Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 17, 2008
A Catered Affair Book by Harvey Fierstein. Music and lyrics by John Bucchino. Based on the Turner Entertainment motion picture distributed by Warner Brothers and written by Gore Vidal, and the original teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky. Directed by John Doyle. Scenic design by David Gallo. Costume design by Ann Hould-Ward. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Projection design by Zachary Borovay. Hair design by David Lawrence. Cast: Faith Prince, Tom Wopat, Harvey Fierstein, also starring Leslie Kritzer, Philip Hoffman, Katie Klaus, Heather Mac Rae, Lori Wilner, Kristine Zbornik, Jennifer Allen, Britta Ollmann, Matthew Scott, Mark Zimmerman, and Matt Cavenaugh.
Yet the sofa-warming sage in the new musical A Catered Affair is a more fractious force for the Hurley family of the Bronx than the death of a son or arguments about money they don't have. This is not just because the uncle in question is played by actor Harvey Fierstein, but because librettist Fierstein is primarily responsible for changing a potential sure thing into the shambolic misfire that just opened at the Walter Kerr.
He hasn't acted alone; songwriter John Bucchino and director John Doyle have done their share to make this adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky's 1955 teleplay and Gore Vidal's 1956 screenplay falter when it should fly. But as the story soars and sears only when it's turned over to performers Faith Prince and Tom Wopat, one can't help but identify Fierstein as the reason you feel everything you should except that what you're watching makes sense.
This is both surprising and expected. In his play Torch Song Trilogy and his book for the musical La Cage aux Folles, Fierstein demonstrated a sensitivity toward the stormy relationships of parents and children as pertaining to matters romantic and sexual. What would such a boundary-breaking author see in the traditional but deceptively progressive A Catered Affair? Would he respect its modest charms, so winningly acted in the film (by Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, and Debbie Reynolds) that you barely notice the destructive collision of old and new worlds at its heart? Or would he reconfigure it for more contemporary relevance?
As it turns out, he's done both, and the compromise is not golden. There have been few alterations to the basic premise, which finds Janey (Leslie Kritzer) and Ralph (Matt Cavenaugh) at odds with Janey's parents Aggie and Tom (Prince and Wopat): Janey and Ralph want an immediate (and inexpensive) wedding ceremony before their cross-country drive to California to help a friend move, Aggie longs for the celebration of excess her own shotgun marriage never allowed, and Tom wants merely to save his money for the more practical use of buying the taxi medallion he's been slaving toward for years.
Fierstein's approach for his own character has been more liberal. The lovably boozy Uncle Jack of the film has been fabulously renamed Winston and made an icon of the modern barely closeted gay of the 1950s. An expert in solving others' woes, Winston owns not only the best lines and two memorable songs, but the opening and closing stage pictures. He is, in short, a star part any flamboyant actor would find irresistible.
While the musical is more contemplative than the film, delving deeper into the disappointments of Aggie and Tom's marriage, it's also angrier, less optimistic about the endurance of love, and altogether more unpleasant a picture of a tiny crisis with giant implications. Bucchino's music contributes the insouciantly soupy smolder of an airport-lounge soundtrack, but his lyrics are pedestrian and unenlightening, extensions of dialogue that don't readily sing.
In accordance, Doyle continues to advance his theories (expressed in his productions of Sweeney Todd and Company) that easy emotions, eye contact between actors, and common sense in staging should be avoided whenever possible, which seldom allows for involving theatre. (The sliding walls and fire escapes that constitute David Gallo's set, occasionally augmented by Zachary Borovay's period-photography projections, are equally distancing.) Only Tom's explosive "I Stayed," in which he rails against Aggie's endless criticisms, connects in a visceral way; Wopat's fiery repudiation of the usually sedate Tom is a turnabout of surprising power in a show not otherwise given to such extravagances.
Prince is afforded no such outlets, her beautiful, precise work as Aggie limited to loaded glares, quiet speeches, and the incapacitating weight of dreams unrealized; only when Aggie's resistance finally cracks does she oversell herself, wracking her body with sobs that speak more of the actress's technique than a woman's inconsolable sorrow. Kritzer and Cavenaugh are a shade too modern as the rebellious young couple; it's hard to accept they're as conflicted or as powerless as they must act.
Though Fierstein vanished into the full-figured Baltimore housewife Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, he registers here as no more or less than himself. That's not a problem as far as it goes: Winston's musical drunken rant, "Immediate Family," reeks and tweaks with neglect; his exchange with an eager caterer (the charming Heather Mac Rae) is the evening's sole instance of entertainment for entertainment's sake; and his number at the finale, however prosaic the lyrics ("You're halfway through another ride / Don't wait until the scary feelings pass"), is moderately touching.
If nothing else, Fierstein knows how to place himself for maximum effect. But A Catered Affair would undoubtedly be better were he willing or able to do the same for everyone else.