archy and mehitabel

At Kirkland House through April 25

I have been told that the cockroach is of all insects the most repellant; as I have never seen one, I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of this judgement. It creates, however, horrible problems in dealing with Don Marquis's archy. Most readers resolve these by regarding him as a type of masculine lady bug, and a director would probably gain little by probing the entomological implications of the creature's identity. But still, the interpretation of archy determines how much dramatic mileage can be gotten from archy and mehitabel.

The point and the problem is to preserve in stage production something of the quality of archy's prose. In constructing a good script and in introducing the occasional stains of saxophone and mandolin-instruments well suited to evoking the New York of the early twenties, although perhaps not used to their full potential in this production-director Dick Gottlieb has started quite well. In cooperation with light and set designers he has solved the technical problems involved in staging 26 closely connected scenes.

But somewhere in the staging the good lines, the nice phrases, and the archy's-eye point-of-view are lost. In book form, all archy's prose is in lower case (the cockroach typed out his copy by jumping onto the keys, but was not heavy enough to depress the shift lock). Unbroken by capital letters and sparsely punctuated, it reads like a kind of slow, dead-pan monotone and provides the perfect backdrop for the good phrase, the turned cliche, the well-dropped contradiction.

There is nothing dead-pan about Mare Temin's archy; he delivers his lines with velocity, emphasis, and evident feeling. Although there are places where this is appropriate, there are more, particularly in the beginning, where it is not. Because the audience reacts slowly, it misses entirely some of the good moments that hurry past.

The framework of archy's little satire is altered by the same slight over-acting of the Boss (Belden Crane Johnson), the journalist who keeps archy supplied with typing paper and apple peelings. He delivers his story not in the style of the unperturbed old hack, calling 'em as he sees 'em, but with dramatic pauses and grimaces of amazement. He most clearly regards a literate cockroach as a big deal; an obvious, flat point of view.


The most difficult part in the play is that of the cat mehitabel (Anne Bernstein), mehitabel is the kind of plucky creature whose realism and illusions are made of identical indestructible fiber. As surely as she recognizes that her guts will soon be fiddle strings, she believes that she was Cleopatra in a previous incarnation. She drowns her children, but in such a charming way. Miss Bernstein's mehitabel is so unambiguous that insights about her seem surprisingly unincisive, but still, her performance is good, for it is both believable and attractive.

But although I would prefer a shade more restraint in the main characters, I have no such quarrel with the supporting performances. Between them Victoria Weyler, Ronald Witt, Bill Christian, Alzada Knickerbocker, and Belford Lawson take care of the other eighteen parts very nicely indeed. Each one of them does at least one really good role. And Mr. Johnson redeems himself as Warty Bliggans, the toad who believes that "the earth exists to grow toadstools for me to sit under."

If you have always longed for the definitive interpretation of the psychological crisis of a worm undergoing assimilation by a bird, and if you have no delicate young preconceptions to nurse, archy and mehitabel is your show. Do not take too seriously the dictate of those who say, like the girl in front of me, that you gottuv read the book to really understand the play.