Tennessee Williams (just to start with somebody good) has endorsed, as in a television commercial, the talent of his friend Bill Inge and assured us that a play produced by Inge-art will carry us through the trivial details of everyman's day into that playpen of pain and love, the human heart, and that it will do this miraculously, suddenly droppings us at the doorstep of inner truth just when we thought that the real problem was Mama's bank account and not Mama's need for love. And there was a time (Come Back Little Sheba, Picnic, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs) when Bill Inge may have had the little lamp of truth and sincerity flickering in his now-prosperous soul. But the main light that shines out of Family Things - Etc., on the Cape this week for a pre-New York showing, is the colored neon kind gleaming from Times Square and promising a Broadway package of success, a chance to see your favorite performers and hear a few clever lines, all of them Inge-deep.
There are a few remnants in this play-let's just call it Etc. of the old Inge-art. After all when pretty Tom (aspiring actor) and pregnant Teena (aspiring wife) step on stage in their underwear and start singing a cigarette add ("The Breeze at night is just as good as the Breeze in the morning") one certainly gets a fine sense of trivia. Shortly we discover (gasp of Recognition) that the play is really about the younger generation and growing up and accepting responsibility. Tom and Teena, we find, live unmarriedly in midtown Manhattan in a messy apartment displaying anti-bourgeois scorn for neatly preserved possessions (their sofa is an automobile seat) and a flair for camp (wall cartoons of a trotting Flash Gordon and of Batman holding a tiger and wheezing "Whew!"). They talk like suburban eighth graders about Camus and psychoanalysis and how their generation doesn't know itself but can't accept the values of the past and how free of prejudice they are (their best friends are an unmarried Negro couple, Razz and Helen) and how they're not going to let a silly bourgeois conscience get in the way of their search of identity. You see, Tom and Teena have rationally decided, with the help of their analysis (don't all young people have analysis these days, especially when they are as poor as Tom and Teena?), that they are emotionally unprepared for marriage. Thus after the baby is born and given away for immediate adoption to an excellent family, Tom and Teena will go their own ways fondly remembering their happiness.
But Big Daddy Inge lets us know before long that underneath all that jargon about repression and frustration and absurdity Tom and Teena really do have feelings and are just scared shitless. As one character so subtly puts it. So we learn in the end that Tom can bawl like the kid he is at heart and Teena can pout and whimper like the bourgeois wife she wants to be. And when that baby comes along, oh Mama, they're so happy and thrilled and in love that you could just cry and cry. You see, life had to teach them something -- that they can't run away from themselves. But don't worry! Etc. isn't grim. The play's main excuse for entertainment (it is supposed to be funny) is the debunking of Tom and Teena by Razz and Pinky (orphan Tom's fairy guardian) and then the tender undercutting of Pinky and Mrs. Bigelow (Teena's Greenwich-bred mother).
Get the pattern? When you have a lot of life talk among bohemian young folk. Negroes, homosexuals, protestant white suburban mothers, single pregnant girls, middle-aged detractors of youthful pretension and youthful detractors of middle-aged complacency (and all these people wrapped up in six little characters none of which is a consistent or perceptive portrait of any type) you can make cracks not only about life, birth, death, sex, politics, and religion (which is all Dylan Thomas thought a writer could handle) but also about existentialism, television, the theater, psychoanalysis, social mores of two or three generations, race relations, and last but not least Batman!
Listen to some of the more in spired lines. Pinky to Tom: "You young people don't care what clothes you wear just so long as they're tight--you all look like sexy rejects from a poor farm," (absolutely the best line). Teena to Tom: "My psychoanalyst happens to be a great man and I won't have you hinting that your psychoanalyst is better than mine!" Mrs. Bigelow to Razz (watch the clever undercutting in this one): "I've never known a Negro before--socially that is--of course I'm not at all prejudiced--I'm a member of the Urban League."
Actually this level of inspiration can be amusing if built into a well-structured play and excellently acted and directed, but the second half to Etc. is so bad that two out of four chief characters on stage do nothing but listen and wander from chair to chair while the other two inarticulately convince themselves that they are finally seeing the truth about their own hearts just the way Tennessee Williams said they would. The director, Morton da Costs (famous for No Time for Sergeants, Auntie Mame, Music Man and such stuff), has done a barely competent job of maneuvering everyone around the stage, and two of the actors, Beau--son of Lloyd--Bridges, as Tom, and June Harding, as Teena, got their training in the TV wonderland of "Seahunt," "Wagon Train," "As the World Turns" and "Ben aCsey" and are totally incapable of registering even laughter with any skill. The only real entertainment is provided by the two pros of the cast, Dorothy Stickney as Mrs. Bigelow and especially Hiram Sherman as Pinky. Sherman is a masterful comic performer and has fine moments as he corrects Tom's spelling or meticulously peels a peach while listening to Tom's confessions, or praises the virtutes of his Pan Am flight bag that allows him to carry both his athletic support and his knitting or whimpers and stamps his foot trying vainly to horrify people with wicked curses. If he were on stage more than half the time and if his character were as good as he is, the show might be justified.
As it is, we have just enough of him and Miss Stickney to make painfully clear the contrast between their fine acting and subtle sense of timing and the inarticulate and clumsy stumbling of the younger members of the cast, and that contrast says more to me of the difference between the generations than anything Bill Inge wrote into this botched and opportunistic show-piece. Of course, we all know how decadent and commercial Broadway and its devotees are but it's still a bit depressing to see something like Family Things - Etc. a few hundred miles from home. Hopefully its schedule will take it down where it belongs at the end of the week.