Simon at the Shubert and Spies at the Pudding
Approximately five minutes after Chapter II begins, the hero breaks into tears. Nothing extraordinary about such behavior--except that Chapter II is a play by Neil Simon, from whom we expect happy one-liners in the first five minutes, not tears. But this drama, which opened last night in Boston, reveals the voice of a more serious Simon. Most of Simon's characters struggle with the mundane little frustrations that daily bug us all. Chapter II's protagonist faces a much more catastrophic upheaval--the death of a beloved spouse.
The audience never knows the spouse. George's wife has been dead a year when the play opens, and George still grieves. yet he meets and marries a young divorcee with whom he has rapidly fallen in love, much to his won surprise. George, in many ways, represents Simon, who faced a parallel situation when he abruptly married actress Marsha Mason some time after his first wife's death. The girl in the play is loving and supportive-- and therein lies the problem. Obviously, George cannot deny his first wife's existence. The fact that his new wife understands his compulsive comparison of spouses only provokes his anger. "You leave me so much room to be cruel in," he tells her. Out of a painful episode in the playwright's life evolves a broader study of a marriage trapped in a vicious cycle of guilt that inspires pain which in turn yields forgiveness, only to create new guilt.
The play isn't completely grim. Much of the characteristic Simon with bubbles forth, mostly during a sub-plot that involves the hero's brother and the heroine's girlfriend. In contrast to the hasty marriage of the protagonists, this couple never quite gets around to having an affair, despite persistent efforts. But even this comic-relief interlude contains its solemn overtones; both supporting characters carry wounds that neither can successfully hide from the other.
Chapter II deals openly--and, at times, too overwhelmingly--with human pain, which Simon uncharacteristically does not joke about. Don't go expecting a typical Simon laugh-riot. Instead, you will laugh a little and be more than a little moved.
The noisy exuberance of Ain't Misbehavin' inspires movement of quite a different kind. Though it received the 1978 Tony Award for Best Musical, the show is really a revue, in which three women and two men--costumed in glittery '30s chic--perform over thirty songs first recorded by Fats Waller, a legendary jazzman who helped create the sound of swing with a talent for both jive and blues.
Ain't Misbehavin' attempts to recreate the atmosphere of a jumping nightspot, like the Cotton Club, in the Harlem of the 1930s. The performers belt out the songs, pushing each other out of the spotlight in mock rivalry. If the mood suits them, they'll spring to their feet to tap out a furious rhythm, or languidly drape themselves across the piano-player on the stage, who frequently joins in the refrain. On more than one number, they exhort the audience to join in, too.
There was more to Waller's music than the swoony "Honeysuckle Rose," his most famous song. Many of the numbers furnish a disturbingly candid view of Harlem life. The eerie "Viper" describes a marijuana dream, in which the singer imagines "a reefer--ten feet long." And every line in the poignant "Black and Blue" furnishes a clear statement of what being black meant in America then, and sadly enough, now--making a brilliant double-entendre out of the word "black."
One wonders how deeply Waller resented the Harlem ghetto that his music ironically made so fashionable among cafe society. Ain't Misbehavin' might have benefited from a few lines providing some insight into Waller's character, or at least some biography. A brief description of Harlem during this period would have provided a welcome respite from the somewhat relentless pace established by the non-stop songs. Nevertheless, Ain't Misbehavin' has plenty of moments you'll wish would never end.
As part of its Women's Theater Series, the Boston Arts Group presents two original one-actors, both based on the lives of women authors. I Can Feel the Air takes its text from some writings of Colette that describe her first marriage. An innocent adolescent girl, she was swept off her provincial feet by a handsome music critic and author from the big city of Paris. As husband and wife, they returned to the capital, where he added her to his stable of ghost writers; his pursuit of other women occupied the time he would have devoted to his books. The play describes Colette's development of the strength to desert the marriage, despite family opposition. while she abandoned her husband, she retained the literary training he gave her in place of fidelity.
I can Feel the Air contains a basically lighthearted approach to its theme. But its companion play, The Yellow Wallpaper, builds in unmitigated horror. The drama, adapted from an autobiographical short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, parallels the Colette story to an amazing degree--only from the opposite perspective. Gilman became very depressed shortly after she married--for no apparent reason, unlike Colette. Mr. Gilman was devoted, attentive, and gently bewildered by his wife's desire to become an author--killing her with kindness, in effect. She was finally committed to an insane asylum, where doctors told her she should quit writing if she hoped to recover. Instead, she left her husband and her depression, too, and developed a successful career as a writer and an abolitionist. The heroine in The Yellow Wallpaper is also a mental patient, but unlike her author, she doesn't recover. The play presents a frightening descent into madness, as illustrated by the woman's way of viewing the wallpaper in her room.
The two plays in effect present contrasting visions of two trapped women: one wants to write, and one is forced to. I Can Feel the Air is a tale of a triumphant soul whereas The Yellow Wallpaper chronicles the inexorable crushing of a human spirit.
Last but certainly not least. Cambridge's annual musical extravaganza, all $100,000 worth, opened last night at 12 Holyoke st. amid the usual "man of the year" pomp and will play six performances weekly for the next five weeks before touring in New York and Bermuda. Overtures in Asia Minor, Hasty Pudding Theatrical's 131st production, is a story of Near Eastern espionnage and intrigue. And, if the two scenes performed at last week's woman of the year" festivities are any indication, Overtures will continue the tradition of light-hearted farce performed by "dames" of dubious taste. This time the dancing looked stronger than usual, but the melodies are more forgettable and the lyrics more trite. On the other hand, this year's show features an all-male, Radio City Rockette-like kickline. You pays your money and you takes your chance...