There's an old saying that black actors have to be twice as good just to be thought merely equal to their white counterparts. And in this Neil Simon comedy, Choyce Johnson and Eddie Webb are at least twice as good. No, make that four or five times as good. But surely everyone else could see their breath-taking naturalism and commitment, and take a lesson from what these serious performers manage to do with one of Neil Simon's (deservedly) lesser-known works. And surely the white actors could see how bad they'd all look by comparison.
I wish I could just tell you how brilliant and elegant Milt Zoth's direction was several years ago in Romeo and Juliet and in Hamlet, and leave it at that. Or tell you how invariably terrific Tyler Vickers has been, in a wide array of roles, up till now. But this time, nearly every white cast member turns their Midwestern selves into a kind of minstrel show, in which they "play" Jewish New Yorkers as if they were all George Burns, waiting for Gracie. That would have been a better title, incidentally: Waiting for Gracie, with all the dire existentialism that implies.
That's not to say there aren't funny lines, every two and a half pages or so. You always have to acknowledge that you laughed here or there, because someone will catch you later and say, "you looked like you were enjoying yourself!" Let it not be said that Neil Simon couldn't crank out a reasonably funny line every two or three minutes, even on his worst day. But if there were ever a formula for putting up a play in New York City, this one seems to be straight out of the "30 Minute Comedies" cookbook. The problem is that it goes on and on for two hours and ten minutes.
Take one cuddly old retail merchant (Whit Reichert) and one 1950s era black house-maid (Ms. Johnson); and give them some standard banter about facing death (after she gets a surprisingly beautiful opening monolog), then throw in a vain ex-wife and the man's irresistible, head-strong daughter (Megan Rodd) with her newly-dumped fiancé (Rusty Gunther). Mix in various "comedic" types and relationships, and voila! Wait, you'd better put Neil Simon's name on the posters, because if you didn't, believe me, a play this flimsy wouldn't stand a chance.
The problem, as far as I can tell, is that almost none of the white actors are taking their roles anywhere near as seriously as they should. In some cases, this is surprising. Aaron Orion Baker is good (as the most outré New Yorker) and Megan Vickers is almost exactly right as a slightly dim fashion model. But Alice Kinsella, a terrifically funny lady, gets wooed into the dreaded "likability" trap, and doesn't really live up to the reputation she gets in the script. And the fact that she's playing what could almost be a "sitcom mom" only makes her long-suffering daughter (Ms. Rodd) seem like a bitch, with her constant complaints about her mother. And Mr. Gunther, a very qualified actor, is shrill and abrasive, when he should be (as I've said elsewhere, about another actor) more powerless and "in-over-his-head" like Jack Lemmon desperately fleeing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. You'd think, after four or five weeks of rehearsal in this corpse of a romantic comedy, he'd see the parallels. Mr. Vickers, as the golf pro/ex-lover of the irresistible, head-strong daughter, delivers most of his lines like Curly in Oklahoma!, without the accent. And it's all tied up at the end with a series of blithe, unconvincing third-person remarks about the off-stage characters' release from suffering.
Perhaps, in the rehearsal process, the white actors simply became so fatalistic about the blazingly artificial structure of this dud that they just responded in kind, with a purely artificial acting style. Like the man says in the movie Topsy-Turvy: "A joke! A jest! A lamentable spectacle!"
Through October 18, 2009 at the Gaslight Theatre, 360 North Boyle, St. Louis, Missouri, 63108. For information visit them online at www.stlas.org or call (314) 458-2978.
* Appears with permission of Actors' Equity Association