Michael Sharon and Lanie McEwan in Shakespeare in Hollywood
(Photo © Jim Roese)
Michael Sharon and Lanie McEwan in Shakespeare in Hollywood
(Photo © Jim Roese)
I decided to spend some of December on the road, going to Philadelphia, Boston, and New Haven. There was a time when each of those cities' Shubert Theatres would host a brand-new play or musical that was trying out prior to Broadway, with an in-town house already booked for a few weeks later. Now, in those cities, you're more likely to see shows that have already been presented elsewhere and are deemed fine fare for the locals.

In Shakespeare in Hollywood, Ken Ludwig's farce at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, Shakespeare doesn't show up -- but one of his plays does when German filmmaker Max Reinhardt talks Jack Warner into letting him make a film of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as he actually did in 1935. The incongruity of turning an Elizabethan property into a Tinseltown comedy is certainly a good idea. For example: Lydia, Jack Warner's dim-witted mistress, says "I don't understand a single word of it," to which her protector replies, "We'll send it to rewrites." But playwright Ludwig gets fanciful and has two Midsummer characters, Oberon and Puck, mysteriously show up from the past. Puck makes the exact same mischief we're familiar with, right down to a donkey head on Will Hays. Oberon is furious and demands that Puck correct matters. However, both before and after that, we see Oberon with apparently unlimited powers; so why doesn't he solve what Puck wrought? You'd think that Ludwig would know enough to cover himself by having Oberon say, "You got yourself into this, you get yourself out." But he doesn't.

After all his attempts at farce -- such as Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo and Leading Ladies -- Ludwig still hasn't managed to come up with one that is Feydeau-level hilarious from curtain rise to curtain call. He can write lines that get chuckles and giggles but precious few belly-shaking, gasping-for-breath, out-of-control laffs. If this were a typical pre-Broadway tryout of yore, I'd have expected it to limp into town, play one to eight performances (depending on what night it opened), and limp away.

On to the Long Wharf in New Haven, where Stage II is sporting Rob Handel's 75-minute Aphrodisiac. For the first 55 minutes, this one seems like the sort of Broadway tryout that would close out of town. Handel doesn't make it any easier on himself (or on us) in Scene One, wherein Rob Campbell and Jennifer Dundas respectively play Dan, a smarmy, sex-obsessed senator (read: Gary Condit), and Ilona, his accommodating intern (read: Chandra Levy). What's the problem? The program tells us that they're playing "Avery" and "Alma." But it's not until the second scene that the same performers -- in the same costumes, yet -- become Avery and Alma, who turn out to be Dan's children, quite unnerved that their father is suspect in Ilona's sudden disappearance. Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if the program said "Dan/Avery" and "Ilona/Alma"?

Anyway, the play is so talky and static that I'm soon thinking of taking the Cowardly Lion's advice: "Come to think of it, 40 winks wouldn't be bad." But then, when Dan's kids are in a restaurant, who walks in, overhears them, and finally comments but a character named Monica? That Yetta Gottesman looks amazingly like a certain Ms. Lewinsky is not accidental. When Monica tells her side of the Clinton scandal to these kids, Aphrodisiac suddenly becomes riveting theater. It stays that way in the final scene, with Campbell and Dundas returning as Dan and Ilona. My advice to anyone who puts on this play in the future: Just hire two more actors.

Next, I headed up to the Wang Center -- the 4,000-seat house that's Boston's answer to Radio City Music Hall -- for the East Coast production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas. (The show is concurrently playing in Los Angeles and San Francisco.) It's amiable enough, exactly what you think it will be if you've seen the 1954 film. It's still the story of two WW-II vets who are show business biggies after the war and wind up at a Vermont inn that their old general owns. The place isn't doing well, so they decide, "Let's put on a show!" with the two sister entertainers whom they picked up along the way.

In the film, the general's receptionist just loves to listen in on phone calls; she misinterprets one and assumes that the guys are making a TV deal for their own aggrandizement. Conveniently for the screenwriters, she stops listening just before she would have heard something that proved the guys were on the level. New authors David Ives and Paul Blake knew that this scene needed work, as they used to say in tryout days, so they have a TV executive named Sheldrake (What is this, a Billy Wilder movie?) make a call to the inn. He immediately tells the switchboard operator about the guys' plans, yet she comes to the same conclusion that the lady in the movie did. But why would a TV big-shot pass on such detailed information to a non-entity? He'd simply say "Have him call me" and go on to his next business matter. Ives and Blake settled for a lateral move rather than an improvement.

Still, I'd love to see this show come to Broadway just so New Yorkers could once again enjoy the talents of Karen Morrow, who plays that receptionist. Her rendition of "Let Me Sing, and I'm Happy" brought tears to my eyes -- especially when she adopted the same stance that she has in a photo in the centerfold of the I Had a Ball cast album, where she's doing the title song. Morrow still has what it takes, as I told her the next day when I met her for coffee. On Wednesday, I'll tell you what she had to say.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]