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Cactus Flower

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Cactus Flower
Maxwell Caulfield, Jenni Barber, and Lois Robbins.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Throwbacks to the 1960s are notoriously difficult to pull off — for every Mad Men, there’s a revival of Promises, Promises. This is likely because of the decade’s distinct line of demarcation: There’s a point before which the attitudes and culture look grotesquely foreign, and after which they’re uncomfortably familiar. But hit it just right, with a firm balance on the tipping point between Then and Now, and you get gold rather than lead. Such precision is why Abe Burrows’s 1965 farce, Cactus Flower, and by extension Michael Bush’s new revival of it, which premiered last fall at the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany and has just reopened at the Westside Theatre, are together a 14-karat delight.

The play’s abundant humor derives from its single-minded focus on that definitive ‘60s concern: the role of the woman. Should she be homemaker or breadwinner? Demure or sexpot? Aider and abettor or the guilty party? Exploring those questions here are Toni (Jenni Barber), a happening 20-something record-store clerk who’s gotten mixed up with the married society dentist, Julian Winston (Maxwell Caulfield); and Julian’s too-devoted secretary, Stephanie (Lois Robbins), who’s spent the best years of her personal life languishing with mom in Jackson Heights and the best years of her career solving the boss’s problems at his Upper East Side practice.

Now, however, she’s happened on one dilemma that might be out of even her league: Julian isn’t married. Not a problem, you say? Well, not usually. But, see, he told Toni he was after knowing her for five minutes, to leave himself a permanent escape hatch; he just didn’t count on falling for Toni and “sneaking around” with her for over a year. When Julian tries staging a divorce, so he can make an “honest woman” out of “other woman” Toni, she insists on meeting Mrs. Winston — and as the only lasting woman in Julian’s life, Stephanie assumes the role.

All this is ignited so early in the first act that you may not believe the mania can be sustained for two and a half hours, yet it is. Julian’s web of deceit, which soon grows to trap his deadbeat friend Harvey (Anthony Reimer), Harvey’s girlfriend (Emily Walton), and John’s patients, unfolds so violently and yet so naturally that no development ever feels false or forced. And when the hysteria reaches its height at an underground nightclub, where all the central characters meet to watusi but half of them don’t know who the other half really are, the play transcends its own limited ambitions toward elegant silliness and becomes an intoxicating comic extravaganza.

Rock-solid as the play remains today (it was recently adapted into the Adam Sandler–Jennifer Aniston vehicle, Just Go With It), it could not soar without killer performers as Toni and Stephanie, and this production has them. Barber is a warmly tingling mixture of hope and heart, with candy-apple cheeks and puppy-dog eyes that identify her a consistently endearing innocent in the midst of Julian’s gluttonous tendencies. (She’s just as winning as, yet even more grounded, a young Goldie Hawn, who starred with Walter Matthau and Ingrid Bergman in the 1969 film.) Robbins negotiates a miraculous transformation from old maid to object of desire, with everything from her shoes to her hair achieving linguine-level relaxation as Stephanie uncovers the inner fires she’s kept at a low smolder for so long. Robbins cannot escape the lines’ cadences that echo with the personality of the role’s inimitable originator, Lauren Bacall, but she doesn’t have to — she makes each of them her own, and makes each of them its own marvel.

Unfortunately, almost everything else is shakier. Caulfield gives a stiff and self-conscious performance, never finding the inner uncertainty in Julian that might let him seem like a unwitting victim of his own machinations rather than merely exploitative. And with the exception of Jeremy Bobb, who brings a pointed verve to Toni’s love-hungry playwright-neighbor, the supporting performers are broad to the point of caricature: Walton, Reimer, and John Herrera and Robin Skye as representatives of Julian’s glamorous clientele all behave throughout as though they’re animated guest stars on The Flintstones.

The play would be funnier still if Bush were more willing to let the comedy happen, rather than pushing it as if in front of a banana peel–laden dance floor. And the production design is more economical and kitschy than evocative and keen: Anna Louizos’s wood-paneled unit set doesn’t smoothly transition from Toni’s apartment to Julian’s office and back, and Karen Ann Ledger’s costumes and Philip Rosenberg’s lights are generic ‘60s stuff pinpointing the play’s place in time more than the specific characteristics and quirks of the people trapped in it.

But the laughs come so frequently and so fully, particularly when Barber and Robbins are their masterminds, it’s hard to get too worked up about most of what doesn’t work. Besides, it’s yet a further tribute to the resounding worth of this airtight play that even imperfections like these, which could easily torpedo a lesser script, can’t impede this Cactus Flower’s constant assault on your funny bone.


Cactus Flower
Through May 29
Westside Theatre Upstairs, 407 West 43rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge