IN HIS NEW PLAY, Tribute, Bernard Slade slowly peels the mask off the chronic cut-up, the "life of the party:" the guy who clowns with everyone, loves everyone, is loved by everyone and opens up to no one--not even himself. The play is an excellent piece of entertainment wrapped in an extraordinary production, and if Slade doesn't dig deep enough--opting to warm the heart rather than chill the soul--the play suggests that a more self-conscious and hence more penetrating approach to humor, wherein characters ponder the neurotic implications of their own one-liners, has merged into popular comic culture.
Perhaps we should credit Woody Allen with popularizing these neo-Freudian ideas about wit. Allen manifestly began tracing a path through his jokes into his unconscious, often parodying Freudian symbolism but in the process probing among the tickles for that raw spot which when touched would twitch with pain. Sometimes wit--which most people think of as an aid in relieving anxiety--becomes the enemy: a steadfast shield that keeps our insides moist and pink, halting our emotional development and hindering our ability to be intimate with other people. So much for Soc Sci 169.
Slade's protagonist is Scottie Templeton (Jack Lemmon '47), a divorced, once-promising writer who has squandered his talents on second-rate movies and television--and has had a damn good time in the process. Only his priggish 20-year-old son Jud seems to despise him; they haven't seen each other for two years when Jud comes to visit. Scottie wants them to spend time together, but Jud counters each of his father's jokes and suggestions with icy, detached monosyllables, preferring to journey off to a museum exhibit alone. Scottie's doctor arrives and breaks the news: the clown has leukemia. Now the approaching reality of hospitalization and his possible imminent death evokes more mature feelings of parental guilt--Scottie resolves to try and win over his son. Jud, whom the doctor tells over Scottie's protests, agrees to try to understand the man who never was his father, only his "eight-year-old playmate." "I'm not ready to cry over you yet," he says.
At the beginning of the play and in between scenes, the proscenium arch lights up, and downstage left a character appears to tell a story about Scottie. It is this theater, "tonight," and we are in the audience "to pay tribute to Scottie Templeton," who is celebrating his 51st birthday and has just emerged from successful cancer treatments in the hospital. At first these interludes seem irritating and gratuitous, as though Slade were trying to disguise a one-set, chronologically ordered comedy by Pirandello-ing it up a bit. But afterwards, you can appreciate how these anecdotes should have worked: this is a tribute to Scottie's life, and yet each speaker can only talk of his outrageous practical jokes, his flair for improvising great comic routines in public, or the way he has clowned himself out of lots of jobs.
Slade doesn't shy away from conflict or confrontation; his characters occasionally go for each other's jugular, and pieces of their protective covering fleck off after each battle. Scottie begins to understand that by never committing himself to anyone he has hurt those to whom he should be closest. As father and son grow more acquainted, they recognize themselves in each other; Jud's sobriety is a reaction to Scottie's geniality, and each is locked into an extremely isolating mode of behavior.
Tribute builds to its final scene, in this theater "tonight," where Scottie walks onstage to our cheering, and slowly informs us that his life has been a failure--an endless parade of gags. He couldn't reach out to anyone. Why? He doesn't know. Maybe because there isn't anything below the surface, or maybe he's afraid of knowing what's below the surface. He embraces his son. There is no punch line.
Slade stops at Scottie's discovery of his emotional insulation, never digging any deeper into the roots of his fears--you know, the primal stuff. Tribute winds up pat and tidy, without plunging us into the existential abyss that can make this sort of thing a real corker. The tragedy of the American sit-com writer has turned out awfully shallow. This bathos gives Jack Lemmon his star turn: fast-food epiphany, downstage center. Neither he nor Slade really needed this--although it must be fun to break down onstage. Tribute slobbers when it ought only to quiver; the mask comes off and the jelly underneath dribbles all over the stage.
We already understand Lemmon's realization, and are deeply moved long before we are supposed to be. Now he simply perpetuates his chronic weepiness, the tears which won him an Academy Award for Save the Tiger. Throughout the evening, however, something very great is happening with Lemmon, and it's not obvious, because he looks extremely relaxed onstage, devoid of mannerisms, economical in his gestures, and highly expressive in his voice. He's playing a breezy juvenile again, with all that maturity and pained awareness forced under the surface, and though he does his damndest to keep the trembling from showing--until it all comes gushing out in the final scene--you can feel the subliminal tension beneath the happy-go-luckiness. I've never seen a Lemmon performance with an edge this sharp; when he is in control, it is very great acting.
Tribute is a rich play, not brilliant but solid. The characters who surround the protagonist--his sympathetic ex-wife, tolerant, devoted doctor, et al--are stock, but Slade fuses each of them with life. As a one-time writer of sit-coms (over 100, it is reported), he must have learned how to play around with stereotypes, searching for that one little crack of humanity in which to insert his fingers, opening the character up. Scottie's business partner, for example, is a huggable, Jewish, Lou Jacobi-type (warmly played by A. Larry Haines), the character who kids in plays always call "Uncle Lou" or "Uncle Irving." The sole function of this fellow is usually to mouth exposition and provide comic relief (kvetch, kvetch, kvetch). But in the second act, out of nowhere, he explains to Jud why he acts so paternal towards Scottie, even though they're the same age. He mentions, and not at great length or for the purpose of generating tears, the loss of his wife several years before and the growing-up of his children, and suddenly you see into every layer of this man, how his good-humored jabbering helps him to cope with his loneliness and reach out to others. This kind of character almost has no right to be complex; it violates all the rules of smash Broadway comedies.
Slade is also an accomplished writer of one-liners, which are not only funny but rooted in universal human fears. "When a friend dies, you lose a friend," sighs Scottie, "but when you die, you lose all your friends." There's more in that than just a well-turned phrase. A few lines don't work, and the play could use some trimming before it settles down in New York. One rude piece of psychological claptrap ought to be immediately excised: one of those Death of a Salesman-type closet skeletons, involving the time when little Jud woke up and saw Daddy making love to a woman who wasn't Mommy. Like the self-indulgent closing scene, Slade doesn't need this gimmick--he has done his work too thoroughly and too well in the earlier scenes.
The flawless cast plays superbly off of Lemmon, especially Robert Picardo as Jud. Unafraid of being charmless or unendearing, Picardo gives a wiry, courageous performance which ultimately wins us over and holds its own against his formidable stage father. Director Arthur Storch provides one of the smoothest, cleanest pieces of staging I have ever seen--he also invokes splendid, precise comic timing from the entire cast. William Ritman's split-level set is sheer genius, both aesthetically and thematically. Like Scottie, it has something for everyone: paneled walls, lots of framed photos, ultra-modern but ultra-comfortable furniture, all in attractive browns and beiges. Only Tharon Musser's lighting, full of jerky, conspicuous floods and obtrusive mood-breakers, needs toning down.
OF COURSE YOU SHOULD get in to Boston to see Tribute--its smash-hit success on Broadway is a foregone conclusion (and if gaseous schlock like Deathtrap, which opened here in January, can be a hit, well--anything goes). Tribute must strike very close to the bones of some of its contributors: Slade, still struggling to shake off Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, and Lemmon, a graduate of the Hasty Pudding chorus line and academic probation at Harvard. These men, at some point in their lives, decided to stop clowning around and get serious. Both are at a point where their deepening maturity and inherent comic inspiration can merge and go deeper still. So why all the sentimentality? Without the tears, Jack can still be an infectious actor. On the basis of Tribute, Lemmon's talents are at their ripest--why let them sour?
Plays Within PlaysRomantic Comedy Written by Bernard Slade Directed by Karen Bergreen At Quincy House B ERNARD SLADE, WHOEVER he is, probably
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