Boy and Bag Lady: Hit the Sheets

Everything old is new again. On stage and screen, the new season is looking like an old season, without a shred of originality in sight. While Broadway gears up for yet another Little Women with songs, theater sages are hitching, hiking and grifting their way out to the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey to catch Harold and Maude: The Musical, the latest version of Hal Ashby’s offbeat 1971 movie comedy about a twisted love affair between a morosely unhappy teenage boy obsessed with suicide and a dotty 80-year-old woman attracted to funerals. The movie, which starred the irrepressible Ruth Gordon, was slaughtered by the critics 25 years ago (“All the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage,” yelled Variety), but it struck such a sympathetic chord with young moviegoers that some fans initiated their own tree-planting drives in honor of the Maude character (whose many eccentricities included uprooting sick trees and replanting them anyplace that pleased her, leaving holes all over the landscape). For some odd reason that has always eluded me, Harold and Maude achieved anti-establishment cult status, though none of its incarnations have ever hit pay dirt at the box office. Its DVD release was a bomb, and its 1980 Broadway outing, starring the legendary Janet Gaynor, closed in three days. Yet here we go again, with so many swell folks knocking themselves out searching for a new way to make the world’s most unconventional couple palatable to a mass audience that it grieves me to report how close they have come and how sadly they have failed.

Tastes have changed, but at a time when an innocent pat on the shoulder is sometimes misconstrued as pedophilia, I’m not sure how many adults will cotton to the idea of a less-than-platonic relationship between a teenage boy and a woman four decades older. Not to worry. The texture of this show has the lightness of a soufflé, so there is nothing excessive or tasteless about it. When Harold and Maude finally hit the sheets, the instant blackout brings an audible sigh of relief from the audience. This is partially because of the two leads, who are cheerfully engaging throughout, even when they aren’t supposed to be. Mostly, they just sing and dance and have a good time together, as long as the outside world leaves them alone without interference. Harold, played by tall, gangly, moon-faced Eric Millegan, has a disquieting uneasiness that is touching. Maude is 77-year-old Estelle Parsons, a revered veteran of stage and screen with enough charm to fill the shoes of several sexy octogenarians. She even plays the banjo. The book and lyrics are by the mega-talented Tom Jones, whose memorable scores include The Fantasticks, 110 in the Shade and I Do, I Do!, among others. His longtime collaborator, Harvey Schmidt, has been replaced temporarily by newcomer Joseph Thalken. They know what they’re doing, and you root for them to do it better. After a long lull, in a musical number in Act II called “Song in My Pocket,” Harold and Maude play washboards, spoons, buckets and a flour sifter, the show comes to life, and your feet start moving. So what is wrong with this picture? What took them so long? Why is it all so disappointing?

For starters, nobody bothered to explain these people. Harold is a sad sack whose pickle face has amusing expressions. He’s nagged by a rich, arrogant mother who is so self-centered that when he hangs himself from a noose in the opening scene, all she can think about is the fact that his white socks don’t match his blue suit. He’s rumpled, misunderstood, terminally depressed and funny. The casual way he pretends to chop off his arm with a meat cleaver to terrify one of the prospective girlfriends his mother has chosen for him is a nice piece of business that reveals more about Harold’s wacky sense of humor than any of his dialogue. No wonder Harold is expelled from school for burning down the chemistry lab. For entertainment, he hangs out at funerals.

One day, in a church pew, he meets Maude, a fellow mourner. An ebullient crone with a youthful vitality, she brings out a zest for life in Harold that he didn’t know he had. Maude has lived a lot; Harold hasn’t lived at all. But in an attempt to keep it floating like feathers, Mr. Jones has eliminated the dark elements of Maude’s past that shaped her free spirit. In Colin Higgins’ novel (and in earlier versions of the script), Maude turns out to be a Holocaust survivor who buried a lot of loved ones and decided long ago never to let life get the best of her again. We need that character development here. It would help to understand why she dedicates herself to living life to the hilt regardless of public opinion. With nothing more than her eccentricity on display, she comes off like a homeless bag lady too reckless for her own safety. Without clues, Maude’s gaudy wackiness qualifies her for a straitjacket audition. Estelle Parsons is a fine actress I admire greatly, but she is not a musical-comedy star, and there are times when her shaky voice sounds like something disastrous on the Richter scale. Costumed in high heels and gypsy skirts with a rag around her head to resemble Ruth Gordon, she unfortunately looks more like Maria Ouspenskaya stirring the campfire cauldron in The Wolf Man. Ms. Gordon didn’t have to act eccentric; loopy mannerisms were her trademarks. Ms. Parsons is a logical, moment-to-moment Method actress from the Actors Studio. To her, kookiness does not come naturally. She has to work for it, and sometimes it seems that she is working too hard. Then, just when you’re ready to fall for Maude yourself, she ups and dies on her 80th birthday. Bittersweet? Or just plain bitter? The audience doesn’t leave walking happy. Worse still, Mark S. Hoebee’s direction reduces everything-from Maude’s tree house to her wild driving sprees in stolen cars with the cops in hot pursuit-to a series of moving projections in small frames that are dwarfed by the unused stage. The show is too small for the proscenium that engulfs it. The result is like watching a 16-millimeter film projected in a tiny frame on an Imax screen.

The slim saga of Harold and Maude has always worn its heart on its sleeve. As a musical, it now asks you to take its whimsical simplicity at face value. The bland results pose more questions than the show can answer. Harold and Maude: The Musical is a sweet confection with obvious ambitions, and I wish it the best of luck, but even with all that talent on board, there is still work to be done before it’s ready for Broadway.

Cop Land

At the movies, things are doubly dismal. The violent, pointless B-movie Assault on Precinct 13 is not just a remake; it’s two remakes. The tired old good-cop/bad-cop theme was originally made by John Carpenter in 1976. Before that, it was Howard Hawks’ 1959 John Wayne shoot-’em-up Rio Bravo, which was set in a frontier jail instead of a Los Angeles police station. (The third time around the block, French director Jean-François Richet and screenwriter James DeMonaco have moved the action to Michigan. Don’t ask.) Any way you endure it, it’s the cinematic equivalent of one of the trials of Job. Looking cadaverous since Training Day (is this actor O.K., or is it just bad teeth?), Ethan Hawke has grown from rookie cop to such an expert at violence and sadism that he has been forced to see a shrink ever since he was responsible for the deaths of his fellow officers in a drug sting. In fact, the psychological scars have reduced him to the status of a pill-popping desk sergeant in an obscure, rundown station house on the outskirts of Detroit that is closing down forever. While you may think there is no fate quite as horrifying as New Year’s Eve in a Detroit snowstorm, things are definitely about to get worse. In the middle of a blinding blizzard, a crime boss (Laurence Fishburne) knocks off an undercover cop in a church and gets thrown into a prison-bound bus full of handcuffed inmates who are forced to make an emergency stop at Mr. Hawke’s ill-fated Precinct 13 when their vehicle turns over in a snowdrift. Suddenly the cops who were getting loaded on champagne are invaded by the biggest gang of clichés since Stagecoach. The crotchety old cop (Brian Dennehy), the oversexed precinct secretary (Drea de Matteo), the nervous junkie (John Leguizamo), the overweight safecracker (rapper Ja Rule) and Mr. Hawke’s cynical blond psychiatrist (Maria Bello) face double jeopardy when, at the stroke of midnight, the station house is surrounded by a demon force of crooked cops with state-of-the-art weapons. The gang leader is the chief of Organized Crime and Racketeering (Gabriel Byrne), who is hell-bent on wiping out everyone inside. With the computers packed, the electricity dead, the cell-phone frequencies blocked and the alarms dismantled, the outnumbered good cops have no choice but to team up with their prisoners to survive the assault by the rogue cops. On one budget-saving set, with a silly plot that gets more preposterous by the minute, Ethan Hawke regains his lost courage and gets tough, while the rest of the cast sinks to the level of television-series caricatures.

Lean On Moi?

The Chorus ( Les Choristes) is a popular French sudser from last year-based on another crowd-pleasing Gallic tearjerker entitled La Cage aux Rossignols-about a shapeless, unremarkable supervisor in a postwar boarding school for “difficult children” that is aptly named Fond de l’Etang (“Rock Bottom”). Clement Mathieu, a failed musician who has reached his own brick wall in life, arrives at the imposing school, where he is shocked to find the harsh conditions enforced by a cruel, mean-spirited principal who practices the “action-reaction” theory of education. (Translation: “Break the rules, suffer severe consequences.”) Small wonder that the school is famous for punishment, despair and even suicide. The students are a sad lot-runaways, juvenile delinquents, some orphans with no future-but Mathieu, like Spencer Tracy in Boys’ Town, tames them with patience, compassion and understanding. Instead of solitary confinement, he assigns constructive work projects. The reckless boy who injured the janitor, for instance, is recruited to the infirmary to nurse his victim back to health. Alors! These reprobates have never experienced this kind of democratic civics lesson before. Could this be a grown-up they can trust?

Mathieu also hears something in their voices he might be able to turn into a choir. Needless to say, his greatest challenge, a boy named Pierre, turns out to be the most talented singer of them all-with a pretty mother, too. The principal goes ballistic. The choir is forced to rehearse in secret. But, lo! By the time Mathieu finishes, they sound as clarion-clear as the Vienna Boys Choir and CD-ready. The story, told in flashbacks to 1949 by the successful, adult Pierre, has a happy ending. The cutest orphan got a dad, the principal got the sack and virtue conquered evil. What happened to Mathieu is anybody’s guess. But Gerard Jugnot, plain as dumpling dough, plays him splendidly. Movies about saintly teachers who specialize in the rehabilitation of lost causes have always proved to be favorite fodder for moviemakers. From Blackboard Jungle to The Bad News Bears, they come assembly-kit ready with their own thrills and tears. The Chorus is a dozen of them put together. Well acted by the kids and adults alike, and directed convincingly but without a trace of artistry by Christophe Barratier, it is cuddly, sentimental and harmless. And you will forget everything about it a week from Sunday.