At the Shubert
"I'm a lot of pieces searching out a plan," confides Reuben to Nina in the second act of the new musical play at the Shubert. His statement just about characterizes the entire production. Reuben, Reuben is a conglomeration of operatic arias, musical comedy extravaganza, dramatic recitations, and love ballads, presented without selectivity, direction, or even-clear artistic purpose.
Marc Blitzstein's play, set in present-day Manhattan, examines the problems of a young man who has lost the ability to communicate with people. Alone, Reuben manages to talk quite well, but as soon as he is challenged by a question like "Can you tell me the way to the BMT?" he falls speechless. He solves his dilemma, after a fashion, by writing down his thoughts on pieces of scrap paper; using this technique, he meets a girl, who eventually, and quite predictably, helps him to resolve his inner confliot. On his way to final salvation, Reuben struggles through a series of improbable intrigues, most of them the Runyonesque products of a superstitious bartender.
This plot has at least the skeleton of an excellent musical comedy. Had an experienced editor taken hold of the project, the results might have been more palatable. But apparently no one did, and Mr. Blitzstein's creation remains a confusing hodge-podge of unsatisfying songs and dances. He seems almost wholly innocent of a sense of logical progression from scene to scene. One somehow has the feeling that in the last act, the scenery should disappear, and a narrator, or perhaps the author himself, should emerge to tell the audience exactly what the noise is all about.
The cast can do little with the musical score and script. Eddie Albert in the title role is called upon to juggle, perform magic tricks, and swallow fire, in addition to the normal chores of musical comedy. He does these well, but it is difficult to evaluate his interpretation because Reuben's character is left so vague and undefined. Evelyn Lear as his girl gives a hrikingly uneven performance at various times, she manages to resemble Martha Raye, June Allyson, and Joan Crawford. Kaye Ballard, the brilliant comedienne of The Golden Apple, suffers most from the sparseness of the material. She performs her three songs with gusto and precision, and might have lifted the show far above its present level, but her part is simply too small and inadequate.
Two facets of the production are excellent. The settings by William and Jean Eckart are ingenious and colorful. They have overcome the common musical comedy problem of the transition from scene to scene by integrating the stage changes into the opening moments of each succeeding scene. The chorography, under the direction of Hanya Holm, is responsible for the best number in the show, a ballad sung by Reuben and pantomimed by an extraordinary pair of dancers, Sondra Lee and Timmy Everett. Miss Holm has also staged a wonderfully humorous street fight, as well as a terrifying yet lovely ballet in an insane asylum. But these redeeming features cannot rescue Reuben, Reuben from a disastrous fatc-sheer incomprehensibility.