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The Talk of the Town

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Algonquin Round Table has never looked as square as it does in the latest incarnation of the Peccadillo Theater Company's The Talk of the Town.

The musical, which played to some acclaim last fall at the Bank Street Theatre, has now resurfaced in what should be its ideal New York venue, only yards from where the storied klatch of 1920s New York literary society held its regular get-togethers. But the usually inviting warmth of the Oak Room at the Algonquin hasn't proved felicitous for the Ginny Redington and Tom Dawes musical - it doesn't flourish in the smaller space, and the show-biz brassiness that always strained scenes intended as gossipy and conversational now lends the show a feel that's hokier and less intimate than before. This is a show too desperate to please, at any cost.

Now, the cost is higher than ever; not just in terms of admission, though the $55 cover and two-drink minimum will run you roughly triple would you would have paid last fall. There's nothing inherently wrong with raising prices on a successful show, if the experience the show provides is roughly equivalent. That's also not the case here: With the cutting of about 30 minutes from the show, and the complete removal of two characters, you're paying considerably more for considerably less.

In a way, you have to admire the gutsiness of Redington, Dawes, and director Dan Wackerman to make such drastic changes in a show originally well-received. But what does it say about any show if the creative team considers nearly a quarter of its cast expendable? Granted, no one is likely to mind the excision of artist Neysa McMein, but removing the character of Harold Ross from a show as much about the magazine he founded (The New Yorker) as the group of people who first wrote for it is destructive folly.

Without Ross to unify the group and give structural purpose to their pursuits, the show feels more like a themed vaudeville than a cohesive evening. The dialogue, mostly quips and quotes from the Round Table's bevy of famous and infamous personalities, always sounded like stitched-together sketch comedy; now lacking a strong narrative framework, it's almost completely nonsensical. All that remains are the barest wisps of the once important on-again, off-again relationship (working and otherwise) of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley.

This has shifted the focus almost completely onto the Round Table meetings, where Parker and Benchley commune with critic Alexander Woollcott, wry playwright George S. Kaufman and his reluctant partner Marc Connelly, procrastinating dramatist Robert Sherwood, and novelist Edna Ferber. Yes, the gently ribbing wisecracks and caustic remarks they trade are amusing, but few (if any) are the work of Redington and Dawes, and most of them aren't genuine character laughs.

Yet, through the magic of theatre, the harshest and most brazen character comes off the best. Kristin Maloney is equally convincing as Parker in both scene and song; she's given the show's few scraps of honest sentiment, and she knows just what to do with them. Whether singing the ashamedly romantic "Robert, It Should Have Been You," or the self-searching "The Faces That We Wear," she's the production's sole invaluable asset, and responsible for what little heart the show has.

For the others, caricature is generally good enough: Rob Seitelman, one of the holdovers from the original company, frequently mistakes vocal volume for characterization, and is at best a loud Woollcott; Jeffrey Biering and Stephen Wilde are nondescript as Kaufman and Connelly, and can't get much theatrical fun out of their constant bickering; Donna Coney Island brings only generic flair to her role of Edna Ferber; and Adam MacDonald fails to find any sense of shell-shocked social obligation in the eternally dithering Sherwood. Jared Bradshaw, as Benchley, is stiff but adequate.

Much the same can be said of the score. Full of initially catchy but ultimately forgettable numbers with titles like "The Restorative Lunch," "Work is a Four-Letter Word," and "And the Circle Goes Round and Round," it's the kind of thing outsiders think are clever, but that the insiders would never actually sing. There is, however, an attractive, mournful blues for Sherwood ("Behind the Velvet Rope") and the hummable "Doin' the Breakaway," a vaudeville turn charting the Round Table's disbanding.

But that number, like any here that utilizes more than two cast members and even a smidgen of dance (the "movement consultant" is Mercedes Ellington), quickly becomes more about the performers' abilities to not collide with each other than about anything else. That doesn't make for an enjoyable evening; nor does the gutting of a complete dramatic work, of however flimsy value, for a space that can't do the original version justice. If The Talk of the Town recently elicited excited chattering, it now rates little more than embarrassed whispers.

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The Talk of the Town
Through August 22 (Mondays at 8:30 pm)
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with an intermission
The Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue
Tickets $55 with a 2 drink minimum; Call 212.840.6800