What's Good on the New York Stage?
Comes the December vacation, a large number of the CRIMSON's regular readers will find themselves in or around New York and looking for theatrical fare. The following comments may help them to choose from among the hundred and fifty or so productions that will be competing for their attention.
Two important serious plays have just opened, both dealing with the same theme--man's guilt and moral responsibility, especially as they relate to the extermination of Jews by the Nazis. One is Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy (at the ANTA Washington Sq. Theatre) and the other is William Hanley's Slow Dance on the Killing Ground (at the Plymouth).
Miller, having overcome his creative block with After the Fall (which I discussed here last spring and which continues in the Lincoln Center company's repertory, but without Jason Robards in the central role), wrote Incident at Vichy in a few weeks at white heat. Observing the classical unities, it runs only 95 minutes without an intermission. Neither the work nor the production (directed by Harold Clurman) is the supreme triumph Howard Taubman of the Times called it, but both are undeniably effective.
Using an all-male cast of seventeen, this didactic and dialectic play shows us a group of persons, mostly Jews, herded on the bench of a detention room in 1942 while they wait to be called in, one by one, to have their identification papers scrutinized, their noses measured, and their penises examined for circumcision.
Although visually engrossing throughout, Incident suffers from textual dullness at first but soon builds up steam. Four of the performances manage to convey fully rounded characters: Joseph Wiseman's intense and anguished psvchiatrist, Harold Scott's buffeted and sullen gypsy, Ira Lewis' adolescent boy (who disappoints only when he speaks), and Will Lee's old Jew (who utters not a word but seems to carry all of Jewish history in his aged frame).
Hal Holbrook's Nazi officer has a fit of rage that is not-believable: and the climactic duologue between Wiseman and David Wayne (an Austrian prince) would gain in power if director Clurman would not encourage them to inflated and operatic hamming.
Still, Incident at Vichy is an impressive work on a well-worn theme, though it ranks far below Lillian Hellman's superlative Montserrat, which it resembles in many ways.
Hanley is a newcomer to Broadway and exhibits a remarkable gift for original and fascinating dialogue, Slow Dance is melodrama, but profound melodrama. Reflecting some of the virtues of both Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams, it is also a bit pretentious and uncontrolled; and, under Joseph Anthony's guidance, it is almost unbearably suspenseful.
Likewise preserving all the unities, its three acts bear the subtitles "Pas de Deux," "Pas de Trois," and "Coda." But the work suggests, more than ballet, a piece of polyphonic chamber music in which all the strings of a violin, viola and 'cello are tuned tighter than usual.
There are only three characters; a German political refugee who runs a Brooklyn store, a psychopathic young Negro with an I.Q. of 187 on the run from the cops, and a college coed seeking an abortionist.
The two youngsters, Clarence Williams and Carolan Daniels, play acceptably. But George Rose as the shopkeeper is nothing less than superb. And that is only what we would expect of this British craftsman, who is not only the finest Shakespearean clown now to be had but also one of the best character actors in the world.
Two highly dissimilar shows, both models of their kind, are cogent indictments of war. Euripedes' The Trojan Women (at the Circle in the Square), inspired by the Athenians' attack on Delos, is probably still close to flawless even though Mildred Dunnock has left the cast. Directed and choreographed by Michael Cacoyannis, the production includes an outstanding musical score by the modern Greek composer Jean Prodromides.
Imported from London is the redoutable Jean Littlewood's satirical revue Oh What a Lovely War (at the Broadhurst). The material is not newly minted, but drawn from actual records, memoirs and recollections of World War I. It's an evening of music and laughs, but every joke carries a dagger. Performing in this quasi-Brechtian production is a large and able British company headed by Victor Spinetti, Barbara Windsor, Murray Melvin, and Brian Murphy.
If you don't want to tax your brain, then go to The Owl and the Pussycat (at the ANTA Theatre). This two-person comedy by Bill Manhoff is a chain of spats and reunions between an evicted prostitute and the would-be writer she descends upon. It has its share of clever lines; but the show's great virtue is the transcendentally brilliant performance by young Diana Sands. Hitherto mainly admired for her power in serious drama, she shows here that comedy is just as much her forte. Or, in this case, fortissimo--for she bulldozes her way right through the show with an incredible display of dynamic vigor and histrionic virtuosity. She can take a run-of-the-mill phrase or line and make you double over. What a gall Alan Alda makes up the rest of this tandem tantrum.
If it's Shakespeare you crave, hie to the Martinique, where last summer's New York Shakespeare Festival production of Othello, directed by Gladys Vaughan, has been revived. The play itself hardly needs further endorsement--Macaulay went so far as to term it "the greatest work in the world"--but the chief interest here is the portrayal of the title role by James Earl Jones. Life magazine's critic and others rate it above Olivier's. Alas! I am in no position to judge; but, in my own experience, I'd rank Jones above Paul Robeson, Orson Welles, William Marshall, Brock Peters--above all, in fact, except Earle Hyman.
There is no denying that Jones is one of the most exciting young actors anywhere today. He lacks the thorough classical training for a part like this, but while playing he makes you forget any deficiencies by his overriding honesty and personal magnetism. Some performers exercise sheer magic on a stage; and Jones is one of them.
Mitchell Ryan carries out the director's idea that Iago is motivated mainly by an aggressive homosexuality that does not even stop short of necrophilia. At first I did not think this approach could work without violence to the text; but it can, although it seems carried quite to excess here. The rest of the company is passable.
Marc Blitzstein's musical The Cradle Will Rock after all these years has been equaled only by Carousel, The Golden Apple, West Side Story and perhaps one or two others. It is enjoying a buoyant resurrection (at Theatre Four) under the direction of Howard Da Silva, who was in the original production and has been associated with every one of its revivals since. As on that notorious and scandalous opening night in 1938, only a piano is used. No orchestra is really needed; the work's that good. And if you haven't seen Tom Jones' and Harvey Schmidt's delectable musical The Fantasticks, it's in its fifth year at the Sullivan St. Playhouse.
Two noteworthy productions will be opening during the vacation. Under Jose Quintero's direction Jason Robards stars in the U.S. premiere of Eugene O'Neill's unconventional near-monologue Hughie (at the Rovale; previews begin this evening). It is the only completed play in a planned cycle of six. Dealing with illusion and reality, it should appeal to those who admire The Iceman Cometh. And Alan Schneider will be guiding two great players, Sir John Gielgud and Irene Worth, through Edward Albee's new play. Tiny Alice (at the Billy Rose Theatre; previews begin Decembr 21).
If you don't already have tickets for Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof, forget it--though you might be able to get seats for next Christmas.