Would someone write a great role for the great J. Smith-Cameron? True, this delightful actress is currently playing three roles in Elaine May’s “three new plays” that make up After the Night and the Music at the Biltmore on Broadway. But a sketch isn’t a play any more than a pavement artist is a painter, and I’m afraid the lame evening serves only to remind us that Ms. Smith-Cameron’s warm, generous talent deserves so much better than this.
The lady, without doubt, is one of our very best and wittiest actresses. Those who remember her sparkling performances in modern comedies like As Bees in Honey Drown and Fuddy Mears will know that she possesses a genius for suggesting the wacko without seeming to try. She rings true in everything she does, even in this sputtering, dated stuff from the blunted pen of Elaine May. She can pull off the considerable trick of appearing to be both serious and off-center, like her name. Audiences always embrace her because we’re always glad to see her. J. Smith-Cameron, keep going. We love you. What more can I say?
Well, I’m duty bound to say that Ms. May’s signature deadpan neurotics of a certain age belong to another era. Which era? References to Zoloft should fool no one. The angst on display in these dispiriting vignettes is circa 1950. Ms. May is, of course, the legend whose improvisations with Mike Nichols during the 50’s have passed into comedy folklore. But After the Night and the Music conveys no inspired sense of fizzing improvisation, no daring. With the exception of the short, charming opener-or doodle-it’s a static, familiar evening that never lifts off.
The evening opens with “Curtain Raiser,” as it’s called, which promises fun at least. Its “plot” is best forgotten, and it will be. Lonely singles meet in a dance hall. (Does that happen any more? Do “dance halls” even exist?) Anyway, attractive dyke sits sulkily at the bar. Short, balding, straight nebbish asks her to dance. He used to be a dance instructor, apparently, but nobody wanted to dance with him. They still don’t.
“I’m gay,” says Gloria (Ms. Smith-Cameron). “I don’t dance well. And I can only lead.”
“That’s O.K.,” Keith (the delightful Joel Blum) replies hopefully. “I can follow.”
“Hey, give me a break.”
They do dance, of course. (To “Dancing in the Dark,” if you please). And if they’re no Fred and Ginger, their awkwardness and resentment take lovely, romantic flight. It’s an odd and appealing sketch. We’re actually left beaming at two misfits dancing onstage together the old-fashioned way.
Then comes the downer about depressives in “Giving Up Smoking,” with Ms. May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin, playing lonelyheart Joanne. Ms. Berlin possesses a schleppy appeal and weird timing, as if she’s constantly surprised by her own state of being, or by life. Joanne has given up smoking (in itself a tired theme) and, like everyone else in the little playlet, she’s waiting for the phone to ring. Ms. Berlin only has to say the words “Here’s why I’m not depressed” to have us laughing. But the laughs are surprisingly thin. They keep promising to come.
“Parts of me are probably dead from wanting things I never got or got too late,” Joanne tells us about herself. “But here’s the good news. Who wants those parts? Who wants to want something so much? Isn’t it great to think no matter how much you want something, if you wait just five minutes … or five days … or five years … you won’t want it anymore. Oh, shit. Now I want a cigarette. The other thing to remember is …. ”
And so on, and so on. But look at the moaning monologists in the rest of the piece. There’s Joanne’s friend Sherman, or Shermie-another lonelyheart-who’s a hissy queen sobbing to The Wizard of Oz (oh, please). There’s divorced Mel, who plays the guitar because it helps him to get women “over 35.” (It does?) And there’s Shermie’s sad mom, the lonely widower Kathleen (played by the stalwart J. Smith-Cameron). Mom tells us about her metastasized cancer, which just about stops the night dead in its tracks, and she reminisces about her wonderful husband who played the accordion. “He would stroke my hair and say, ‘I wish I could give some of this feeling to charity. I have so much of it I can hardly breathe.’ Pretty poetic for a man who didn’t finish high school.”
On the other hand, pretty awful for a man who plays the accordion. It depends how you look at it. Ms. May’s choices seem like arbitrary space fillers, mawkishly “poignant” blah. “He called me his beautiful blonde colleen”-colleen?-“right up to the night he died,” she goes on. “He would serenade me and we would sing together. He had the best voice, Joe. And we had our song … it’s so pretty … I want you to hear this.”
“Giving Up Smoking” revolves around the busy signal of telephones. The age of text-messaging, or even call waiting, has yet to be invented in Ms. May’s universe. Count your blessings. The closing piece, “Swing Time,” is from the Stone Age. It’s an embarrassing skit about two married couples swapping partners-or “swinging,” as they used to say in the age of Viva Zapata mustaches. The action, such as it is, also depends on a phone call. And why not? We’re used to it. Ms. Smith-Cameron does all she possibly can as nervy Mitzi. But even she can’t save the day.
The point is, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was new 36 years ago. This old hat isn’t even within striking distance. It’s coy and it’s clumsy, and it doesn’t go anywhere. It strains in every obvious way to be even mildly amusing. Worse, Daniel Sullivan has staged it mostly in shadowy darkness, lest it frighten the horses and the understandably subdued subscribers of Manhattan Theater Club.
Now, if the director had dared to use a brilliant convention from traditional Japanese Noh theater, we might have been in business. In Noh theater, bright light is used to convey darkness. In other words, we can see everything that’s happening.
The sight of people creeping about in the dark when they think they can’t be seen is innately funny, and the opportunities for inspired comic invention are a gift. Peter Shaffer used the lighting trick to hilarious effect in his classic one-act farce, Black Comedy. No such luck here.