Kimball’s Beale Street Has No Soul

But the book scenes—and even the more intimate songs—are duds, sapped of energy, conviction or, in many cases, the dialogue’s humor. “It’ll make Birdie the hottest soldier since Joan of Arc,” to pick one example, got not a titter on the night I attended.

(A quick recap of the plot, for those who’ve somehow missed it: Albert Peterson, an erstwhile aspiring English teacher, is a songwriter and manager with an overbearing mother, a secretary-slash-girlfriend and one big client, Conrad Birdie, an Elvis-inspired teen idol about to be inducted into the Army. In an inspired PR gimmick, they pick a member of Birdie’s fan club—Kim McAfee, of Sweet Apple, Ohio, who has a nutty father flummoxed by teenagers—to be the recipient of one final kiss from Birdie, bestowed on The Ed Sullivan Show. Hijinks ensue.)

John Stamos does his best Dick Van Dyke impression as Albert Peterson, and Gina Gershon, who lacks the skills to impersonate Chita Rivera, is at least eager and game as the secretary Rosie. (Game enough to strip down to lacy black underwear for no particular reason near the start of the second act.) The kids are more than all right, especially Allie Trimm as Kim McAfee.

Jane Houdyshell is, as always, funny and charismatic as Albert’s mother (though it’s tough to understand why the all-American Mae Peterson, horrified that her son might marry Spanish Rose, is played as a Yiddische Mama). Bill Irwin is hilarious, employing his clowning shtick liberally and making Harry McAfee sound like Paul Lynde, who originated the role, as channeled by Martin Short, arms waving, legs caving, voice flying high and low. He’s also in a different show, performing a vaudeville that seems to have wandered in from another theater, or a different decade.

That sloppiness in Mr. Longbottom’s direction is evident throughout the show. (When Sweet Apple goes weak at the knees for Birdie’s first performance there, should it really be the one black teenager who gets the line about being reduced to “a snarling, raging, panting jungle beast?”)

Birdie is a silly, light-as-air construction, but his version rarely takes flight.

 

I’VE NEVER TAKEN an acting class, and after seeing Annie Baker’s terrific new Circle Mirror Transformation, which opened early last week at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, I can’t decide if I’m desperate to enroll in one or terrified of what might happen there.

This small, meticulously constructed and very funny drama transpires through six weekly community-center acting classes in the small (and fictional) town of Shirley, Vermont. Four students and one New Agey instructor engage in a series of acting exercises, trying to count to 10 aloud and undirected without speaking over each other; reciting each other’s life stories; completing each other’s sentences; impersonating beds, trees and baseball mitts; and, in one wrenching scene, writing down secrets, shuffling the slips of paper, and then each reading a secret from a slip of paper.

What starts as surreal and lightly funny becomes first comprehensible and then serious and then heartbreaking. Nothing happens—it’s just a bunch of community-center classes—and yet huge things happen: The characters bare their psyches, break down, rebuild themselves.

The five skilled actors give tightly controlled but accessible performances, allowing you to see them as they realize they’re exposing themselves. Tracee Chimo as the 16-year-old Lauren is extraordinary, channeling the smart, awkward teenager’s discomfort and resentment with tiny bits of body language and facial movement, occasionally loosening up and allowing the sullen shield to fall. (The others are Dierde O’Connell as Marty, the instructor; Peter Friedman, as her husband, James; Reed Birney as Schultz, recently divorced and installed to the local condo complex; and Heidi Schreck as Theresa, an actress in her 30s who has moved to Vermont after leaving a bad relationship in New York.)

The direction, by Sam Gold, is nimble: The actors move gracefully through the sometimes-sprawling exercises; the tension builds expertly and then finally releases. There’s no action here, but there’s a huge emotional punch.