There are no accidents, said Dr. Jung, though he was never a drama critic. But what accounts for the phenomenon of two productions of The Wild Party ? Unless, that is, Joseph Moncure March’s 1926 jazz-age poem about druggy, tragic decadence is coincidentally the spirit of our times.
Yet March’s quite renowned syncopated opening to his cult poem might be heralding nothing more debauched than a nursery rhyme:
Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still
And she danced twice a day in vaudeville.
Lips like coals aglow.
Her face was a tinted mask of snow.
As you may know, the first production of The Wild Party , with book, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, is at the Manhattan Theater Club. The second musical version has been adapted by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe, and is to open on Broadway next month.
Now there’s a thing! Years ago in England, there were two simultaneous film versions of the Oscar Wilde story. Knowing England’s obsession with Wilde, the surprise is that there weren’t six other versions, at least. One starred Robert Morley as Wilde, the other Peter Finch. The feeling was that Finch was wrong but his film was right, whereas Morley was right but his film was wrong. It was a draw.
The Manhattan Theater Club’s decision not to transfer its Wild Party to Broadway, as it had originally hoped to do, is probably prudent. (And we are spared the indignity of the Broadway battle of the parties.) The M.T.C. production, I’m afraid, has too many weaknesses to triumph on the jazzy, dangerous edge. Still it is a cut above the usual fare, even in its heartfelt desperation to please, to knock our socks off the old-fashioned way and raise the roof. But there’s a gaping difference between March’s chic decadence and Mr. Lippa’s showbizzy version of it.
The heartbeat of the story is a tragic one: The heroine Queenie (played by Julia Murney) and her lover, the near-psychotic clown, Burrs (Brian d’Arcy James), throw a party for their debauched friends. They include Oscar and Phil, the twin brothers and incestuous lovers; Eddie the boxer and his equally dumb broad, Mae; Nadine, a minor; Delores, the hooker; Madelaine, the predatory dyke.
What else, may we ask, is new? There’s also the cokehead and ex-whore Kate (Idina Menzel), who brings along the cool, handsome Black (Taye Diggs), a nightclub doorman. Black and Queenie fall in love; Kate makes a play for Burrs, who’s obsessed with Queenie. The outcome is inevitable bloodshed.
The urge to play the story as melodrama has proved too tempting for its creator-composer, who has ambushed himself–and the production, alas–in sentimentality. One should not get soppy about sewers. (And March’s original poem is clear-eyed about its hellishness.) Music pours out of the talented Mr. Lippa, but it is not always the right music. Here a touch of Sondheim in the night, there a rousing, cynical Kander and Ebb moment, and there again the big generic ballad of mighty emotion and small thought.
I thought I liked this man
And liked this place
But I’ve been feeling like
I need a change of pace.
“Too many notes!” the Emperor Joseph said famously of Mozart. Then perhaps I’m just as mistaken about Mr. Lippa by saying he has too many words. He’s giddy-busy- dizzy with words. He drowns us in rhyme without reason. “Faintly/ Quaintly/ She looked almost saintly.”
“Sensitive and hard/ One girl forever scarred.”
“Generous and tight/ One more girl lost in the night.” Generous and tight ?
Then again, in one line–a breathless gulp–he manages to rhyme vicious with wishes with ambitious with capricious with delicious. Which isn’t so felicitous.
Ideally, the director, Gabriel Barre, should have reined in Mr. Lippa’s excesses. Including the proforma showbiz turn of Kate as a cokehead version of gutsy Mama Rose in Gypsy . “Point me to the sky/ It’s my turn to fly!” To which one snootily thinks, “Is it, indeed?” (Or worse: “Yeah, sure.”)
Skip the scene when Kate sits on a toilet and takes a pee with convenient sound effects. See it as a shallow emblem. Too little in this Wild Party is truly earned–reducing its erotic potential, for blatant example, to the knee-jerk Bob Fosse reference book. If it’s slither, it’s Fosse. If it’s dykedom, it’s a suit. Hence, the old broad in a suit who sings about needing a good old-fashioned lesbian love story–an amusing novelty number, but in the wrong show, if truth be told.
Mr. Barre has achieved fine work with his scenic designer David Gallo and lighting designer Kenneth Posner, who’ve re-created the muddy, fractured subworld of the original poem very effectively. The cast all but knocks itself out for us, too. But in the end, I’m afraid, the piece is just too gooey at its soft, sentimental center, and all the tempting invitations to the party–”Time to have some fun, time to beat the sun!”–don’t make it a wild one, more’s the pity.
Tale of the Neurotic Wife
And so to the Manhattan Theater Club’s Stage II production of Charles Busch’s comedy of Upper West Side manners, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife , directed by Lynne Meadow. Let me tiptoe into the minefield by saying that many of my esteemed colleagues have found it to be as intelligently hilarious as any Stoppard, Neil Simon or Shaw comedy rolled into one, and I wish that I could join them. But The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife struck me as a coarse kind of sitcom with only jokes about prunes missing from its Borsht Belt bathroom humor. That it should have come from the pen of that likable downtown drag artist, Mr. Busch, is the most surprising thing about it.
And by now, Ms. Meadow, who is also the artistic director of the Manhattan Theater Club, will, understandably, wish to have me killed. But if David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers , the super comedy that began its mad life at M.T.C.’s Stage II, was fresh and young, Mr. Busch’s comedy is stale and middle-aged. There’s no youth in it–in the sense that Jewish stereotypes are invariably never youthful. The Catskills are in it instead.
It concerns neurotic Marjorie (Linda Lavin), an Upper West Side wannabe intellectual and failed novelist, who’s in loud, nervous collapse after the death of her therapist. She is said to be the kind of pushy woman we might meet at Zabar’s. She’s the kind we avoid at Zabar’s. It’s like spending time with Judge Judy. Marjorie’s husband is a schlumpy retired allergist, Ira (Tony Roberts); her mother from hell, Frieda (Shirl Bernheim), is the one with the bowel problems, announcing before dinner with the family: “For days I’ve had the worst diarrhea, just like brown liquid.” Which gets laughs. As Marjorie puts it, “What do I know?” I know it isn’t for me. It might just be for you. When Marjorie’s delusional childhood friend Lee (Michele Lee)–who says she slept with Günter Grass–enters the unpleasantly bickering household, I perked up a bit. But my hopes were sunk with the retelling of a joke, which says more about Mr. Busch’s wit than Mr. Busch would wish.
Ira, the allergist, tells a mildly amusing story about a child asking why a dog is standing behind another. “One dog is sick and the other is pushing her to Mount Sinai,” goes the punch line.
Compare it to the original version by Noël Coward, which happens to be true. He was staying with the Oliviers when their 5-year-old daughter, Tamsin, saw a male dog sniffing a female dog in the street. She asked Uncle Noël what the animals were doing. “The doggie in front,” he replied, “has suddenly gone blind, and the other one has very kindly offered to push him all the way to St. Dunstan’s.”
There’s a difference, no?