EYE ON THEATRE
Two Out of Three
By JOHN SIMON
In “The Call,” by Tanya Barfield, we have Peter and Annie, a sterile couple desperate for progeny. Friendship with a black lesbian couple, Rebecca and Drea, as well as a previous trip to Africa by Peter, inspires them to seek to adopt an African child.
The play opens with dinner chez Annie and Peter for the four of them. The eagerness to get a child of no more than 18 months, one to forget his real parents, is somewhat muted by the phone call that promises one of 2 ½ years. But even that is eventually accepted owing to a cute photograph.
However, as it turns out, the child looks more like age four, which indeed it turns out to be, turning the would-be parents off. Meanwhile the lesbian couple has interesting adventures in India, and a new neighbor of Peter and Annie, the African Alemu, adds impetus to maybe after all adopting the four-year-old. Ms. Barfield is black, and knows whereof she speaks; in fact, the whole play strongly suggests autobiographical origins.
The older lesbian, Rebecca, a refined bourgeoise (probably based on the author), and her lover, Drea, more of a lusty street black, are lively characters, but so are the white couple, including Peter, whose friend on the previous African trip contracted AIDS there. I don’t wish to go into details, but must observe that the final scene is particularly moving.
Leigh Silverman has directed competently enough, and most of the acting is fine. Thus Elsa Davis’s Rebecca is quietly appealing, but Crystal A. Dickinson, Drea, good in the second act, is over the top in the first. As Peter, Kelly AuCoin is at times a bit too stodgy, but Kerry Butler is perfect as the well-intentioned but ambivalent Annie, and Russell G. Jones gets a good deal out of the sympathetic Alemu.
The ambitious musical “Bunty Berman Presents” by Ayub Khan Din is a curious hybrid. Some of it is a send-up of film-making in India’s Bollywood, in what was still called Bombay. But some of it is a typical Bollywood story, with hero, villains, and lovers, almost a tribute to those gaudy commercial products. This, though, ends as some kind of melodrama, with an admittedly somewhat farcical murder and suicide. There is also some honest-to-goodness musical-comedy singing sand dancing, with modest choreography by Josh Prince.
Added interest comes from the lead—Bunty Berman, producer, director, and desperate debtor—being played not by the original actor who got injured, but by the playwright himself who jumped in more than creditably. His real problem is with the book and dialogue, and the songs on which he collaborated with Paul Bogaev, with rather monotonous music and highly questionable lyrics.
The latter tend to be obvious, extremely repetitious, with serious difficulties with rhyme and sometimes even English. Especially annoying is the often imperfect rhyming, as exemplified by such clunkers as lingam and swingin’, as well as ladder and ardor, and many, many more. This sort of thing is worsened by being employed for gaping sentiments cheesily papered over.
Here then is the story of Bunty, a dependably clichéd yet popular producer-director, whose favorite and previously beloved leading man, Raj, has grown too old and too fat. Also of his loyal Anglo secretary, Dolly, secretly in love with him. Of his leading lady, formerly Shaheena, but now the glamorous and haughty Shambervi. Of the tea-boy, a kind of gofer, Saleem, in love with his childhood playmate, but under her new name, contemned by her. Also of the criminal turned millionaire, Shankar Dass, hated by Bunty, but the only one who could underwrite the bankrupt Bunty’s current project, yet only if it will star his arrogant son Chandra, who does a drag nightclub act as chanteuse Sandra De Souza, of whom his father, not recognizing him as that and rejected, is furiously enamored.
Also in drag comes Raj, as a blind fortune teller, unheeded by Bunty. Raj even sticks his head out of one of his glorifying posters as well as out of a giant papier-mache elephant’s behind, and much more of this sort. Throughout, there is also Nizwar, Bunty’s chief scenarist, much mocked by him, but tartly responding with sardonic comments often quite funny.
The cast is good: Sorab Wadija (Raj), Nick Choksi (Saheeb), Gayton Scott (Dolly), Sevan Greene (Nizwar) and the rest. Only Lipica Shah, as Saheena/Shambervi, is not alluring enough. Aptly directed by its artistic director, Scott Elliott, this is a New Group production, as were previous, superior efforts by Ayub Khan Din—“East Is East” and “Rafta, Rafta…”—but those weren’t musicals, happily.
I have often urged you to catch “Encores!’ at City Center, the seven-performance, semi-staged revivals of musicals past, some Broadway hits, some undeserved flops. This time we got “On Your Toes” (1936), by Rodgers & Hart at their best. It starred Ray Bolger, brilliant in the part of Junior, the ex-vaudevillian and college music teacher, turned awkward, love-smitten partner of the great Ballet Russe prima ballerina Vera Baronova.
He invites two jealousies: that of his student-composer Frankie Frayne, in love with him; and that of Vera’s lover, the tempestuous ballet dancer Konstantine Morosine, who hires assassins to truly shoot Junior at the end of his suicidal closing solo in the ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” composed by a student of his.
There is much satire and comedy involving the imperious impresario Sergei Aleksandrovitch (here the amusing Walter Bobbie) and the company’s ditsy American patroness, Peggy Porterfield (the no less amusing Christine Baranski). Vera calls for a major ballerina, and is here embodied by the wonderful Irina Dvorovenko, who proves as delightful comic actress as superlative ballerina.
Unfortunately, in an otherwise excellent production, Junior is played by Shonn Wiley, an adequate hoofer, but not the first-rate comedian-singer-dancer that Bolger was, as were Bobby Van and especially Lara Teeter in subsequent revivals, two of them directed by the great George Abbott.
This was originally George Balanchine’s choreographic American breakthrough, but Warren Carlyle’s direction and choreography here were splendid too. And the score, with a handful of superb numbers—notably “A Small Hotel” and “Glad to Be Unhappy,” and the two terrific comic ballets, “Princess Zenobia” and “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue—could not be more enchanting.
This summer, “Encores!” will offer three shows for somewhat longer runs each, and thus easier to catch. You should make every effort to see at least one.to My Event List
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.