IN THE 130 years that have elapsed since plays--if you can call them that--were first produced at the Hasty Pudding Club on Holyoke St., many strange things have come to pass on the stage where drag shows reign supreme. While a non--drag show in the Pudding's comfortably cheesy house may be rather difficult for jaded Cantabrigians to accept, it is certainly a refreshing change.
This summer a new group called the Cambridge Acting Company has taken roost at the Pudding for the summer; it's an arrangement that will surely be very profitable for the Pudding, but maybe not so profitable for the Pudding, but maybe not so profitable for the ensemble, which drew only 25 or 30 hardy souls to a recent performance of its current selection. The low attendance is a shame, because even if the play--Frank Gilroy's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Subject Was Roses -- is pretty poor, it's still the best piece of theater to cross the Pudding stage in many a year. And only the women wear bras.
The Subject Was Roses wastes the talents of three very able performers and the time of the audience. Gilroy's play fairly oozes with a trite plot, an insipid and oft-repeated theme, and a hackneyed conclusion. Whatever dramatic tension there is develops fleetingly in the second act, building to a swift and unsatisfying climax. The story is simple. It's 1946 in Da Bronx. Timmy Cleary has just returned from the Army, back to the not-so-peaceful home of his parents, John and Nettie. They are a middle--class, heavily Irish family, and like all good families in the theater, they have their problems, ad infinitum. The mother detests the father. The father detests the mother. Their son has very little in the way of respect for either of them. Dad, it seems, is a coffee dealer whose drive for the big time was thwarted by the Depression, an experience that frustrated him to the point of sheer obnoxiousness. Mom is a witling, a woman with a deep-seated father complex who resents her husband's coldness yet rejects his infrequent advances. Lovely family.
Through two acts the three pursue their various crazes, ending up with confessions of love and a seeming return to the gruff status--quo of the father--dominated household. Along the way, Gilroy would have us believe, they all learn a lot about each other and begin to appreciate each other more. How this play ever won anything, much less a Pulitzer, is beyond us; it must have been a bad year.
Not that the company doesn't give the production its best shot. Director Arthur Savage gamely tries to breathe some life into this lifeless play, and the actors all come up with truly creditable performances. David Ellsworth dominates as John Cleary, adeptly playing the part of the irrational, raging, frustrated father. At times Ellsworth seems a bit stiff--his two major rages are almost identical in gesture and intonation--but on the whole, and particularly in the final scene, he is the focal point of the production. Belle McDonald quietly excels as the dominated, insistent and wholly unfair wife, a woman who gains no satisfaction from her marriage and constantly looks back to her happier days as a single girl in a devoted family.
The most impressive, however, is John Guerrasio as Timmy, the boy who comes home from the wars. Guerassio brings an energetic, pleasing style and a hoarse tenor voice to the part, which seems to have been written for him. He is at his best imitating a vaudeville hack or meandering through a wicked drunk as the family collapses around him. His timing and movement are impeccable; more will certainly be heard from this man.
The technical side of the production also shines. The set, a collection of period--piece furnishings, is both imaginative and functional. The props and lighting, which more often than not go overlooked in other shows, happily receive the proper attention here. The Subject Was Roses appears to thrive on detail: the authentic circa-1946 long-necked Ballantine bottles and the sunlight streaming in through the kitchen window during the morning scenes clearly illustrate the company's technical competence.
BUT SOMETHING IS still very wrong with this show--and unfortunately, the play seems to be the problem. All the good acting and careful technical work in the world cannot, after all, overshadow what is basically a mediocre play. Gilroy's work perhaps evokes some of the feeling of the times--the generation gap existed then, too, and the resentment and alienation of a failed marriage certainly didn't spring up in the last decade. This basic theme has been seen so many times before...a male child goes off to war, or what have you, and comes back as a man to his family abode. He soon realizes that he must move out on his own, that he has his own life to live. Nothing new there. And while The Subject Was Roses has its dramatic moments, particularly at the end of each act, it still fails. Other plays have evoked the feeling of the time with much more power and style.
With so much going for it, it is hard to figure out why the Cambridge Acting Company chose such a turkey for its grand opener. The company clearly has the ability to do better, and if the actors want to stay in their slightly odd home, continuing to break the tradition of boys-will-be-girls fun, they'd better come up with something more inspiring next time out. The subject may, indeed, have been roses, but the product was boring.