Monday, May 12, 2008

'A Catered ... Liaison'
Can Be a Great Affair

Reviews of A Catered Affair and Les Liaisons Dangereuses
by Tony Vellela

Something less is happening at the Walter Kerr and the American Airlines Theatres these days. And like they used to say back in the last century, ‘Less is more.’

‘A Catered Affair,’ [at the Kerr] and ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ [at the Roundabout’s AA Theatre], though widely and wildly different from each other in so many ways, share a welcome common feature – they resist the temptation to glitz up where it is not necessary. And the results, in both cases, reveal just how satisfying a focused, well-reasoned approach can be when you are targeting audience members over the age of twelve.

Based on the Paddy Chayefsky teleplay adapted for the screen by Gore Vidal, “A Catered Affair” is a deceptively simple story ‘about’ a taxicab driver, his weary spouse, their adult children and her bachelor uncle, set in The Bronx in 1953, as they prepare for their daughter’s sudden decision to marry. [If you enjoy discovering small often-overlooked little cinema gems, rent the exquisite film that starred Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds and Barry Fitzgerald.] And to his credit, Harvey Fierstein pursued and secured the stage rights to this property, shepherding it through all the developmental phases that turned it into a chamber musical. There are no dance numbers. There are no sequins. There are no hummable tunes. What are there, then ? There are real moments, moments when the characters and their life events resonate with anyone who has been in a relationship for a long time, or anyone who is thinking of attempting it.

In style, the closest recent comparison might be the 2000 production of ‘James Joyce’s The Dead,’ brought to the stage by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey. In ‘A Catered Affair,’ Fierstein adapted the book, and brought in composer-lyricist John Bucchino, to fashion an appropriately-looking time-worn music box of a show. When their daughter accepts an offer to drive a car that needs to be delivered to California for a friend, she decides on a quick civil ceremony, so she and her intended can honeymoon on the road. Her mother wants a catered affair, something to fortify her daughter’s spirits as times get hard, and for the mother, a perfect day to make up for her own arranged, plain wedding. [There are echoes of Momma Rose here, wanting something for her daughter she did not or could not have, even though the daughter may not share that dream.]

The lyrics are appropriately pedestrian. [It can be jarring at times in musical theatre when plain folk start singing in multi-syllable internal rhyme.] The staging is purposely spare, although the projections could have used some color. And Harvey does tip the balance somewhat, re-imagining the uncle as the point-of-view narrator character, an accepted, witty gay florist with an unseen ‘partner’ in every sense of the word, an inside outsider.But the overall pared-down quality enhances the tenderness and strain, the need for vengeance against a cruel past, and the constant agony of never having enough. “We always lived under the cloud of money,” the mother explains.

As the parents, Faith Prince and Tom Wopat deliver spot-on performances, devoid of any sentimentality, rich with texture and history. When he finally breaks under the relentless pressure from his wife to pretend to a social status they do not have, he sings “I Stayed,” a powerful stunner that speaks for every man who believes that uncomplaining loyalty is so greatly underappreciated. It is the equal to, and mirror image of what Boyd Gaines presents as the loving, and ultimately disgusted Herbie in the current “Gypsy” revival. And at the point where the whole charade in “A Catered Affair” implodes, Prince holds the audience with her very long last few moments, lingering alone on the fire escape, where she makes us feel all that has flowed through the woman’s veins during this tortured ordeal about the rituals, struggles and rewards of sharing your thin, grey life with another person.

Christopher Hampton’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” set in mid-1780s France, is also laboring under the shadow of past productions, notably a fondly-remembered 1987 staging starring Lindsay Duncan as the wicked Marquise de Mertueil, and two subsequent films, one with the same title starring Glenn Close and the other, “Valmont,” with Annette Bening in the role. This revival presents Laura Linney with an opportunity to inhabit the part viewed through a different lens, and by extension, the play itself. She does it, gloriously. And she does it by doing less.

Using a farce sensibility to interweave the various plotlines of decadent upper-class aristocrats burdened with too much wealth and too much time, the central characters are the Marquise and her former lover Valmont [here depicted with convincing salaciousness by Ben Daniels]. They indulge in the kind of mind-manipulating games that blend sex and cruelty, the latter being her favorite word. It’s a little like George and Martha with servants and wigs.

In past productions, this sparring, where they seek to outdo each other in twisting the fates of unsuspecting innocents of both sexes, has been executed with a kind of heightened relish, the Marquise’s eyes sparkling at the thought of another conquest, another intervention. She could be the great grandmother of Hedda Gabler, wanting to alter someone’s destiny and rule their soul. But what has been an exercise in delight from former players has now become a heavy-lidded, almost mechanistic routine for Linney’s Marquise. And to see it through this prism, she is not seeking entertainment, but revenge. She has always felt superior to men, and resentful that the society in which she lives denies her any opportunity to use her ‘skills,’ those cunning strategies that are here limited to inflicting humiliation and embarrassment on others, and seducing any man she chooses. Like a slow-running but accurate timepiece, Linney quietly stalks the premises, and like burning lava, she incinerates anything or anyone in her path.

Because her performance sets the tone and pace, the intricate plotlines are easier to follow here than in previous incarnations. There is time to absorb what is unfolding, because the woman’s calculations are on view, not just her wardrobe. And criticism of this casting reflects a common prejudice that continues to occur – attending a revival with a mindset that expects first-rate theatre artists to mimic others’ past work. Classics have attained that status because they are inherently sturdy enough to absorb, even welcome new interpretations, fresh analyses, and in this case, a thoughtful, defensible re-examination of this delicate balance of a play.

TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.” His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, and several other publications.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
By Christopher Hampton
Acting Edition: $7.50

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