Rewriting Porter? It’s a Scandal! … Pity Downey’s Two Hip Chicks

Forget about light bulb jokes. The question now is, How many

Broadway pros does it take to cause a complete power failure? Answer: all of the misguided people it took to put together High Society . This numbing musical is so bad, it makes you consider taking back some of the things you said about The Capeman .

Just about everything goes wrong in this ill-advised attempt to turn Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story into a musical croquet match. When M-G-M tried it back in 1956, moving the action from Philadelphia’s Main Line to Newport, R.I., with a sparkling score by Cole Porter, they mined box-office gold. It was a great idea because the setting included the Newport Jazz Festival, providing Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong with an opportunity to blast off musically. The ragtag Broadway version that just opened at the St. James Theater not only dumps one of the score’s most swinging tunes, “Now You Has Jazz,” but digs up superfluous Porter tunes from other shows for padding.

Transferring the action to Oyster Bay, L.I., in 1938, for reasons nobody can decipher, is bad enough. Nobody does anything in Oyster Bay but guzzle martinis until they’re stinking drunk. Just about everybody on stage in High Society falls over the lawn furniture in various states of inebriation while massacring Cole Porter, but worse than that, they are barbecuing the wrong lyrics. Any time a creative team behind a Cole Porter show figures they’ve got to rewrite and therefore improve Cole Porter, then, folks, we’ve got trouble in River City.

As Tracy Samantha Lord, a glacial beauty who lacks “an understanding heart,” Katharine Hepburn made it difficult for future generations of lithe and languorous actresses to attempt the role she made famous (although I admit Dorothy McGuire once triumphed and even topped her). At M-G-M, Grace Kelly tackled the musical version with a range of about eight notes, so the current collaborators understandably had to alter just about everything to provide a repertoire suitable for the accomplished Melissa Errico, including a few numbers made famous by Ethel Merman and others.

This is a good thing, because Ms. Errico can sing out, Louise. This is also a bad thing, because songs like “Ridin’ High,” “Let’s Misbehave” and “It’s All Right With Me” are not only irrelevant and better suited to a cabaret act, but intrude rudely on the proceedings and do nothing to move the plot along. Everything, from the tin-can arrangements by William David Brohn to the additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, seems to be in slow motion. Everything is sung at the wrong tempo; a song like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” sung so charmingly by Mr. Sinatra and Celeste Holm in the movie High Society , cries out for pace. Even polished pros like Randy Graff and Stephen Bogardus find themselves swimming through sludge like crustaceans crawling their way out of a gumbo pot.

Toiling laboriously to overcome it is the cast, including Mr. Bogardus as Mike, the reporter covering Tracy’s wedding; Marc Kudisch as George, the stuffed-shirt fiancé everyone hates; and sun-kissed Daniel McDonald as Dexter, the dapper, mischievous ex-husband, fresh from Steel Pier and none the worse for wear. They’re fine as can be in a production that confines them to dinner jackets that serve more like straitjackets, but only John McMartin as the tipsy, addled, girl-chasing Uncle Willie brings any fresh character ideas to the limp proceedings.

Much has been made of Anna Kendrick as Tracy’s kid sister Dinah. She’s a Little Iodine who mugs annoyingly and belts like Merman in Mary Jane shoes, but when a child the size of a marzipan pineapple steals an entire Broadway show, you know there’s disaster in every other corner of the stage. What kind of desperate, delusional director would ask a road company Annie to sing “I Love Paris” from Can-Can ? I saw it. I heard it. I still don’t believe it.

As the centerpiece of this highfalutin fiasco, Melissa Errico is a Technicolor dream, but the magic she brought to the Encores! production of One Touch of Venus is, through no fault of hers, never duplicated. You have to work hard (or hardly work) to make Ms. Errico look flat-chested, but her 30’s gowns work as cruel sabotage, while Ms. Graff, as the cynical Eve Arden clone from a scandal magazine, wears nothing but ugly stripes that make her look like a moving cafe awning. Meanwhile, the boring gaps between boring scenes are bridged by an eight-member household staff that seems to have wandered in from a musical version of Upstairs, Downstairs . They’ve all been directed (clumsily, if you ask me, by Christopher Renshaw) to milk every attitude for maximum phoniness. Despite the magnums of champagne consumed on stage, the fizz is missing.

The sets, the skies, the Long Island sunsets, the furniture, even the proscenium arches all look like melted sorbets. (The predominant color is seasick green.) I’ve never seen so many nauseating plastic cabbage roses. They’ve taken the ginger out of Philip Barry and decimated all memories of the snap in the M-G-M musical. Were Barry alive today to see what they’ve done to his High Society , he’d probably make a citizen’s arrest. This may be the best senior-class musical ever produced in South Bend, Ind. It is not, by any stretch, good enough for the standards we’ve come to expect from Broadway.

Pity Downey’s Two Hip Chicks

Robert Downey Jr. is out of jail and on his way to being clean and sober. (One hopes, in the process, he rediscovers the talent that earned him justifiable praise for Chaplin .) Unfortunately, his first movie since he kicked all those well-publicized drugs could send him back to rehab out of sheer depression. It’s called Two Girls and a Guy and, in my opinion, it’s unactable, unthinkable and unreleasable. I don’t know what kind of shape the actor was in when he made it, but he looks like he’s hanging from a light fixture. If you’re one of the unfortunate victims who actually sits through it, you may just want to hang yourself.

In this piece of pretentious trash, two hip chicks are waiting on the doorstep of a New York loft for their boyfriends to come in from the airport. When they discover they are waiting for the same guy, they don’t just hail a taxi and write him off as a lost cause. They break into his apartment and wait for sweet revenge on the lying, cheating, manipulating, two-timing jerk who has betrayed them both. Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner are beautiful and feisty. Mr. Downey is the conniving pathological liar they love. And they spend the next hour and a half talking themselves to death in a film that was shot in 11 days and looks it.

Hamming it up outrageously in the worst performance on the screen this year, Mr. Downey is so obnoxiously self-indulgent it’s a total mystery why either of these foxy babes saw anything in him in the first place. How many people in your experience do you know who come home after a long plane trip and sing the entire song “You Don’t Know Me”? Don’t you check the fridge to see if the milk is bad? Don’t you rifle through the mail or check the answering machine? This egomaniac bellows and croons off-key. He lounges naked in the bathtub. He phones his neurotic mother every 10 minutes. He crawls around on the floor in his underwear, puffy, overweight and unshaven, covered with pimples. In the rare instances when he runs out of business, he even smears himself with chocolate syrup. It’s a performance I can only describe as repulsive.

The girls call him “creep” and “scumbag,” and that’s just the nice part. Still, they beg him for sex. They even make a stab at a three-way. (Ms. Wagner’s character confesses she’s a part-time lesbian anyway, but Ms. Graham’s character passes.) Everyone mewls and whines and screams. When attention lags, they throw things. That passes for acting. And it’s all been directed and written (as if one sin were not enough) by James Toback, whose lack of talent is surpassed only by his megalomania. As a writer, his dialogue is nothing more than numbing amateur psychobabble. As a director, he allows the actors to throw themselves all over the place in one claustrophobic room with a minimum of blocking and a maximum of confusion.

Nothing in Two Girls and a Guy is believable or real or natural. It’s a pointless waste of time, and all I could think of was what Ms. Wagner’s mother–the late, great Natalie Wood–would make of all this.