Also see Kevin's review of Cruise Control
When reading the title Halpern & Johnson, the first thing that comes to mind is a long running vaudeville act. But the title is deceiving as this play has its American premiere at the Coconut Grove Playhouse.
For a moment, let's set aside the quality talents of seasoned theatre veterans Hal Linden and Brian Murray featured in this production. Let's also put aside the top notch work the design team has done here (not to mention David Ellenstein’s simple, able direction). All that is left is two old farts sitting on a park bench lamenting on whom they loved and lost. It has been done before; it’s called I’m Not Rappaport!
Now, put all those aforementioned factors back in place, and this is what separates Lionel Goldstein from Herb Gardner. While Gardner’s Rappaport was a buddy vehicle, Goldstein’s Halpern and Johnson comes off more like a poignant comedy-drama.
Both plays start off in the same place, though: present day New York. The first scene here takes place in a cemetery. As Joseph Halpern (played by Linden) talks to his wife’s grave, he encounters a gentleman named Dennis Johnson (played by Murray) who arrives with flowers. After a few comedic misunderstandings, Dennis lets Joe know that he and Joe’s wife, Florence, were involved in a relationship before she was married. It takes Joe a while to catch on that during the time he and Flo were married, she was still involved with Dennis platonically without Joe‘s knowledge.
The men share some awkward moments as they swap stories. They each loved the same woman in different ways. Johnson resents Halpern for taking away his only love, while Halpern is floored by the chutzpah of this man invading his grief with this confession. While the two men are different in many ways (Halpern’s Jewish heritage clashing with Johnson’s Catholic upbringing), they share a common bond: the love of a good woman and the many memories they have. Their meeting turns into a game of one-upmanship that has a conclusion that shouldn't surprising anyone.
What keeps Goldstein’s play from turning into Rappaport Redux is the chemistry of Hal Linden and Brian Murray. Linden’s Joe Halpern is a Jewish mensch harboring old feelings while running the gamut of new emotions: dumbfoundedness, surprise, and anger. Linden’s comic timing is on point, zinging one liners in shotgun fashion. Murray’s Dennis Johnson is more serious, and Murray tells it like it is; he blames the man who stood in his way of his happiness. Murray is a great straight man to Linden’s bumbling fool.
What really brings out the best in both actors is the design circle the Grove decided to wrap around them. Paul Wonsek’s woodsy backdrop is reminiscent of a Tony Award winning musical based on certain fairy tales. The trees and fountain have a beautiful ambiance. What also helps is Steve Shapiro’s choices of music. Even though it seems they were ripped out of a public television show, the classical tones work well with Wonsek’s horticulture and Kirk Bookman’s mood lighting. Coconut Grove’s resident costume designer Ellis Tillman blesses the actors with nice apparel that coincides with springtime.
In 1980, Halpern & Johnson started out as a made for cable movie starring Laurence Olivier and Jackie Gleason. Then, the stage adaptation moved to different countries including Israel and Australia; to have established players like Linden and Murray bringing Goldstein’s story to the West is a treat.
It doesn’t hurt that their reputations precede them either: Tony Award winning Linden is a '70s TV icon (Barney Miller) while Murray’s stage credits carry him on two different continents (he’ll be appearing in the New York Public Theatre production of Much Ado About Nothing this summer in Central Park). Lionel Goldstein should thank the Coconut Grove for bringing in this ensemble (actors and production team) in to liven up his play. In anyone else’s hands, it just wouldn't be the same.
Halpern & Johnson plays through April 4th in Coconut Grove Playhouse’s mainstage theatre at 3500 Main Highway in Miami. For reservations, please call (305) 442-4000 or www.cgplayhouse.com.
Halpern & Johnson - Coconut Grove Playhouse
Starring Hal Linden* and Brian Murray*
*-denotes members of Actors Equity Association
Scenic Design: Paul Wonsek
Production Stage Manager: Naomi Littman
Directed by David Ellenstein
-- Kevin Johnson