Many Days in the Life of Joe Egg
Thirty-five years after William Goldman wrote his classic book, Filichia looks back on the 1967-68 B'way season.
Saw A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and thought it wasn't nearly as effective as the 1985 revival, which wasn't nearly as effective as the 1968 original Broadway production. Both Eddie Izzard and Victoria Hamilton are superb as Bri and Sheila, the parents of the spastic child; but I fault Laurence Boswell's direction, which doesn't push the play across the footlights. I thought the famous scene in which the audience is sure that Bri and Sheila are coming out of character and improvising fell frightfully flat. Anyone, I was sure, would see that this supposedly impromptu moment was definitely a part of Peter Nichols's script.
That has not been my experience before -- nor has it been for any friend who's seen the show. Everyone who's ever attended Joe Egg has later told me about the marvelous moment where Bri and Sheila broke character and played around at the performance they attended. No one would be fooled this time, I was sure -- until intermission, when I ran into a buddy who asked: "Listen, that moment where they seemed to improvise -- is that part of the show, or did that just happen tonight?" So maybe the problem was that I was seeing Joe Egg for the third time.
That fact alone startles me. This Peter Nichols play, in which two parents must deal with their spastic child's fits and incontinence -- all leading to the father wanting to kill her -- is getting its third Broadway production in only 35 years. Have any one of the other 54 shows that were first seen on Broadway during the 1967-68 season -- arguably the most famous of all, thanks to William Goldman's landmark book The Season -- ever had as many Broadway revivals?
Well, yes. Arthur Miller's The Price has ostensibly done better, with three Broadway revivals. But two of them (in 1979 and 1992) were at small houses that just made the Broadway minimum of 499 seats: the Playhouse and the Criterion Center, both of which have since been razed. Only the 1999 revival of The Price was at a theater that everyone considers Broadway: The Royale. Joe Egg's two revivals have played "real" Broadway houses: the 1,075-seat Longacre in 1985 and, now, the 750-seat Theater Formerly Known as the Selwyn. (Okay, the American Airlines Theatre, though I wince whenever I have to call it that.) Still, The Price -- about a squabble between brothers -- is an easier play for audiences to take than the highly disturbing Joe Egg, so the latter's revival record seems pretty remarkable to me.
In 1967-68, both Joe Egg and The Price lost the Best Play Tony to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which has since managed only one revival Off-Broadway. Ditto More Stately Mansions. Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party has had two Off-Broadway revivals, each at Classic Stage Company. Johnny No-Trump only had a showcase at Equity Library Theatre, the fondly remembered venue that died a decade or so ago. The only non-musicals of 1967-68 that have since been revived on Broadway are Loot and Brief Lives, two big British imports that flopped pretty badly the first time around.
As for that season's musicals: Hair had a Broadway revival in 1977, only five years and three months after the original production closed; that revival wound up closing five years and four months after the original closed! Two seasons ago, Hair was re-groomed at Encores! and there was some noise that it might transfer to Broadway. That didn't happen, and so -- although Encores! plays at a theater much bigger than a Broadway house -- we can only credit Hair with one Broadway revival.
Such plays as Avanti, I Never Sang for My Father, The Only Game in Town, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Staircase, and There's a Girl in My Soup haven't been revived on Broadway but were, in a sense, revived in Hollywood through their movie versions. Tennessee Williams's The Seven Descents of Myrtle became a film, too, though it was re-titled The Last of the Mobile Hotshots in Gore Vidal's screen adaptation. Spofford's movie version got re-titled, too, as Reuben, Reuben. Meanwhile, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald had to content itself with a TV-movie. (By the way, the guy who played Oswald on stage, Peter Masterson, went on to co-write and co-direct The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and to father that Masterson lady who's now in Nine.)
Neil Simon's Plaza Suite, 1967-68's biggest hit, got a movie, too, and a third of it -- the playlet known as "Visitor from Forest Hills," in which a bride-to-be locks herself in a hotel bathroom minutes before the ceremony -- showed up Off-Broadway as part of Hotel Suite. Interesting, isn't it, that of Simon's many non-musicals only The Sunshine Boys has ever been revived on Broadway? Once all the others closed, they were never seen again on any stage between West 41st and West 54th Streets -- probably because they've had so many stock, amateur, and film productions that they've been overexposed.
Plenty of people I know wish there could be a revival of Judy Garland at Home at the Palace, though no one has ever mentioned that he'd like to see a revival of the show that followed her in that legendary theater: Eddie Fisher and Buddy Hackett at the Palace. But a one-person show by another legend, Marlene Dietrich, did have a revival in 1968-69. Of course, considering that Ms. Dietrich died in 1992, we won't get a second Broadway revival from her.
By the way, if The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake or Leda Had a Little Swan returned, would they even be considered revivals? Though the former was ensconced at the O'Neill in 1967 and the latter at the Cort in 1968, they never officially opened to critics. (Funny: Leda dealt with a man's interest in bestiality, a theme that was found in last year's Tony-winner. Not that Edward Albee's The Goat had an easy time getting patrons in the seats, either.)
Since By George said bye after 13 performances, it's never again said hello. If there's been a revival of The Unknown Soldier and His Wife, it's unknown to me. Broadway revivals of Keep It In the Family, The Ninety-Day Mistress, or Happiness Is Just a Little Rolls Royce are as unlikely as revivals of Song of the Grasshopper, A Minor Adjustment, or What Did We Do Wrong? Anyone who's considering a revival of Ira Levin's Dr. Cook's Garden, I beg of you: Reconsider. I saw it last season in New Jersey and came away convinced that it was just a warm-up for Levin's masterpiece, Deathtrap.
There were 13 other new Broadway shows in '67-'68 whose names may not be worth mentioning. They certainly haven't been mentioned seriously by any producer looking to revive a show of yesteryear. But the question remains: Why has Joe Egg received two Broadway revivals? The answer is that, despite its difficult subject matter, it's an awfully good and fascinating play with wonderfully meaty parts for actors. We'll see if Victoria Hamilton can keep alive the streak of having every Broadway actress who's played Sheila get a Tony: Zena Walker won for Best Featured Actress in 1968 and Stockard Channing won for Best Leading Actress in 1985. (Same part, different billing, hence the different categories.) While neither Albert Finney in 1968 nor Jim Dale in 1985 took home the prize, Bri is still a great role, and it's not out of the question that Eddie Izzard will win this time. If he doesn't, maybe the actor who plays Bri in the inevitable fourth Broadway revival of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in 2020 will.