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At the start of the show, Jules Feiffer stepped onto the stage of Sanders Theatre, commented briefly on that archaic, dark monstrosity, and then described his interest in the revue about to unfold. "People used to tell me that I had a good ear for dialogue and that my strips would go well on the stage. I'm here this afternoon to nail that lie." He didn't quite succeed.
The nine scenes which Director William Hillier had adapted from Feiffer's cartoon strips proved entertaining enough, but they lacked the color or movement of Crawling Arnold, the one act play which was conceived explicitly as theater.
Jacqueline Brooks, Bernard Kessel and Edward Higgins cleverly explored the depths of thestock-types they presented. Dean Gitter was good when he wasn't reverting to Willy Loman. And Hillier should be praised for the atmosphere of smooth informality in which he knit the scenes together. It was not until Crawling Arnold, however, that he seemed confident with his material, and didn't feel impelled to superimpose dramatic trickery on it.
An uproarious, perceptive play about a man of 35 who finds genuinely childish behavior the logical response to a hypocritical, senile world, Crawling Arnold invalidates the praise Feiffer once received--"your people speak just like real people; put them on the stage and they'll sound just like real people." His cartoons and his theater share not the tape-recorded quality of real life, but the synoptic terseness of drama. His dialogue is not literal chatter, it is a precis of real conversation that takes into account the encumbrances of colloquial speech. And while real people can lie successfully, Feiffer's only exist to reveal some truth. On all fours, Richard Simons made a marvelously matter-of-fact Arnold; and Greely Curtis excelled as his Americandream of a father.
Before the presentation of Crawling Arnold, the author helped explain the play, and emphasized that his writing is intended for children because they assess life in moral terms. Children, Feiffer said, want to know if killing is bad, but adults will only answer in terms of political circumstance. Children will ask if love is good, and adults will insist that they define their terms. Children will regard good as good and bad as bad, but adults know that bad is good when We do it (because They have forced it upon us), and good is bad when They do it (because they're trying to weaken Our defense posture).
Working out his own definition, the cartoonist demanded that true humor must make a fresh observation about situations which really exist. American comedians have failed on both counts, having created a swarm of strereotyped, false figures without saying anything original about them. Now, the critical humorists of the late fifties he said (including himself) are also tempted to exploit the easy, tested laugh; "twenty years ago a comedian just had to say Brooklyn. Now it's Madison Avenue."
Thus Feiffer himself must have winced during a skit entitled FCC, when the biggest laugh of the afternoon thundered down on an allusion to Robert Welch, that was neither funny nor original. The skit, however, met his demands for fresh commentary, as it turned the Birch Society's rise into the logical extension of Kennedy's plea for a unified, anti-Communist attitude during "this time of crisis."
Feiffer knows that a satirist's effectiveness can be gauged in terms of the resentment he arouses. Sunday, in all modesty, he observed that since the Berlin crisis he has finally begun losing fans and newspapers. Need he then regret that, like Shaw, his satire is expressed with such charm and sympathy that the sting is often unfelt?
I think not. A man who wants to find humor in our world's imperfections had best allow himself a few paradoxes. Sunday's Feiffer potpourri was a thoughtful and superbly funny offering. If the author can be lured back to Sanders Theatre, an encore is in order.
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