, are especially generous, apportioning laughs to both the secretary’s goofiness and the writer’s horror at that goofiness. Anna’s conversations with her boss are also finely calibrated, with Butterworth and Wikes deftly meshing two differently driven paranoias. Sharp on her own is Maureen Kerrigan as Rodger’s slatternly feminist mom.
Wendy C. Goldberg’s staging is crisp and clever enough that the production glides right past the evening’s principal flawan inconclusive conclusion that’s a bit too televisionlike for its own good. Beber, true to the medium she’s satirizing, hasn’t so much ended things as drawn them to a convenient close. There’s a sense, as Helena Kuukka’s hard-edged, blue-tinged lighting fades to black, that Tomorrowland could easily continue next week. Or next season. Or in syndication.
Mind you, given the quality of the writing and playing, there’d be nothing terribly wrong with that. Following so closely on the heels of David Mamet’s The Old Neighborhood, which boasted a similar professional sheen, this show should firmly establish the intimate Cecile Goldman Theater in patrons’ minds as a first-class theatrical venue. If you’ve not yet discovered it, now’s the time.
A musical comedy built around the interaction of an angst-ridden cockroach who hurls himself at the keys of a manual typewriter to produce free-verse poems and the hedonistic alley cat who is his muse sounds more commercially plausible today than it must have in the ’50s.
With Andrew Lloyd Webber’s tap-dancing kittens forever clawing their way back to the National Theatre for another yowl of “memmries,” and Kafka’s Gregor Samsa just recently departed from the Clark Street Playhouse, it’s no longer all that hard to imagine a smash-hit tuner centered on early-century newspaperman Don Marquis’ characters archy and mehitabel (no caps, because the roach can’t work the shift key).
The problem for American Century Theater is that its much-doctored archy and mehitabelan authorially revamped version of the 1957 Eartha Kitt vehicle Shinbone Alleyisn’t that tuner. Rather, it’s a collection of not unpleasant ditties by avant-garde jazz composer George Kleinsinger and arch philosophical poses, some of which are mildly amusing, but most of which feel more than a bit tired at a distance of 42 years.
Not to suggest that Jack Marshall’s staging isn’t resourceful. He has rightly clarified the slender thread of a plot line that Joe Darion and Mel Brooks (yes, that Mel Brooks, but a decade before he hit his stride with Blazing Saddles) used to link the poems from Marquis’ columns. Basically, their story finds archy (Tony Gudell) trying to get mehitabel (Donna Migliaccio) to give up her alley prowling and take a job as a happy house cat. This effort is doomed to failure, as newspaperman Marquis (Shelly Wallerstein) makes clear with narration that amounts to an evening long shrug. Still, archy is supremely determined, and mehitabel isn’t nearly as happy as her signature tune, “Toujours Gai!” would have onlookers believe. So she tries.
Obviously, a lot is going to rest on the performances, and ACT’s production is centered on a couple of good ones. Gudell’s archy is skittery and depressive in about equal measure, with clever enough roach mannerisms at the actor’s command to make him visually intriguing even when the character is being a pill. As written, archy is neither a rewarding role nor a terribly consistent one, with utterances that range from vaguely pretentious (“The pathos of ugliness is only appreciated by us cockroaches of the world”) to vaudeville schtick (“I am not a well bug”). Still, Gudell manages to make him reasonably appealing.
Migliaccio’s mehitabel tends to mop up the floor with anyone who gets between her and the audiencewhich is fine, too. She’s supposed to be an obsession for archy, and because Migliaccio is a vocal powerhouse and has an acid yet vulnerable way with a lyric, you can see why he’d have trouble getting her out of his head. Subsidiary parts are less well handled, but for the most part there’s not much to them, anyway. The newspaperman, Marquis, is so incidental to the action that most productions settle for making him a disembodied voice, and the other cats are one-dimensional kiddie-show figures.
Physically, the production has some nice touches. Props designer Eleanor Gomberg has come up with a typewriter that clatters away with no one sitting at it, and set designer Carrie Ballenger and costumer Anita H. Miller have each been creative on a budget. That said, the production would likely have been stronger with less.
In its four seasons of breathing life into neglected scripts, ACT has always made its work most effective at its sparest, and archy and mehitabel is a show that has only previously worked on LP (a 1954 recording featuring Carol Channing and Eddie Bracken that inspired the authors to expand the material for the theater). It could be that the airy piquancy of Marquis’ stories is best suited to concert staging, where audiences can imagine the cockroach and kitty for themselves.
To ACT’s credit, Marshall’s staging isn’t fussy, and the production doesn’t quite end up as Metamorphocats, but neither has it solved the show’s many problems. CP