by Kirk Woodward
[In a recent play report, I wrote of “one of those rare occurrences in theater: the perfect alignment of role and actor” (see my report on Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey, posted on 24 March). Well, my friend, and frequent contributor to this blog, Kirk Woodward has just had two versions of that experience: two actors he considers great in roles for which they are uniquely suited. Curiously, while both performances are of generally equal quality, the plays in which the actors are appearing are not; the ensembles within which the two great performances are embedded, however, are both uneven. I’ll let Kirk tell you the rest himself and you can decide whether or not you agree with his assessments. ~Rick]
Theories about theater, and in particular about acting, can be complicated. I’ve added to the complications myself, I’m sure, in various pieces I’ve written for this blog. But when it comes down to it, much of the best of theater comes down to this: a great performer in a great role. I’ve seen two instances of this phenomenon recently: Kevin Kline in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, and Bette Midler in the musical Hello, Dolly!
Noel Coward (1899-1973) wrote Present Laughter in 1939, as England was buckling down for war. In fact the onset of the war made it impossible to stage the play then. By 1942 the situation had changed; Coward, who had first wanted to work for British Intelligence and in fact had done so briefly in France, now found it his duty (urged on by Winston Churchill himself) to provide entertainment and refreshment for a nation under bombardment by Germany.
He put together a tour of his plays called Play Parade, consisting of the colossally successful Blithe Spirit (1941), This Happy Breed (1939), and Present Laughter. In his diary (published in 2000 by Phoenix Press as The Noel Coward Diaries) he writes:
War news pretty grim.Stalingrad apparently taken. [It was not seized by the Nazis, ultimately, but at great cost.] I must admit to a personal apathy now regarding the war. I have tried from the beginning to work constructively for the war effort and now, having been driven back to my own métier, the theatre, I cannot work myself up about it any more. This may be sheer escapism, but if I can make people laugh, etc., maybe I am not doing so badly. I only know that to sit at the side of the stage amid the old familiar sights and sounds and smells is really lovely after all this long time. The things that matter to me at the moment are whether or not I was good in such and such a scene and if the timing was right and my make-up not too pale. This is my job really, and will remain so through all wars and revolutions and carnage.
Present Laughter perfectly embodies Coward’s attitude. It is a play about theater. The leading character, Garry Essendine, is a self-obsessed actor of comedic roles, surrounded by a household dedicated to taking care of his whims, none of which he is reticent about expressing, often at the top of his voice. His conversation is mostly about himself and his dreadful struggles as he attempts to share his art with a world that somehow cannot fully appreciate him. We meet his secretary, his ex-wife, his producer, his housekeeper, his valet, his manager, and two outsiders—a particularly persistent female admirer, a very possibly insane young playwright—and Garry’s producer’s glamorous wife, who seems determined to seduce nearly every man she comes in contact with, particularly Garry.
The result is a boisterous farce. Coward played the self-referential lead role himself in the first production (and in one in 1958 in the United States), and he admittedly based the play on his own Noel-centered household, with the prominent qualification that Garry appears to be heterosexual, which Coward was not. In any case, clearly the play is a romp, a trifle . . . except that, I would claim, it is not trivial at all, in the sense that the play, like most of Coward’s work, is a meditation on a theme: in a world of chaos and confusion, how can we manage to live with each other? This question underlies much of comedy, and certainly much of Coward’s, and gives what I would call a subliminal significance to an apparently carefree evening in the theater.
The current revival of Present Laughter on Broadway, which opened at the St. James Theatre on 5 April 2017, was directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel. It was generally received by the throwing of hats in the air for Kevin Kline’s highly physical performance, and moderately less enthusiasm for the play, with an overall score of 79 on Show-score.com and a critic’s rating of 7.6 out of 10 on Broadwayworld.com.
Among the less than enthusiastic reviews, Mark Shenton in The Stage (5 April 2017) wrote that Present Laughter “feels lugubrious and weighty rather than effortless. Our taste for the kind of theatrical vanity encapsulated by Essendine has long waned and it seems incongruous that his theatre career could support such a large permanent staff, including housekeeper, valet and secretary, or allow his house to look like Victoria station, with so many people coming and going.” This strikes me as the kind of comment that could be made about nearly any period farce, including for example a number of masterpieces by Georges Feydeau (1862-1921).
Similarly Alexis Soloski in The Guardian (5 April 2017) said that Kevin Kline gives “a performance of stupefying charm that reveals some of the wrinkles and sag in the surrounding play.” Garry Essendine would suffer for months over a comment like that.
In most other precincts the reviews were particularly enthusiastic about the performance of Kevin Klein, which had been eagerly awaited, and they were similar to the point that I can quote a few as typical. Ben Brantley in The New York Times (all the reviews quoted were posted on line on 5 April 2017) called the production “uneven” but said that Kevin Kline gives “a paradoxically natural performance as a man for whom the histrionic gesture is a conditioned reflex. Every move he makes turns genuine emotions into a pose, which doesn’t discount the authenticity of the flickering melancholy within.” On the other hand, Brantley feels the production works too hard, emphasizing “the more boisterous aspects of Coward’s comedy, occasionally to hilarious, but just as often labored, ends. And the pace needs to be picked up throughout.”
But Matt Windman in amNewYork says that Kline “is careful not to overplay the comedy, with the intention of giving a fully rounded performance,” and Linda Winer in Newsday seems to agree: “this is a revival that, despite a cast of farce experts, treats the broad moments as rare offhand treats that flash suddenly on characters as momentary glimpses into humanity’s silliness.” Comedy, we note again, is a matter of taste. What is trivial to one may be significant to another, as illustrated by Jesse Green’s review in Vulture/New York magazine, which I quote at more length because he also agrees with my response to the rest of the cast:
The scene in which [Essendine] finally calls out the sexual subterfuges of his comrades—and definitively rids himself of his own extraneous women—successfully counterweights the play’s many trivialities. Most of the rest of the cast, under the direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel, seems to have got the same memo: Play the problems, not the jokes. I was especially impressed with the women. Cobie Smulders, a star of How I Met Your Mother making her Broadway debut as Joanna, not only looks sensational in gowns by Susan Hilferty but finds a core of valor in a typically odious character. Kate Burton—who played the ingénue Daphne opposite George C. Scott in 1982—brings exceptional clarity and warmth to Liz, who can sometimes come off as a scold. And Kristine Nielsen is hilarious as the trusty secretary [Monica Reed].
My own opinions, for what they are worth, are that Coward’s plays are frequently misinterpreted because reviewers often cannot see beyond their own preconceptions, and that a comic performance like Kevin Kline’s is a connection to the greatness of theater that must be celebrated. Every moment of his performance is a tribute to the ability of the theater to astonish us in unexpected ways. His actor’s creativity is completely invested in the service of the play. The word “great” can be used in such occasions.
I referred above to Kevin Kline’s performance as “eagerly awaited,” and those words hardly describe the anticipation for Bette Midler’s performance as Dolly Levi in the musical Hello, Dolly! (book by Michael Stewart, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, originally on Broadway from 1964 to 1970 for 2,844 performances) which opened on 20 April 2017 at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre in Manhattan.
I saw the show at a preview performance on 21 March 2017; I arrived early, at about 7:30 PM, for an 8:00 PM performance, and saw to my amazement the line to enter the theater already stretched out of the theater, across Shubert Alley, and down the next block for hundreds of feet in each direction. The line, please note, was made up of people who already had tickets. Their seats were assigned! But they had to get in the theater. Bette was doing Dolly! The enthusiasm continued throughout the show. It was part performance, part celebration.
I admire Bette Midler greatly. I first saw her twice in her Clams on the Half Shell revue in 1975, an experience that those of us who saw it will not forget. Her combination of singing, comedy, and acting talent was overwhelming. As a performer she could turn on a dime, going from shameless sentimentality to the crudest bawdiness in seconds flat.
She had first performed on Broadway in the role of Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof from 1966 to 1969; she was back in 2013 as the agent Sue Mengers in the one person show I’ll Eat You Last at the Booth Theatre, in a successful production that I somehow managed to miss, for reasons I’ll never understand. She recorded fourteen studio albums, was nominated for an Oscar twice, and generally kept herself busy. But she had never played the lead in a Broadway musical until Dolly.
I would think that it would take a star of Midler’s magnitude to make a Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! a success today. It is impossible now to listen to Jerry Herman’s score without an awareness of the enormous changes that Steven Sondheim brought to the musical in songs that develop character while moving the stories along—sometimes they are the stories. The songs in Dolly are songs, attractive and often memorable but, with rare exceptions, not dramatic in themselves, and my impression is that in today’s theater they feel simply unsatisfactory. [Kirk has discussed some of his conclusions about show songs in “Theatrical and Popular Songs,” posted to Rick On Theater on 2 October 2011.]
The book of the musical is based on Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker (1954), based on an earlier play by Wilder called The Merchant of Yonkers (1938), in turn based on Johann Nestroy’s play Einen Jux Will Er Sich Machen (“He’ll Have Himself a Good Time,” 1842, successfully adapted in 1981 by Tom Stoppard as On the Razzle), which in turn—we’re at the end of the list now—was based on a one-act play by John Oxenford called A Day Well Spent (1835). The Matchmaker had a respectable run on Broadway, but none of the iterations of the story is generally considered a masterpiece, including The Matchmaker, which although written by the author of Our Town, is seldom performed today. (Eric Bentley, reviewing The Matchmaker in The New Republic in 1954, wrote that “I agree for once in my life with the dramatic critic of The New York Post who spoke of Mr. Wilder as teacher being jolly with the class.”)
So Dolly is not based on sensational material, the way that, say, My Fair Lady was based on Shaw’s Pyigmalion. My conclusion is that today Hello, Dolly! needs a star in order to succeed, and in Bette Midler it has one. The reviews for Dolly have been overwhelmingly favorable, with a critics’ rating of 86 out of 100 on Show-score.com. The only negative review I saw was by Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal (20 April 2017, like all the reviews quoted here), who appears to have seen a different show than I did. Teachout writes, “Ms. Midler’s singing voice is in a desperate, sometimes shocking state of disrepair . . . . As for the rest of the performance, Ms. Midler doesn’t even bother to act . . . .She can’t dance and isn’t funny . . . . David Hyde Pierce is all wrong as Horace . . . . What’s more, he and Ms. Midler have no romantic chemistry at all, which makes the show even less dramatically plausible . . . . Every supporting performance is a grotesque caricature . . . . As for the musical numbers, they’re camped up to the hilt.”
I can only say that my impressions were different. At the performance I saw, I felt that Midler was not using her full vocal power; she is 71 years old, the role is strenuous, and she’d be foolish to blow out her voice at the start of a run. She had plenty of power for everything she wanted to do. Far from “not bothering to act,” I felt that acting was exactly what Midler was doing—she was giving us a character named Dolly Levi, not a star named Bette Midler. (Perhaps that is why Teachout felt her voice was ragged—because she was, so to speak, singing in character?)
Dancing is only minimally required for the role of Dolly and is supplied, as was traditional in the musical of the time, by others. Midler’s comic timing is magnificent—she wastes no lines, and gets the most out of each of them. David Hyde Pierce is not Walter Matthau (who did the role of Horace Vandergelder opposite Barbra Streisand in the 1969 film adaptation), but then no one else is. Pierce is of course a comic master and brings his own arched eyebrow style of performing to a not terribly exhilarating role. And I felt that the production as a whole, far from being grotesque or camped, stuck to its obvious aim of doing a show from 1964 as it would have been done then if the entire production were sprightly and first-rate.
Aside from Mr. Teachout, the reviewers and I almost all agree. I will let Joe Dziemianowicz’s review in The New York Daily News stand for many: “A dazzling revival . . . this show’s all about Dolly . . . . It’s a role made for personality. And Midler has that—and then some . . . . Type out all the superlatives you can because nights like this in the theater—in which tingles continue from overture to final bow—make you feel overjoyed. That is a tonic for troubled times!” Righto.
As I mentioned, I saw the show at a preview performance, which featured one of those episodes that endear such early peeks to their audiences. David Hyde Pierce, onstage early in the show with a big drum, waited for the set to change, but it did not. A voice came over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing mechanical difficulties with the set. We hope to resume shortly.” Pierce did a small double-take and marched offstage. After a pause, the stage began to change its configuration, at first slowly, then with increasing speed, until the next set was in place. Pierce marched back on stage and said to the audience, “Anyway . . .” And continued with the scene.
Moments like that technical malfunction cheer me up, because they are reminders that even on Broadway, with its astonishing technical resources, what’s happening on the stage is that live human beings are doing what live human beings do, as well as they can. God bless theater. We need it. We realize just how much we need it when exceptional performers like Kline and Midler take part in it. There are other ways that theater can achieve greatness, but from time immemorial, one of the most splendid of those ways is to put great performers on the stage and let them work.
“Great” is a subjective term, of course, but when an individual performer brings to a role a combination of intelligence, imagination, daring, and personal magnetism that lifts the experience of a play into the realm of the unforgettable—as, for me, both Kline and Midler do—surely “great” isn’t too large a word.
[I used to keep a list of the best individual performances I’d seen. I don’t keep the list anymore—it was only in my head anyway—but Zero Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) was on it; so was James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope (1968), Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity (1966), Stacy Keach in Indians (1969), Alec McCowen in Hadrian VII (1969), Ben Vereen in Pippin (1972), Virginia Capers in Raisin (1973), Jim Dale in Scapino! (1974), Henry Fonda in Clarence Darrow (1974), Anthony Hopkins in Equus (1974), Donald Sinden in London Assurance (1974), Meryl Streep in A Memory of Two Mondays/27 Wagons Full of Cotton (1976), Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy together in The Gin Game (1977), and Pat Carroll in Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein (1979). (I’ve seen two or three recent performances that I’d add if I still kept the list. Michael Emerson in Wakey, Wakey would be one, and probably Jefferson Mays’s turn as seven murder victims in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder in 2014.)]