|L-R: Nicole Greevy, Lynnsey Lewis, and Sonja Gabrielsen in COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN.|
When Ed Graczyk’s memory play, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was first staged on Broadway in 1982, it suffered from three serious shortcomings: (1) it addressed too many different issues for one play, (2) none of its surprise disclosures were really surprising, and (3) the issues it dealt with – ranging from transgenderism to breast cancer didn’t resonate with the public the way they do today. Not surprisingly, the play was poorly received both by the critics and by the public (in his review for the New York Times, Frank Rich opined that it would “benefit from a new script, a total restaging and a revamped set”) and it closed after only 52 performances.
Despite that experience, however, Robert Altman, the play’s director, was not to be deterred and, having acquired the movie rights to the play, he doubled down and directed a film adaptation of the play with the same cast. Alas, the film fared no better with the public or the critics than had the Broadway production with Vincent Canby of the New York Times allowing that “Ed Graczyk's screenplay, based on his flop play as directed by Mr. Altman on Broadway this year, is small, but less likely to be salvaged in the near future than even the Titanic. It's a sincerely preposterous, bathetic, redneck comedy-drama that sounds as if its author had learned all about life by watching ''Studio One'' at his mother's knee.”
In light of those inauspicious beginnings, one can only marvel at Regeneration Theatre’s courageous decision to launch an off-Broadway revival of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean after more than thirty years. And yet they did. And, surprisingly, we can be glad that they did.
For the fact is that, remarkable as it may seem, Regeneration Theatre’s revival at the Workshop Theatre on West 36th Street in midtown Manhattan is an entertaining production. It still suffers from its attempt to deal with too many different issues, ranging from transgenderism to breast cancer, from religious fervor to infertility, from the consequences of unprotected sex to mental retardation, from alcoholism to psychological delusion, and on and on – and from its predictability. But the play is no longer too far ahead of the times: issues that were only on the periphery of society’s awareness in the 1950s and 1970s (e.g. transgenderism and breast cancer) are now front and center in our consciousness.
To be sure, the play is very dated in the attitudes it exposes but that is to be expected. It is, after all, a memory play reflecting public attitudes in 1955 and 1975, back when sex and gender were virtually interchangeable terms, when transgendered persons were indistinguishable from hermaphrodites, and when breast cancer was an embarrassment. We’ve come a long way since then (even if not quite far enough) but the play is very effective in reminding us of how things once were.
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean revolves around the members of a James Dean Fan Club, The Disciples, who reunite at a Five and Dime store in McCarthy, Texas in 1975 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the death of the actor James Dean who was filming Giant in Marfa, not far from McCarthy, at the time of his death. Mona (Nicole Greevy in 1975 and Linnsey Lewis in 1955) was the president of the club, was and still is its most forceful member, revels in the recollection of what she perceives as having been her greatest achievement (that she actually was chosen to be an extra in Giant), and is the mother of a son named Jimmy Dean whose paternity is uncertain. Sissy (Ariana Figueroa in 1975 and Sonja Gabrielsen in 1955) is the most sexually promiscuous of the bunch and takes the most pride in the size of her breasts. Back in 1955, Mona, Sissy and their sexually ambivalent male friend, Joe (Elliot Frances Flynn), enjoyed lip-synching to performances of the Maguire Sisters.
Juanita (Monica Rey) manages the Five and Dime but doesn’t seem much involved in the Disciples’ activities. Stella May (Kristin Sgarro) is the Disciple who married an oilman and made it big – if financial wealth is your measure of success. On the other hand, Edna (Rebecca Miller) may be the one who really made it big – if one is to go by the size of her belly: when she shows up for the reunion, she is pregnant with her seventh child.
Which only leaves Joanne (Chris Clark), the unrecognizable stately woman in high heels who arrives in a yellow Porsche. But I bet you can guess who she really is.
As the play wears on, each of the characters gets to reveal her secrets and their performances and disclosures are generally entertaining. It is fun and I did enjoy it. But it is still totally predictable and platitudinous and there are no blockbuster surprises.