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A Catered Affair

This adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky's teleplay about an unhappy Bronx family proves that modesty and minimalism are not necessarily virtues in musicals.

Tom Wopat, Faith Prince, and Harvey Fierstein
in A Catered Affair
(© Jim Cox)
Anyone familiar with Paddy Chayefsky's 1955 teleplay The Catered Affair -- which was then adapted by Gore Vidal for a 1956 film starring Bette Davis -- will understand what the industrious contingent bringing the musical A Catered Affair to Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre had in mind. Librettist Harvey Fierstein, songwriter John Bucchino, and director John Doyle obviously wanted to recreate the low-key naturalism that was Chayefsky's stock-in-trade during his acclaimed Philco-Goodyear Playhouse days.

But even audience members familiar with the tuner's provenance may think that this 90-minute chamber musical would fare better in a smaller auditorium instead of falling too timidly over the lip of the stage in this 900-plus-seat house. Moreover, with a score that too rarely feels as if it rises from random recitative to heighten-the-moment song, many spectators may easily conclude the whole enterprise would be less flat as a straight play. Modesty and minimalism in musicals aren't necessarily virtues.

The strongest elements here shouldn't be minimized: How Doyle -- hot as a pistol after his award-winning Broadway productions of Sweeney Todd and Company -- guides the actors through the development of their characters. The story revolves around Bronx housewife Aggie Hurley (Faith Prince) and her cab-driver husband Tom (Tom Wopat). Their daughter Janey (Leslie Kritzer) has just become engaged to Ralph Halloran (Matt Cavenaugh) and she doesn't want the big wedding her mother would like to give her.

Aggie's push for an expensive event stems from wanting to compensate her daughter for years of neglect in favor of an older son, only recently killed in the Korean conflict. Indeed, Aggie is so adamant about putting together a fancy-shmancy affair that she quickly gets her way without really encountering too much opposition from the supposedly strong-willed Janey -- a weak point in Fierstein's script.

In the process, Aggie appropriates the government insurance check Tom needs to obtain his share of a long-sought taxi medallion. At the same time, Aggie has to calm her gay live-in brother Winston (Fierstein), who would have been left out of a City Hall civil ceremony (and who vents his wrath in a particularly ugly and unlikely scene and almost-song "Immediate Family").

As the various tugs-of-ceremony-wars come to be resolved, Prince -- sporting no make-up, grayish wigs, and a wardrobe that designer Ann Hould-Ward must have accumulated from Goodwill outlets -- completely delivers the underplayed performance Doyle wants. So does the too-often underrated Wopat; his put-upon yet strong Tom gets the musical's only real aria: "I Stayed." Fierstein is mostly restrained, if you can believe it, while rising musical stars Kritzer and Cavenaugh also fit themselves into the prevailing sobriety.

There are also three gossipy neighbors sitting in windows on David Gallo's gray tenements set, played by Kristine Zbornik (also funny as a wedding-dress salesperson), Lori Wilner (who doubles as the mother of the groom), and Heather MacRae. MacRae, doubling as a wedding-hall caterer, has a line that gets the kind of wry audience laugh the creators may not relish: "I know a fun family when I see one," she says. But fun isn't on the menu at this wedding, and the show's creators may soon come to regret that it isn't an entree choice.