10/16/2014 11:51 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

First Nighter: John Waters' John Lennon, Carol Burnett's Letter Writer

Yes, I was in Shea Stadium when the Beatles shook their moptops and played their instruments for 35 minutes while not a single note was heard due to the non-stop screaming.

Yes, I attended Beatles press conferences, where, frustrated at answering the same silly questions, the four mates were so snide that I once wrote an equally snide account of what I'd just seen and subsequently received a damning note from their press rep, Derek Taylor.

Yes, for the trade magazine Record World I reviewed every album and single the group released between 1963 and 1970.

Yes, I did all that without ever getting it quite clear which were John Lennon's songs and which were Paul McCartney's. Both names were on all their songs, of course.

Now, thanks to John R. Waters, I've discovered I actually did have a fairly good idea of who was responsible for what. Waters conceived and wrote Lennon Through a Glass Onion, throughout which, with Stewart D'Arrietta singing and playing at the piano in a fedora, he offers a 90-minute tribute to the late Lennon at the Union Square Theatre.

It was Lennon who was alternately the most rebellious Beatle and the most committed -- in large part under the influence of second wife Yoko Ono -- to world harmony. McCartney was more given to whimsy and typical boy-girl romance.

I had my suspicions on Lennon's proclivities confirmed by lean, cropped-white-haired Waters, speaking in a convincing enough Liverpudlian accent and wearing black leather and black jeans. He's pretending to be a man whom he obviously still idolizes. His aim is to recount much of Lennon's life, only a part of it as the Beatle in the round glasses. An even lengthier segment is devoted to Lennon's Yoko Ono days, the ones only briefly interrupted by the West coast charging around with Harry Nilsson and the flinging with May Pang.

The celebration will be most meaningful to Beatles fans, and those particularly partial to Lennon. They may not believe, however, that Lennon would ever have comported himself in the theatrical way Waters does, greatly underlined by the hyper-dramatic lighting Anthony "Bazz" Barrett provides.

Nor might fans approve of the abbreviated material, among them what might be considered Lennon's signature songs. Just after opening, Waters begins "A Day in the Life" -- than which there might be no greater Lennon work. But he only gets partly through it when it cuts off, and he goes in another direction. No mention of first wife Cynthia or son Julian either and no inclusion of "Give Peace a Chance."

But I suppose you can't get around to everything, and Waters does cover many subjects, the pricklier ones, too. He defends Ono, more than once denying rumors she had a hand in the devastating 1970 break-up. Waters's Lennon says the boys had already been growing apart. This Lennon takes up the Beatles-bigger-than-Jesus controversy and explains it away. This Lennon also pooh-poohs any damaging friction between him and McCartney.

(I think was can assume that everything he speaks is derived from records of Lennon's remarks. Perhaps some of it comes from The Lives of John Lennon, Albert Goldman's 1988 biography, but maybe not, since Waters's Lennon is much less controversial than Goldman's. Also, the Beatles must qualify as four of the most quoted young men in the 20th century. There's so much to cull that Waters shouldn't have had to make anything up.)

For the record, Waters and D'Arrietta, who hasn't an especially light-handed way at the keyboard, get through all or part of 34 Lennon-McCartney and Lennon songs. It should go without saying that one is "Imagine." And when you think about it, you might wonder if, of all the Lennon songs, "Imagine" with its Utopian vision is the one that will last longest as time spreads far across the universe.


Carol Burnett is now siting and reading next to Brian Dennehy in the revival of A. R. Gurney's Love Letters, at the Brooks Atkinson. To be quick about it, she's giving an exemplary accounting of herself.

In the epistolary quasi-romance (it's never fully requited), she's the rich, increasingly troubled Melissa Gardner to Dennehy's upstanding Andy Ladd. What befalls her is much more demanding on an actor than what happens to Andy as the two of them age over 40 years from the time they meet in second grade.

Despite the depth of Gurney's look at two people involved in a love that may speak its name but can never be completely realized, he's inserted plenty of comic moments into their lives. It ought to be no surprise that Burnett mines them all, while keeping within the line-to-line demands. It's never as if she's playing opposite Tim Conway.

What also shouldn't be surprising is how well she deals with the pathos of a bright woman whose upbringing has given her privileges even as it's imprisoned her. Conveying this, Burnett is just as eloquent when not speaking as when speaking. Since the text of Love Letters is a relatively easy assignment by virtue of its being read from an in-hand script, certain requirements are obviated, but it sure would be nice to see Burnett back on Broadway in a full-out drama.

And Dennehy is just as impressive as she is. His accomplishment isn't due entirely to his now having settled into the role after a month with Mia Farrow. In some respects, he's giving a totally different performance. Previously, he barely looked up from his script and remained somber in relation to Farrow's grimmer interpretation.

Now he's all smiles through much of the action. He's continually amused by Burnett's Melissa. He gives the impression that his performance is equal part working opposite Burnett and equal part adjusting to the comic shift in the play's mood. What he's offering is an example of how tandem actors balance their emoting and how this type change reshapes a script without distorting it.

It looks as if director Gregory Mosher has also had a good time working with those appearing in the revival so far. Next at the onstage desk and two chairs: Candace Bergen and Alan Alda.