Nichols, Freeman Can't Make Country Girl Awake and Sing

heilpern countrygirl2 Nichols, Freeman Can't Make Country Girl Awake and SingAnd so it’s back to the ’50s (again). “All plays are dated,” Harold Clurman wrote in steadfast support of Clifford Odets in 1970. “They are products of their time.” Yes; but everything depends on how much the dated-ness shows.

In the current Broadway revival of Odets’econd to last play, The Country Girl, it shows too much. Odets himself described the play as superficial, and he is correct. Even Clurman, who first produced the revolutionary conscience plays of Odets in the 1930s when they worked together at the Group Theatre, conceded that The Country Girl is more about the actors in it than the play—or potboiler—itself.

A popular Broadway success in its day, it’s a backstage story, and it’s an actor’s piece. In the 1950 premiere, Uta Hagen played Georgie Elgin, the long-suffering wife of Frank, the alcoholic actor who’s making a comeback. In the London premiere—under the title Winter Journey—Michael Redgrave played Frank. In the wrecked Hollywood incarnation in 1955, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly starred. In the 1972 Broadway revival, it was Maureen Stapleton and Jason Robards.

Which brings me to the current revival directed by Mike Nichols—an iconic name that’s widely believed to guarantee high quality, but in fact his stylishly shallow theater work is more like show business mistaken for Art. Star casts are his calling card. (The Nichols motto: “Don’t ask for the moon; we have the stars.”) In that sense The Country Girl—lowbrow Odets masquerading as highbrow—is perfect for him.

The famous director has cast the famous Morgan Freeman as washed-up Frank, the famous Frances McDormand as his wife, and the nearly famous Peter Gallagher as the ambitious theater director who’s worshiped Frank since childhood and offers him a last chance to return to the stage in a starring role.

Mr. Nichols has also brought in the quite famous playwright Jon Robin Baitz as an uncredited script doctor. May it never happen to the lesser plays of Mr. Baitz! Mr. Nichols has been working in Hollywood too long. He obviously thinks The Country Girl needs a little improvement for today’s audiences—tinkering adjustments, cuts, whatever. Either Mr. Nichols believes wholeheartedly in the integrity of Odets’ play, or he doesn’t. If he doesn’t—don’t direct the play.

 

THE COUNTRY GIRL remains second-rate just the same. It pales in comparison to another backstage story of 1950 (the movie All About Eve). It has none of the natural street poetry of Odets’ early Awake and Sing (“Cut your throat, sweetheart. Save time”), or the incendiary conscience of his one-act agitprop Waiting for Lefty. (Both were written in 1935.) The Country Girl wasn’t created by Odets the lyrical prophet of theater, but the conflicted Odets of Hollywood and moral compromise.

He hadn’t lost his talent (two years after The Country Girl, he co-wrote the screenplay for the masterly film noir Sweet Smell of Success); he just wrote a bad play. Its bloated themes—salvation and redemption through Art; the venality and mystery of theater—come on the cheap and are plain unbelievable.

At the outset, we’re asked to believe that a young, passionate director would stake his career on hiring a former leading actor to star in a Broadway play even though he’s been on a bender for a decade and can no longer memorize lines.

The director blames the actor’s wife for his alcoholism, and they battle backstage for control of his soul. (“He has the magic to transform a mere show into Theater with a capital ‘T’!”) Without warning—or sense—they fall in love late in the second act. She resists. (“You can’t believe that, can you, you goddamn man! You can’t believe a woman’s crazy-out-of-her-mind to live alone! In one room! By herself!”) He learns something about her (she isn’t really the former runner-up to Miss America who slit her wrists twice that Frank says she is).

Finally—against the steepest odds!—all is well on Frank’s big opening night when he miraculously recovers his talent and triumphs on good old Broadway. His wife—the well-read country girl who, it turns out, sacrificed her life for him—will stick by her man, as always.

Yesterday’s saint is today’s enabler.

 

THE RETRO PRODUCTION isn’t helped by Mr. Nichols’ ponderous scene changes as a stately red velvet curtain unfolds. The director’s choice of background music for Odets’ emotionally turbulent drama is wrong. (The soothing Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and “Satchmo.”) More to point, his three stars aren’t acting on the same planet.

It’s a pleasure, even so, to see Morgan Freeman, now 70, onstage again. There has been some controversy about a black actor playing a white one in a white milieu. But Mr. Freeman is a master, I believe, at playing human beings.

Alas, his innate humaneness and dignity are his undoing here. Cast against type, Mr. Freeman never unravels enough to reveal the terror of an actor on the brink of self-destruction. His mild Frank Elgin is more inconvenienced than soul-sick. Even when he’s abusively lying through his teeth about his wife, Mr. Freeman charms us. He has the magic his character is supposed to have lost.

Frances McDormand’s performance is self-conscious and strangely flat in her predictable notion of frumpy stoicism. She delivers the curtain line “The theater is a mystery” as if saying “Life sucks and what’s it to you?” She conveys the right note of toughness and resignation, but there’s no subtext in her, no secrets.

The Act II scenes between Peter Gallagher’s manic, chain-smoking theater director and Ms. McDormand kick some life into the production. Mr. Gallagher’s old-style director would make an excellent Julian Marsh in 42nd Street (“… you’ve got to come back a star!”). But I’m afraid the stars of The Country Girl never look like saving the play.

 

AND SO IT’S back to the ’50s again—positively for the last time this season! Cry-Baby, based on the John Waters’ movie, an unswervingly ironic musical spoof of romance across the tracks in the Elvis era, has opened at the Marquis on Broadway.

Why?