Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Some 'Splainin To Do

I had some misgivings about this week's Dance Party. Regular visitors to these pages may recall that I have always disliked puppets and their ilk, dating back from my first childhood viewing of Disney's Pinocchio. You can read all about that here. And when you put human heads on puppet bodies, I'm ready to jump out the window. But the death of this trailblazer last week has encouraged me to, once again, face my fears. First, the obit:

Madelyn (Pugh) Davis


She can be considered a trailblazer, as she opened many doors for female writers in radio and TV. She took advantage of the scarcity of male writers during WWII, hooked up with partner Bob Carroll, Jr., and began a career which lasted over 50 years. For most of that time, her work was inextricably linked to Lucille Ball. She penned Lucy's radio program, My Favorite Husband, and when Ball moved to television, she took Davis and Carroll with her. They wrote or co-wrote all 179 episodes of I Love Lucy, and helped define the "Lucy" character which Ball would play for close to 40 years. In the writers' office, Davis was usually found at the typewriter, while her partners Carroll and producer Jess Oppenheimer would pace the floor, coming up with physical gags for their iconic star. (Reminds me of the picture I often have of the office on The Dick Van Dyke Show, with Rose Marie at the typewriter and Van Dyke and Morey Amsterdam pacing the room or lying on the couch, trying to come up with comic material.) That material was always, for I Love Lucy and all its derivatives, physical shtick rather than comic wordplay; none of Davis's writing can be considered particularly strong, verbally. The premise of Lucy's comedy was always focused on the gag rather than the spoken joke. It was Davis, in fact, who often tried out the ludicrous stunts which would later be handled so well by Lucy. Davis and Carroll wrote for Ball throughout her career; they provided the story for her feature film Yours, Mine, and Ours, as well as material for The Lucy Show, Here's Lucy, and the dismal Life With Lucy, which wrapped up Ball's TV career on a disappointing note.

Along with writing for Lucy, Davis and Carroll spent many years as supervising producers for Alice, winning a Golden Globe for one of their episodes (though nominated several times, they never won their own Emmy). They also wrote for Those Whiting Girls in the 50s (I included a fun clip from that summer replacement series a while back, when Whiting died), The Paul Lynde Show, which lasted one season in the early 70s, and Dorothy, a failed attempt to turn Broadway dynamo Dorothy Loudon into a sitcom star.

This week's Dance Party comes from one of Madelyn Davis's non-Lucy projects which had a bit of traction in the late 60s. Desi Arnaz, still very much a part of Desilu Productions at the time, hired his old writing team to create a series for Eve Arden. Ann Southern was considered as a costar for a time, but her comic timing was considered too similar to Arden's, so Broadway belter Kaye Ballard was hired. The Mothers-In-Law was written very much in the vein of I Love Lucy, with two married couples living in close proximity, and the housewives getting into lots of physical mischief:

 Those opening titles make the show look hilarious, right? I remember the show very fondly from my childhood, but having taken a look at it now, the series does not hold up well. Eve Arden had her own strengths as a comic actress, most of them verbal, and the attempt to turn her into a physical comedienne along the lines of Lucy was a mistake. There is some comic chemistry on the show, and Roger C. Carmel was particularly funny as Ballard's cheapskate husband. But the program, though it was nestled cozily on NBC's Sunday schedule between Disney and Bonanza, never really took off. Neither the family audiences for Disney, nor the male audiences for Bonanza, were very interested in this loud, brassy shoutfest. In an effort to save the show from cancellation, the producers asked the cast to forgo the salary bump to which they were contractually entitled for a second season, and Carmel balked. He was replaced by Dick Van Dyke alum Richard Deacon, but the show did not improve and was cancelled after its second season.

The show's two seasons were peppered with musical sequences, the executive producer was Desi Arnaz after all. Ballard and Arden both had musical chops and relished those scenes, though they rarely if ever grew organically out of the plot. There wasn't much reason for two suburban housewives to be putting on shows and skits so often, but that never bothered Arnaz nor his writers. You can see this Dance Party is from Season Two of The Mothers-In-Law, as it included Deacon in the role which was much more memorable when it was played by Carmel. And if you freak out with human heads on puppets, you are not alone.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Theatre Droppings: Acceptance Speech

I had a very active week, theatrically speaking, and I'm sure you're dying to read all about it. I attended several offerings by local theaters, and topped it all off with our area's annual Drama Prom.

On Thursday, I took the Metro out to Imagination Stage in Bethesda, to see the newest musical written by my old friend and employer, Joan Cushing. Joan is a bit of a theatrical institution in the DC area, having created the long-running musical revue Mrs. Foggybottom and Friends, which had a multi-year run at the swanky Omni Shoreham Hotel's cabaret room. That revue ultimately became a roving entertainment, with Joan booking the show into conventions, parties, and the like. During its final seasons, I was a member of the group (in fact, it was my first professional gig here in DC after finishing grad school), and I had a blast singing Joan's hilarious parody songs.

I was sorry when she disbanded the troop, but her own composing career was taking off, and she has now found a niche adapting well-known children's books into new musicals for kids. Her latest is based on a series of stories concerning the friendship of two hippos, evocatively named George and Martha. Two Tons of Fun at Imagination Stage boasts two swell performances by M.J. Casey and Sandra Murphy as the hippopotomi in question, and Joan's score serves the gentle humor well. The mostly pre-school audience was entranced.

On Sunday, I moved from Family Entertainment to Adult Fare. Factory 449's Magnificent Waste is a pretty scathing treatise on art and consumerism, and features a group of very unlikeable characters. The striking thing about this production was the full integration of live action and video, which I understand is one of the tenants of this new company. I was hoping to run into the group's producer, Rick Hammerly, with whom I have shared a stage and even the same role, but he was not around. He was probably working on his killer acceptance speech for Monday's Helen Hayes Awards, during which he had us rolling in the aisles while receiving the Emerging Theatre Company Award.

But before I get to the area's Biggest Cast Party, as the Hayzies are often called, I have to mention the show I saw on Saturday. Sandwiched between the sweet lyricism of two hippos negotiating friendship, and a group of narcissists negotiating art deals, I saw one of the best things I've seen in a long time:

I was drawn to the show due to the presence in its cast of this guy:

Parker Drown played one of my sons in Joe's Coat recently, and was in rehearsal for S&D during our run. The press on this show has been dynamite, and deservedly so. Parker and his two cohorts successfully evoke the angst of the teenager struggling with matters both sexual and mature. Despite the brief appearance of a teacher and a reporter, the adult population is absent from this show, which reinforces one of the dominant themes of S&D, the virtual (if not actual) absence of adult influence in these kids' lives. The play says so much more, though, and I was very glad to have been able to catch it.

Monday night was the Big Night in DC Theatre, the Annual Helen Hayes Awards.

I don't attend every year, but when I do go, I am always glad I did. The reception held after the awards is the biggest shmoozefest in the area, and I always run into someone I have not seen in a long while. Particularly, I was pleased to spend a bit of time chatting with Catie Flye, who directed me in Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush many years ago, and with Vinnie Lancisi, who did the same with Vigil up at his home base, Everyman Theater. I sat for a while with the lovely Nan and Ray Ficca, who are buddies from way back, and with whom I have a tradition of sharing a Thanksgiving dinner. I was also pleased to see at least a few of my Joe's Coat crowd. That reception is huge, spanning several large ballrooms and the lobbies in between, so it is very easy to miss a lot of other attendees.

As for the awards themselves, well, I saw a good many of the shows nominated, and a good many more which were not. I am sure everyone who won was deserving. The major buzz on everyone's lips seemed to be the fact that, in the past several years, there have been so many ties. The scoring of the Hayzies has been explained to me several times, it seems quite straightforward; I certainly don't know the reasoning behind so many awards being given out in duplicate. The HH website reports that, in case of a tie in the scoring, a "tie breaking system" is used, but there is no explanation of what that system might be. Clearly, it's not definitive, as a whopping five categories were split this year, all of them major awards. There were two Outstanding Actors in Musicals, and also two Outstanding Actors in Plays. There were two Outstanding Directors of a Play, and the two biggest honors of the year, Outstanding Play and Outstanding Musical, were also given in duplicate. Even the Emerging Theater Award, which is non-competitive and is decided upon by the Hayes organization itself, was a tie.

Well, I guess the more winners, the merrier. I had some favorites which were overlooked in the nominations, as everyone else does too. Without fail, these were shows or performances presented by the smaller theaters, which have a heck of a time competing with the multi-million dollar budgets of the Big Boys in town. Keegan Theater had great luck with their production of Rent a year ago, but their more recent production of A Man of No Importance, which featured a strong central performance by Buzz Mauro, was ignored (I wrote about that show here). One of my favorite performances of the year was given by Rebecca Herron in Looking for the Pony out at tiny little Venus Theater in Maryland. And naturally, I wish Bill Largess had been recognized for his splendid adaptation of the Oscar Wilde story Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, and James Konicek as well, for his drolly vapid characterization of the title role, but since I appeared in the show, my protestations must be taken with a grain of salt.

The folks out at Signature Theater need some of that salt, too, as they have been complaining for weeks about the exclusion of Flo Lacey's performance in their Sunset Boulevard.

Signature used to dominate the musical awards, but they have serious competition around town these days, so they had to be satisfied with their Ensemble Award for Sycamore Trees and with Ed Dixon's win for Sunset Boulevard (I thought Dixon was superb too, as I mentioned here). It doesn't look too hot for the local talent pool, by the way, to examine those Signature wins, as the entire cast of Sycamore Trees, classified as a resident musical, was imported from out of town, as was Dixon.

Ah well, everyone has their complaints, we're actors after all. No one can complain about the tribute award going to Tommy Tune, nor the fact that our honorable Helen Hayes is now on the "forever" postage stamp. That presentation during the ceremony turned a bit whimsical, and was followed up by a hilarious parody song, sung to the tune of "The Lady Is A Tramp", which became "The Lady's On A Stamp." Maybe that's why I so enjoy the group hug which this awards night always becomes: the mixture of the ridiculous and the sublime.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Talley's Obits

Farley Granger (at right with Roddy McDowell) and Lanford Wilson both died weeks and weeks ago, but still deserve some notice.

Lanford Wilson


I think the first time I became aware of Lanford Wilson was in my undergraduate days, when my friend Janie appeared in one of his lesser known one-acts, The Great Nebula in Orion. It was a fairly plotless character study of two women, and even then, I could see that this guy wrote for actors. In fact, I doubt you could find an American stage actor who will turn down a role in a Lanford Wilson play; his characters provide brilliant showcases for the kind of Method-based acting in which American actors excel. His work is full of what is sometimes called "lyric realism," everyday language which is somehow heightened to become the poetic.

Wilson is often credited with being one of the creators of the Off-Off-Broadway movement, as his work presented at the Cafe Cino in the early 60s brought mainstream attention to the barebones, raw productions happening in basements, cafes, and crummy storefronts all over New York. His one-act The Madness of Lady Bright became a substantial hit, running hundreds of performances, and is now recognized as one of the first commercial successes to be found Off-Off-. It is also known as one of the first benevolent portrayals of the gay lifestyle.

Lanford was himself gay, and he presented gay characters in several of his plays, including the gay couple at the center of Fifth of July, and his most autobiographical work, Lemon Sky. But he can in no way be classified strictly as a gay playwright. His early full-length works are sprawling canvases with dozens of characters who have come together to form a Family of the Downtrodden or Disenfranchised. Balm in Gilead and Hot L Baltimore follow this pattern, and are rarely revived today due to their large casts. In 1984, Steppenwolf Theatre brought their revival of Balm in Gilead to Off-Broadway; Laurie Metcalf won an Obie for her scene-stealing 20 minute monologue in act II, in a performance which launched her national career.

Lanford Wilson's resume includes dozens of full-length plays, one-acts, and even operas, but he is probably best known for his "Talley Trilogy." In 1978, he penned Fifth of July, which concerned the Talley family of Missouri, and which many consider to be his breakout work. While in rehearsal for the show, the story goes, actress Helen Stenborg, playing elderly Aunt Sally, asked the playwright about her character's backstory. (Helen died recently as well, go here for my obit) Specifically, she was interested in Sally's marriage, which had ended with her husband's death and from which Sally was still reeling (in Fifth of July, Aunt Sally still carries her husband's ashes around in a candy box). Stenborg's questions sparked Wilson's creative juices, and he set about investigating the courtship of the young Sally and her husband. The resulting play, Talley's Folly, won the Pulitzer. Wilson followed up with A Tale Told, which was later revised to become Talley and Son.

Though many of his plays made it to Broadway, Wilson's work was usually better showcased Off-Broadway and in regional theaters. He had a strong relationship with New York's Circle Rep (in fact, he was one of the founders), and his contributions to Steppenwolf in Chicago provided a starry turn for a young John Malkovich in Burn This. Late in his career, he spent time with the Purple Rose Theater in Michigan, for whom he wrote his final two plays.

As I mentioned, Wilson's plays are catnip for American actors; Fifth of July was on my wish list for years, but Christopher Reeve, Richard Thomas, William Hurt, Michael O'Keefe, Timothy Bottoms, and Robert Sean Leonard got there first. The list of actors who displayed major acting chops in Wilson's plays includes Swoozie Kurtz (Fifth of July), Judd Hirsch (Talley's Folly), and Jeff Daniels, who took three of Wilson's plays to Broadway. The aforementioned Helen Stenborg won an Obie for Talley and Son, as did this guy:

Farley Granger


Granger was appearing Off-Broadway in 1985 because, decades earlier, he ditched his blooming film career in order to become a stage actor. He had reached the peak of his celebrity very early in his career, with starring roles in two Hitchcock films, Rope and Strangers On A Train. He became disenchanted with the studio system and yearned for the footlights instead, so in 1953, he bought out the final two years of his film contract and headed to New York. New York shrugged, so Farley took an unusual step for an established movie star: he went to school to learn to act. After studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse, he took roles in regional theatre and Off-Broadway, finally making it to The Great White Way in First Impressions, the musical version of Pride and Prejudice. That show worked about as well as you would think, and lasted less than 100 performances. Our hero followed it up with another failure, The Warm Peninsula, which at least allowed him to star with Julie Harris, June Havoc, and a young Larry Hagman. Granger supplemented his income with appearances on television during the Golden Age, playing opposite Ms. Harris in The Heiress, among other highbrow works. Back onstage, he was well-received as John Proctor in The Crucible in 1964, and as the king in The King and I opposite Barbara Cook in 1960 (for the latter, one critic noted "Granger comes to the revival with a fresh point of view and a full head of hair").

He also spent many months in the long-running Deathtrap.

As Farley aged, he became more loose-lipped about his personal life, which would make a great miniseries for Showtime. He had a long, on-and-off-again romance with Shelley Winters, and was connected with several other actresses including Ava Gardner, but his autobiography reveals that he also had affairs with men, including Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents.
His longest personal relationship was with Robert Calhoun, who died in 2006. When Granger died last month, he was 85 and left no survivors.