Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

The Fabulous Invalid

Alice Ripley and Steve Hendrickson
Emerson College celebrated the centennial of Boston's Cutler Majestic Theatre, owned and operated by the college, by commissioning a new version of Kaufman and Hart's The Fabulous Invalid from playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (Never Gonna Dance, Tuesdays with Morrie). Performed by students along side guest artists Alice Ripley (Tony nominee for Side Show) and Steve Hendrickson (from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis), it was the first of three offerings by Emerson Stage at the Majestic for 2003-2004.

The original 1938 play, whose title has been used ever since to describe Broadway under duress, ends with a modicum of hope after battling a 10-year decline fueled by the "talkies," the popularity of radio and the Great Depression. And all this after having survived the advent of the automobile, the Great War and the Crash of 1929, not to mention an actors' strike, unionization and the inflation of ticket prices. (Any of this sound familiar?)

Hatcher delivers a freewheeling adaptation using the same framing device of a husband and wife acting team (Ripley and Hendrickson) who meet their demise on the eve of the theatre's inaugural event. This entitles them to haunt the premises rather than opt for heaven (too puritanical for theatre) or hell (nothing but endless productions of Faust). The one caveat is that the theatre must continue to exist.

The original play chronicled the passing years with snippets of actual productions from Weber and Fields' 1899 Fiddle-Dee-Dee to Show Boat in 1927. (In the published script this Broadway mini-history is depicted by black and white reproductions of more than fifty original show cards.) Kaufman and Hart throw in a visit from Shakespeare to put their litany of woes in perspective.

Hatcher takes a slightly different tack by giving us a single play, his invented Au Revoir, Maude, first as a melodramatic star vehicle, then as a silly operetta and, finally, as a modern televised "kitchen sink" drama. It is quite delightfully awful in each of these incarnations.

Under the direction of Melia Bensussen, Producing Director for Emerson Stage and 1999 Obie winner for Hatcher's Turn of the Screw, the modest cast of Emerson college students supplementing the guest stars acquit themselves well for the most part. Rob Morrison as the ghost guide is an irresistible standout.

Once Hatcher gets past the stopping point of Kaufman and Hart's play, he really has fun with the second half of the 100 years paralleling the Majestic's history. He adds a dazzling twist to a rescue from the wrecker's ball when Hendrickson delivers a torrent of famous lines highlighting the last fifty years of American theatre.

In reality, Emerson College was the savior of the Majestic Theatre with its purchase in 1983 when it was slated for demolition. After half a century as one of Boston's finest legitimate theatres, it had rapidly gone from a first run movie theater to a boarded up building in the next twenty-five.

Emerson made the necessary repairs to reopen the theatre in 1989 and since then it has become the centerpiece for the relocation of all of the college's facilities to the heart of the theatre district. The more recent efforts (spurred by a generous contribution from Ted and Joan Benard-Cutler) completed the restoration of the glorious beaux-arts interior while providing all the comforts and technology of the 21st Century.

The Fabulous Invalid ran November 14-22.

For a fascinating history of the theatre, its restoration and a schedule of Friday tours visit the website at The website also has a complete schedule of events and ticket information. Some highlights of upcoming events include:

Candide (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Richard Wilbur and book by Hugh Wheeler) November 28-20, 2003 presented by Opera Boston.

A Christmas Carol (adapted by Oskar Eustis and Amanda Dehnert) December 9-17, 2003 presented by Trinity Repertory Theatre.

Emerson Dance Concert (Artistic Director Janet Taisey Craft) February 13-14, 2004 presented by Emerson Stage.

Nixon In China (opera by John Adams) March 12-14, 2004 presented by Opera Boston.

Othello (by William Shakespeare, directed by Joe Dowling) April 7-10, 2004 presented by the Guthrie Theatre.

Pippin (book by Roger O. Hirson, music & lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, directed by Stephen Terrell) April 21-24, 2004 presented by Emerson Stage and the Emerson Musical Theatre Society.

Photo: Ron DeMarco

Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Boston area.

- Suzanne Bixby

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