PAUL ZWINDEL with his second play. And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, has accomplished what another quasi-literary rising playwright. Tom Stoppard, failed to. He has emerged from his The Effect of Gamma Ray on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds success off-Broadway last season with a phenomenally entertaining tragi-comedy about two sisters, both spinster school teachers, at war with themselves and with their hard-boiled, married and successful sister Ceil. The combination at work in this production of superb acting, smooth, carefully thought-out direction, and clever, deftly turned dialogue makes the finished product well nigh irresistible. Estelle Parsons as Catherine Reardon shows the same majestic feel for her part as Julie Harris, playing her neurotic sister Anna, But, the stars in this case, while a delectable pleasure in themselves, are not deployed to compensate for flaws in the play or its staging. There are, simply, no flaws.
That last superlative should be toned down a bit with the reminder that, whatever Miss Reardon is or pretends to be, it is not serious theater. Paul Zwindel sidestepped the lachrymose aspects of the old maid's condition, and he placed a buoyant comic balloon in the middle of this short play (presented in an hour and a half with no intermission). The arrival of Ceil for a hostile dinner with Catherine and Anna sets loose a welter of tensions and animosities. Anna, you see, has "flipped," committed a sexual act, undefined but traumatic, with an adolescent hoodlum at her school. She barrages Catherine with demands, seeks protection against the outside world (through a pure vegetarian diet, through hypochondriac fantasies about death). Catherine "drinks a little" to ease the tension and chews raw hamburger, when Anna isn't looking. Ceil, "over-dressed Sheena of the blackboard jungle," wants Anna put away in a mental institution, though she's vulnerable (like all the characters in the play) since she stole the man Catherine wanted to marry and she made no sacrifices, as Catherine and Anna did, to take care of their now dead mother.
Ceil, played by Nancy Marchand, is a potentate in the world of high school administration and her position provides the lead-in for the comic outlet needed to catalyze this play's otherwise ordinary elements into their unexpectedly laugh-filled interaction. As Arthur Miller wrote purely gratuitous comedy into his caricature of a Jewish furniture dealer in The Price -and still wound up with a play soberly moralistic-Zwindel hit on a similar expediency to substitute mirth for nerve-frazzling catharsis: Fleur Stein, portrayed with knowing New York Jewish brashness by Rae Allen, shows up unexpectedly with her husband at the Reardon sisters' apartment to deliver a get-well present from the faculty to the outcast Anna. Fleur, however, has in mind a more devious mission. She knows that Ceil Adams might help her get a certificate as a regular guidance counselor if she can promise to hush unpleasant particulars about Anna's transgression. Decked out in an unbelievably gaudy purple pants-suit, Rae Allen provides perfect comic counterpoint for Bill Macy as her plain-talking, course husband. Neither is malevolent. They're outrageously funny.
Miss Reardon reaches its apotheosis as entertainment during the Stein's visit, an event which at first seems so peripheral that its very prolongation, with Fleur and Bob making repeated moves toward the door, but encountering repeated delays in departure, generates a sort of comical unlikeliness. Julie Harris has her chance to pierce the vulgar invaders with insights and wit, surprisingly lucid coming as they do from the ingrown neurotic. Estelle Parsons prepares a special fruit "frappe" according to vegetarian specifications, sips her Manhattan and uses her considerable vocabulary to vent general anger and disgust. When Anna tells Fleur that good vegetable diets result in odorless feces, Catherine flips on the blender. The noise is surprising, perfectly timed. Similarly, Anna twice fires a silver gun, loaded with blanks, first at Ceil, then at Bob Stein. The first shot, before the Stein's visit, had grisly psychological meaning. The second during the Stein's visit was sheer fun, an experience which the whole audience shared in anticipation and empathy.
OF COURSE, the Steins eventually do leave; the buoyancy of their presence, made possible by Rae Allan's Streisand-like comic timing and Bill Macy's nasal, controlled delivery, contributes joy to this spectacle of lives still tawdry and depressing, but not really worth watching if it had been limited to Anna's nightmares of mother guppies consuming their young, puppies being crushed by giant trucks or, for that matter, Catherine's suppressed nymphomania. Julie Harris as the Captain's wife in Reflections in a Golden Eye, to my mind, patented the whole type of the skinny schizoid, and her mannerisms in this, a strikingly similar role, take on their own campy charm. She clutches her breast and shudders with a frail quiver wholly natural. One merely hopes that bathrobes and flannel nightgowns will not become her uniform. Estelle Parsons, similarly, had practice in Rachel, Rachel for her part here as the frustrated schoolmarm. I think, if anything, she has improved the characterization which won her an academy award nomination. Her acting is superb throughout, and since she is the most articulate of Zwindel's characters, most of the Neil Simon-like one-liners which spice the dialogue have come her way.
I should comment in conclusion on Melvin Bernhardt's direction and Fred Voelpel's scenery. The pacing of the action has its own exemplary sparkle. The director's hand must be seen in the successful assertion of comic over melodramatic prerogatives in this production. The set is functional and attractive.
Have we here a paradigm for Broadway success? I think so.