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When Herb Gardner’s Conversations With My Father flopped two seasons ago on Broadway, there was much gnashing of teeth in the New York theater community. If a warmhearted, deftly crafted period piece aimed squarely at Jewish audiences couldn’t succeed anymore—with Judd Hirsch in the leading role, yet—was there any hope for straight plays on the Great White Way?
Probably not, as Neil Simon’s upcoming defection to off-Broadway is widely thought to demonstrate. Mere playwriting warmth isn’t enough these days to heat up thousand-seat Broadway houses. Still, it can sure cast a glow in a more intimate auditorium, as Studio Theater’s heartfelt, smartly performed Conversations With My Father establishes.
Gardner is writing semi-autobiographically here, in telling the story of a Manhattan saloon owner who sacrifices his name, his humanity, and one of his sons in a pathological pursuit of the American Dream. The author’s stand-in is Charlie (Ed Gero) who narrates the story in flashback from the moment he sells his parents’ dingy bar (superbly realized by set designer James Kronzer) in 1976. He’s in a ferocious rush to get out of this place full of memories and what his own son calls “wonderful brown photographs of people looking like us.”
But when the lad asks, “What’s the hurry?,” Charlie can’t help reminiscing. Staring at a moosehead on the wall, he sighs, “He wants to know what’s the hurry here, Morris,” the ancient jukebox lights up with a rousing version of “Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue,” and Charlie’s long-dead father, Itzik Goldberg aka Eddie Ross, assumes his accustomed place behind the bar. The year is 1936, and the name Eddie is no mere affectation. This is one immigrant American who’s determined to erase every trace of his heritage. As played brusquely by Joseph Costa, Eddie has gotten rid of his Eastern European accent, gone to court to change the family name, and will, over the course of the next few years, turn the bar resolutely polyglot with American flags stuck in pineapples, flamingos flying next to moose-heads, and red-white-and-blue bunting everywhere.
Eddie’s family—Charlie, his brother Joey, and their mom Gusta (M. Lynda Robinson)—lives upstairs with an elderly Yiddish theater actor named Zaretsky (Irv Ziff) who mocks the barkeep’s attempts to shed his identity, and regales the youngsters with his Yiddish one-man condensations of King Lear, Hamlet, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Dybbuk. The rest of the play’s belligerently colorful characters drift in and out: Italian thugs offering “protection” Eddie clearly doesn’t need; a blind crone who somehow senses every change in the bar’s decor; and a bearded fellow who after a few beers is convinced he’s Santa Claus. Times being what they are, with Hitler on the rise in Germany and anti-Semitism a fact of life in New York, there will be family tragedies as Gardner chronicles the next 30 years in bits and snatches, but life goes on.
The title is a bit of a misnomer. Charlie rarely talks to his father, and when he does, communication is the chief casualty. The play isn’t so much a conversational duet as it is a portrait of one man’s assimilation and what it does to his family. Costa is terrific as Eddie—abrasive as he deals with customers, ferocious as he slams a billy club into a tabletop to communicate with a gangster, and frightening yet loving as he ministers to his boys. And he’s surrounded by a top-notch cast. Daniel Eichner and Jason Novak play Joey so similarly at different ages that they seem to be giving one supercharged performance. Ziff does well by a pogrom speech about “thousands of mattresses…millions of goose feathers in the street” that could easily have turned to overkill. Robinson somehow earns sympathy by making the family’s matron sharp and unsentimental.
Though it’s been staged aggressively by John Going, the evening doesn’t actually have much of a plot. Things happen, but what they add up to has more to do with life than with drama. That’s probably why the show didn’t click on Broadway, where an eleven o’clock catharsis is pretty much required these days. Conversations is too gentle and too concerned with getting laughs for its own good. It doesn’t exactly turn into Cheers, but it does let you know, through the episodic nature of its second act and its penchant for explosive jokes, that the author who made a name for himself with A Thousand Clowns has spent much of his time recently writing for television.
Still, he has an ear for the muscular poetry of everyday talk that makes him invaluable in the chronicling of a fast-disappearing culture. Conversations With My Father may not be mainstream enough to survive on the same avenue as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical extravaganzas, but shouldn’t that count in its favor?
Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance (Le Jeu de l’amour et du hasard) is one of those 18th-century arranged-marriage comedies in which an as-yet-unacquainted bride and groom meet each other incognito while trying to do some premarital snooping. A bright, frothy sitcom with barely a thought in its pretty little head, it is primarily a vehicle for the wittily paradoxical wordplay that came to be known as marivaudage (a term coined by Marivaux’s detractors to describe dialogue they found insufferably empty-headed, but later adopted by others to compliment writing of subtlety).
Given the importance its author placed on worldliness regarding words, Washington Stage Guild’s translated Game isn’t really playing from its chief strength. Company members Laura Giannarelli and Bill Largess have come up with an adaptation that’s long on mistaken-identity romance but short enough on semantic sophistication to make patrons wonder why the characters keep praising each other’s phrasing. Since the plot is deliberately predictable, this isn’t ideal. Fortunately, Jerry Manning’s brisk, stylish staging keeps what twists and turns there are to the story amusing.
The story concerns aristocrats Sylvia and Dorante, promised to one another in marriage by doting fathers who’ve provided them with an escape clause: If love doesn’t bloom once they’ve met, the match is off. Citing the unhappy experience of her wedded friends, Sylvia (Kristina Nielsen) worries that her intended will be on his best behavior while in her presence and persuades her father to let her and her maid Lisette (Carol Monda) do some temporary “cross-dressing” so she can watch him without being watched. What dad knows that Sylvia doesn’t is that Dorante (Scott Ripley) has hatched the same plan with his valet Arlequin (Jack Vernon). Hijinks, as they say, ensue.
Marivaux has more fun with the upstairs/downstairs aspects of this story than with its romantic complications. Writing in 1730, a half-century before the French Revolution, he was tapping into some pretty basic prejudices about aristocratic superiority. As servants who can’t master the art of mastering, Lisette and Arlequin represent the booboisie in all its tacky glory: Arlequin’s coarseness and his inability to recognize any but the most vulgar metaphors are signs of his station in life. Ditto Lisette’s fondness for dirty jokes. Sylvia and Dorante, on the other hand, may bridle somewhat at the indignities of having to appear servile, but are otherwise mocked only for being lovesick. There’s not an ounce of social commentary in the play, and precious little empathy for its low comedians.
That may be why Oliver Goldsmith, some 40 years later in She Stoops to Conquer, was able to get twice the comic mileage out of half Marivaux’s plot. In Stoops, the class-conscious hero wrongly thinks he’s romancing a servant (but not vice versa), and it’s specifically the class-bridging that arouses him. In Game, on the other hand, today’s audiences don’t learn the role social status plays in the evening’s machinations until the third act, when confessed aristocrat Dorante tells Sylvia (whom he still thinks is a maid) that he’s serious about her “to the point of forswearing any engagement because the joining of our classes is forbidden.”
Presumably class differences also played a part in Marivaux’s shaping of the dialogue, though it’s hard to tell at WSG. The servants’ anachronistic puns and malapropisms (“Dear Ju Jube of my soul”) aren’t all that distinguishable from the supposedly high-flown badinage of the aristocrats. Sylvia is at one point deeply offended by the phrase “spoiled your appetite,” for reasons that aren’t remotely clear in performance. And the actors are frequently stymied by alleged zingers (“If you have nothing more to say to me, then we have nothing more to say to each other”) that no amount of spin can send spinning.
Still, the performances are energetic and in at least one case, nicely subtle. Ripley, who lists among his acting credits the original La Jolla production of The Who’s Tommy, and who here makes his D.C. debut, is a delicately understated Dorante—confident in wooing, then sincerely distressed when he thinks he’s fallen for the wrong woman. He’s appropriately partnered by Nielsen’s scheming Sylvia, who pouts as prettily as she pounces. Monda’s lip-smacking Lisette is raucous and crowd-pleasing (if two-dimensional) as she primps for Vernon’s whip-cracking Arlequin. And he proves remarkably game, even when the shenanigans get strained, at assaying the evening’s grosser stage business: gargling and spitting brandy, bouncing on chairs, and throwing himself into grotesque curtsies. (For WETA-TV’s Around Town, I had to see the show in its first preview as well as on opening night, and can hence report that Vernon once had a lot of what the trade knows as “dick jokes,” since eliminated, much to everyone’s credit.) Feininger and Jerrold Scott, as Sylvia’s father and brother, are essentially plot devices, but get laughs along the way, though Scott could cut the shtick in half and still be overdoing.
Carl F. Gudenius’ columned, marbleized setting, lit elegantly by Marianne Meadows, is a plus, while William Pucilowsky’s costumes are merely serviceable. The production is, in short, a mixed bag—entertaining, but not to the point that one yearns to hear more marivaudage on area stages. Co-translator Largess concludes his Game program notes with a quote from the Oxford Companion to the Theater (“No one ever laid bare with greater insight and delicacy…the fluctuations of the proud, foolish, willful, human heart”). Consulting my well-worn copy of the Concise O.C.T., I find that this line didn’t survive condensation, but another, equally appropriate one about Marivaux’s writing style did: “The subtlety of his dialogue makes it almost impossible to translate him adequately into English.” Nuff said.