Monday, January 14, 2013

Off Off Broadway: The Fig Leaves Are Falling

Natalie Venetia Belcon and Jonathan Rayson in THE FIG LEAVES ARE FALLING.  Photo by  Dixie Sheridan.

The Fig Leaves Are Falling by Allan Sherman first opened on Broadway on January 2, 1969.  It received such scathing reviews (Clive Barnes of the “New York Times” wrote that “,,,there is nothing much wrong with [the play]…that a new book, new music, new lyrics, new settings, new direction, new choreography and a partially new cast would not possibly put right”) that it closed after only four performances.

In that original production, Barry Nelson played the role of Harry Stone, a 44-year-old senior executive at a greeting card company, living in Larchmont with his devoted wife, Lillian, and their two children.  Lillian, then played by Dorothy Louden (who received a Tony Award nomination for her performance, notwithstanding the play’s extremely short run), was the perfect wife, mother and homemaker.  Nice house, two cars, a live-in maid, the perfect life.  But this was the late 1960s, a time of social, political and sexual unrest (think Vietnam, the pill, sit-ins and love-ins) and so it was inevitable that Harry’s world would be rocked when he was confronted by his more sexually-liberated 24-year-old secretary, Pookie Chapman (then played by Jenny O’Hara).

The play is now being revived off-off-Broadway at the Connelly Theatre by Unsung Musicals and, considering its ignominious history, the question is not “Why did it take so long?” but, rather, “Why would anyone ever bother to revive it at all?”  Well, the answer is simply that that is what Unsung Musicals does: it has taken as its mission “the restoration and presentation of obscure but artistically sound works” and its artistic director, Ben West, saw enough that he considered worthwhile in the play to justify its revival.

But what is now appearing at the Connelly isn’t really a revival in the truest sense.  In order to make his new production work, West revised it extensively, eliminating much of its socio-political commentary, deleting some songs and adding others, patching together scenes from three different drafts of the original play, eliminating sub-plots, and focusing tightly on the main theme – the choice that Harry must make between Lillian and Pookie (here re-named Jenny in honor of the actress who played her in the original production).  What he ended up with then was, for better or worse, a far cry from what originally appeared on Broadway 44 years ago.

But is it better or worse?  Since I never saw the original play on Broadway nearly a half century ago, I’m not really in a position to say but I suspect that West’s new version may be more entertaining on balance than its predecessor was.  The 1969 production did set a very low bar and I don’t think that Clive Barnes’ caustic comments on that production would apply to what is now playing at the Connelly.  The current show, while by no means exceptional, is cheerfully engaging; it has its amusing moments; and its choreography is energetic and enthusiastic.

But there is a tradeoff.  So much from the original production has been excised that the current production simply re-tells the oft-told tale of one man’s mid-life crisis, a story that is as old as recorded history and that is not at all unique to the period in which the play is set.  As Harry puts it:

“Well, when you get right down to it, I’ve gotta make a choice: my wife or this girl.  The thing is, I like my wife.  Well you know Lillian.  We’ve been married twenty years.  She’s kept her figure, she’s kept the ashtrays clean, gotten the laundry done, took care of the kids, done social work, read all the latest books – all that stuff.  But…I like the girl too.  She’s 24…."

And that has nothing at all to do with the sexual revolution of the times (the falling of the fig leaves, if you will); it is simply the story of a man’s mid-life crisis – as likely to occur to 1929 or 2009 as in 1969.  And there really is nothing special about this particular individual’s mid-life crisis or how it plays out.  We’ve seen and heard it all before, many times over (and often with much more interesting characters and plot structures).

In the current production, Harry is played with considerable control by Jonathan Rayson, struggling to restrain his emotions in the face of Jenny’s advances..  Lillian is played by Natalie Venetia Belcon, whose unquestioning and loving acceptance of Harry’s disturbing behavior is most endearing but requires some suspension of disbelief.  And a similar suspension of disbelief is required in reacting to Morgan Weed’s perky portrayal of Jenny (formerly Pookie) who seamlessly evolves from an innocent girl threatening to quit her job over her boss’s unwanted advances into a flirtatious seductress who upends Harry’s life.

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