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Aisle View: A Muddled New Play and an Engaging Forgotten One

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Right off the bat, Adele (Kathryn Erbe)--the main character in Craig Lucas' Ode to Joy, a Rattlestick Production at the Cherry Lane--screams out in pain. Moments later, Bill (Arliss Howard) prefaces his first speech by screaming out in pain. Mala (Roxanna Hope), the other character, doesn't scream. She has a tendency, though, to collapse onto the floor. All three of them periodically collapse--splat!--over the course of two hours; even an off-stage character collapses. Otherwise it is an affair filled with booze, drugs, howls, a heart transplant, and the first instance I can recall where one actor clearly and visibly vomits into the mouth of another. Ah, stagecraft! Ms. Erbe, a long-time Steppenwolf member, has lately been gainfully employed in one of the precinct houses of the Law & Order franchise. Things were less messy there, violence-wise and dramaturgically.

Early on, we are told that Ode to Joy is "the story of how the pain goes away." At the end they say "forgiving is giving up the option for revenge" and "true joy is acceptance." In between there is talk of Jesus, Hitler, Elvis, the torturous breaking wheel of the Middle Age, and Auschwitz. So much beauty, and then that stinking rotting bullshit right down front and center. That's a quote from playwright/director Lucas in the second act, not me.

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Of considerably more interest is the Keen Company production of Paddy Chayefsky's Middle of the Night at the Harold Clurman. This was early Chayefsky, his first Broadway play. (The Philco Television Playhouse presented Marty in May 1953 and Middle of the Night in September 1954. The film version of Marty was released in April 1955, followed by the stage version of Middle of the Night--which opened at the ANTA in February 1956, six weeks before Chayefsky won his Marty Oscar.)

Middle of the Night had a healthy run of 477 performances but has receded from memory and seems not to have ever been professionally revived in New York. This is no doubt due to the fact that it was a star vehicle, the star in question being Hollywood's Edward G. Robinson returning to the stage after a quarter century. (Robinson appeared in almost thirty Broadway plays through 1930, including the original production of the Elmer Rice classic The Adding Machine.)

The Chayefsky play tells of an unlikely romance between a fifty-three-year old widower--a well-to-do, garment district type--and a twenty-four-year old secretary. (Nowadays fifty-year-olds are spring chickens, but in the 1950s they were considered old; all his friends are "dying, retired or in the hospital" he says.) The Manufacturer is likeable, sympathetic, and--like Chayefsky's Marty--a decidedly unattractive candidate for romance. The Girl is young, naive, and trapped in an unhappy marriage. The pair tentatively feel their way forward, on the snowbound Upper West Side, from friendship to a marriage proposal. She proposes to him, initially, as he is too timid to suggest such a thing. All the while, they face protests from his sister (who considers the girl--whom she hasn't met--to be a gold-digger) and her mother (who calls him a Sugar Daddy and, even worse, a Jew).

Robinson's stature--and his apparent excellence in the role--marked this as a role suitable to him alone, in the same way that Marty has ever belonged to Ernest Borgnine. This might explain why the play disappeared after Robinson took it out on a six-month post-Broadway tour. Or it might have been that the 1959 film version--which opened up the plot, added soap-like complications and sex scenes, and was sculpted into a star vehicle for Kim Novak (post-Vertigo)--scuttled the play's future.

Director Jonathan Silverstein and his Keen Company have unearthed Middle of the Night and given it an admirable if economical production. While it is not revealed to be quite as strong as other plays of the day like Cat on the Hot Tin Roof, Long Day's Journey into Night and Bus Stop, Middle of the Night makes for an enjoyable domestic drama.

At the heart of things is the performance of Jonathan Hadary as the decent, likable and slightly depressed widower. Hadary, with a kind smile and an occasional tremor in his hand, walks as if he is encased in a protective shell of resignation. He at first politely offers The Girl (Nicole Lowrence) kindly encouragement; then he sits, then he removes his overcoat, then he leans forward with something approaching enthusiasm. In this one scene, we watch as his shell cracks and he becomes engaged--albeit without entertaining the prospects of a relationship. Hadary is terrific in the role, a joy to behold. (Robinson was 62 when he played the role; Hadary seems ages younger than Robinson, though he is 65.)

Ms. Lowrence does well as the young blonde, in a role originated by Gena Rowlands. Herein is what might be the flaw of the play: Chayefsky does not quite convince us that this girl would cling to this man. The rest of the cast is uniformly winning, especially Denise Lute, Melissa Miller and Todd Bartels as The Manufacturer's sister, daughter and son-in-law. They share an explosive scene with Hadary at the end of the second of three acts, with all of them effectively firing away. (Bartels, who only has one scene as The Son-in-Law, stands out for his impassioned defense of The Manufacturer. He then switches to the role of The Girl's jazz-playing husband.)

Director Silverstein keeps our attention firmly in hand and smoothly handles the necessary production economies, with doubling in four roles and one set necessarily serving as two different apartments. It all adds up to a surprisingly enjoyable evening of mid-century drama. Chayefsky and Hadary, over on Theatre Row, merit a visit.