Friday, February 28, 2014

Paddy Chayefsky's Middle of the Night in Revival at Theatre Row

L-R: Niclole Lowrance and Jonathan Hadary in MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
In its mission statement, Keen Company asserts that it is “not afraid of emotional candor, vulnerability or optimism” and expresses its “desire to invigorate the theater with productions that connect us through humor, heart and hope.”  In its current revival of Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, it has more than fulfilled that mission.  This play is quintessential Paddy Chayefsky – a heart-warming uplifting tale of two lonely and insecure characters who ultimately find the love and companionship they seek in one another’s arms – and this sensitively performed revival is everything one might have hoped for.

Chayefsky’s best-known work, Marty, is the story of a fat, lonely butcher who eventually finds love and happiness with Clara, a shy, homely school-teacher.  (That play first appeared on The Philco Television Playhouse in 1953 and was adapted for the movies in 1955, earning Chayefsky the first of his three Academy Awards.)  Set in New York City in the mid 1950s, Middle of the Night is a variation on that theme: the male lead here is not a butcher but a garment center manufacturer and the female lead is not a librarian but the manufacturer’s employee - but those are mere surface differences.  The lonelinesss, sadness, vulnerability and despair these characters experience are very much the same.   

Originally produced on television a year after Marty, Middle of the Night featured E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint in the leading roles, before moving to Broadway in 1956 in a production starring Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands.  In 1959, the play was adapted for the screen, starring Frederic March and Kim Novak.  In this current revival, the play stars Jonathan Hadary as Jerry Kingsley, the lonely, widowed garment center manufacturer who is all too aware of his own mortality at age 53 (an age at which his friends already are retiring, dying or, at the very least, experiencing their own mid-life crises) and Nicole Lowrance as Betty, his very pretty and equally lonely, relatively immature, 24 year old employee (who is young enough to be his own daughter).  Both Hadary and Lowrance are terrific, bringing a level of sensitivity and poignancy to their respective roles that make this production well worth seeing.

Since his wife’s death, Jerry has been lonely and apathetic, searching unsuccessfully for another life partner (he did propose to one woman, Grace, a buyer at Lord & Taylor’s, but was rejected).   His family has attempted to provide him with a support system: his older sister, Evelyn (Denise Lute), lives with him and cares for him, unsuccessfully attempting to match him up with one of her widowed canasta playing friends (played by Amelia Campbell).  His daughter, Lillian (Melissa Miller) visits him with his grandchild and urges him to visit her, but that doesn’t do much good either.

Meanwhile, Betty is unhappily married to George (Todd Bartels), a decent enough chap who certainly does not mistreat her and is attentive to her sexual needs, if not her emotional ones, leaving her feeling lonely and unfulfilled.  Her mother (Amelia Campbell, who also plays the role of Evelyn’s widowed friend) isn’t really sensitive to her needs either and neither is her friend Marilyn (also played by Melissa Miller).  To be sure, they all mean well but the best of intentions is seldom good enough.

And so Jerry and Betty find each other.  But, as Shakespeare put it, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”  Jerry and Betty encounter obstacles both of their own making and those placed in their way by others.  They are both fully aware of the consequences that may result from the disparity in their ages and it has given them both pause.  If it had not, Betty’s mother and Jerry’s sister and daughter, are all there to remind them:  Betty’s mother never paid that much attention to Betty while she was growing up (which may, at least in part, account for her current insecurities) but now that Betty is grown up, her mother has no doubt that she knows what is best for her.  And it certainly is not to divorce a decent and sexually satisfying husband (no matter what his other shortcomings) in order to marry a man old enough to be her father – let alone a Jew.  (Remember: this all takes place in the 1950s, an age that was not merely pre-pill, but was even pre-pantyhose, an age of cinched waists and garter belts.  It was a time in which marriages were expected to be “age appropriate” and to last, a time in which divorce may not have been absolutely taboo but was certainly frowned upon much more than it is today, and a time in which “mixed marriages” between Christians and Jews were scarcely mainstream.)

Both Evelyn and Lillian couldn’t agree more with Betty’s mother.  Indeed, Evelyn’s hostility has been even further deepened by the realization that Jerry’s marriage to Betty would challenge her own role as mistress of Jerry’s house.  And for Lillian, Jerry’s marriage to Betty would threaten her role as “Daddy’s little girl.” Imagine her fear of being usurped by a girl even younger than herself.  And a shiksa to boot.

This Keen Company production of Middle of the Night is a pared down version of the original play in which eleven roles are played by just seven actors (each of four actors plays two roles apiece with the other three actors playing the remaining three roles).  For the most part, this works out well: Amelia Campbell delineates the roles of Betty’s mother and Evelyn’s widowed friend with clear differentiation and considerable humor; Denise Lute is very effective both in her role as Evelyn and as the next door neighbor; and Melissa Miller handles her roles as Lillian and Marilyn with consummate skill.  Requiring Todd Bartels to play both the role of Jerry’s son-in-law, Jack, and that of Betty’s husband, George, however, may have been a reach too far: to be sure, he is terrific as Jack and his explosive tirade at Lillian is one of the play’s high points.  But the demands made of him in that role may have taken too much out of him and, perhaps as a result, his performance as George is rather flat.

My only other negative comment on what I otherwise very much enjoyed as a fine theatrical experience related to the stage set.  All of the action in the play takes place in one of two locales – Jerry’s home which he shares with Evelyn or Betty’s home which she shares with her mother and her sister, Alice (Alyssa May Gold) – and far too little effort was made to distinguish one locale from the other.  But that is a minor criticism.  On the whole this really is a terrific production and I urge you to go see it. 

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