Faux Jest

When I was much younger and wanted something badly, such as a cable- knit sweater or a parakeet, I used to tell my mother that everybody had one. "Everyone?" she would inquire, with an arched left eyebrow. "If everyone jumped off the Woolworth building, would you do it, too?" I must have been asked that question hundreds of times.

Three decades later, I can finally give her an answer. No, Mom, I would not jump, even if everyone else mocks me for staying put on the roof, even if everyone, in their frantic need for approval, acts like high-flying lemmings.

In fact, my favorite tale these days is The Emperor's New Clothes, in which a vain ruler is conned into believing that an invisible set of clothing represents the height of fashion, and all his subjects, except one boy, are afraid to tell him the truth. This fable serves as my own parable for explaining popular art in the Nineties, whether it slithers forth on film, between dust jackets, or on the stage. Adjectives come easily: naked, shallow, stupid, a flashy void. Everyone loves Home Alone, and I couldn't sit through twenty minutes of the first installment. Everyone passes up literature for Stephen King and Danielle Steel. And it seems that everyone loves the romantic comedy Beau Jest, now rapidly selling out at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. The show made a small fortune and broke all previous records for attendance at Brian C. Smith's Off-Broadway Theatre; it was the most successful production in the sixteen-year history of the esteemed Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago (where the author, James Sherman, has become Playwright-In-Residence); and it has been playing for three years at the Lambs Theatre in New York.

Critics love it, audiences love it, children love it, dogs would probably love it if they could get in. I wonder just how many souls can fit on top of the Woolworth building.

The opinion I first expressed about the play last winter, when it had its premiäre in this area at the Off-Broadway Theatre, still holds. Allow me to quote from my February 17 critique: "Sherman's play sinks beneath light, into a form of dramatic vapidity that crops up with more and more frequency these days.... [It] makes early Neil Simon plays A the archetype of comedies such as this one A seem like masterpieces from Oscar Wilde or Shakespeare."

The cutesy plot concerns a pretty young kindergarten teacher named Sarah Goldman, constantly beset and upset by archetypal Jewish parents. She also has a divorced brother who's an analyst, and a boyfriend so goyishe his name even rings ultimately Christian: Kris Kringle. Naturally, she can't tell the folks about Kris, so when cornered (by her mother's constant matchmaking) she invents the perfect boyfriend: a Jewish doctor named David Steinberg. But the parents now insist on meeting the glorious Doc, so Sarah contacts the Heaven Sent Escort Service, hiring an out-of-work actor named Bob Schroeder to impersonate the fantasy beau. Unfortunately, Sarah's erroneous assumption that Schroeder is always a Jewish name adds to the complications.

The premise owns promise and the plot moves at a nifty pace, but Sherman sets up his jokes fifteen minutes ahead of time and then never delivers a punch line. Of course Joel the psychologist will ask Dr. Steinberg specific medical questions, of course actor Bob knows about Judaism because right up front we've learned that he performed in Fiddler on the Roof. Of course Mama bosses everyone around and of course Papa moans and groans. Of course, Sarah and Bob fall in love.

For Jews like yours truly, inside jokes abound. At the Passover seder, Abe the father skips most of the necessary prayers and rituals so he can eat sooner. My dad did the same, and my mom scolded him just as Sarah's mom Miriam does. Neither my mom nor Miriam trusts a microwave, and the first question asked about new people tends to be "Is he (she) Jewish?" Because my husband is a WASP, the confusions and misunderstandings through the years have been the same as the ones Sherman draws.

So much for the fact that Sherman possesses a good ear for awkward situations and ethnic eccentricities. But that's not enough. John Patrick Shanley doesn't stop at creating authentic Bronx barflies, just as David Mamet in Glengarry Glen Ross didn't think an accurate portrayal of real estate hustlers would suffice. Better playwrights do something with their characters. Even Neil Simon in Broadway Bound or Lost in Yonkers makes acute comments about the human condition in between the yuks. When Sherman attempts to wax profound in the final scenes and turns the play into a clarion call for individual freedom, it seems forced, contrived. The final happy ending is so sweet and corny it could raise your blood sugar to dangerous levels.

The only good news for the audience is that the Grove's production of the piece, unlike the Off-Broadway Theatre's rendition, is uniformly excellent. Robert Kalfin directs seamlessly, and the entire cast performs with dead-on comic timing and dramatic honesty. Particularly outstanding are ex-New York mayor Ed Koch look-alike Lee Wallace as Abe and Michael Elich as Joel. The simplistic sets, lights, and sound all suit the play well. This means that the interpretive part of Beau Jest can't get any better; too bad the fundamental creation falls so short of authentic farce.

I didn't expect Hamlet or Amadeus when I went to see this play the first time. However, I do expect that a hit of this magnitude at least measures up to Neil Simon's worst work. Which it does not.

Obviously, I need to get a few items off my chest:
1. Paula Abdul can't sing.
2. Jackie Collins tells a good story but writes like she's semi-literate.
3. Home Alone is boring.
4. Beau Jest offers heapings of fluff with no bite or wit.
5. The Emperor, more and more these days, has no clothes.

Until we admit the truth A that popular culture now descends to deeper, almost incredibly subterranean layers of trash, to a lowest common denominator best suited to inbred hillbillies, there's no way society can rise up to any sort of renaissance in the near future. Curse at me all you want, but face the facts: Nunsense II? Super Mario Brothers? Basic Instinct? Guilty As Sin? Judith Krantz novels (pick any one)? South Beach? Route 66 (again)?

Jump off the Woolworth building if you want. I'll just sit here eternally optimistic, waiting for the real thing to return.

Stage Notes
Speaking of Coconut Grove, the marketing team of Mark Sylvester and Savannah Whaley assure me they knew nothing about the Surf Theatre owner Frederick R. Von Langen's plan to sell Grove tickets in a subscription package that includes "a national brand, nutritionally safe, weight control program with complete vitamin-mineral supplementation" for only $1239.95 per year. They heard about it for the first time in my column, and frankly, they were not amused. Sylvester is looking into the whole mess before he takes some sort of appropriate action, undecided as of this writing.

The Theatre League of South Florida announces that it's gaining solid ground. Started in November 1991 as a series of monthly meetings among theater professionals, the League has adopted bylaws and begun the process for incorporation as a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting and protecting the interests of theater and its artists in Dade, Monroe, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. On June 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the Coconut Grove Playhouse (3500 Main Hwy.), the League will elect officers and board members to steer it through the next year. Individuals and organizations interested in becoming members, as well as the general public, are invited to attend. For more information, call Barry Steinman at 547-5414, extension 226.

Finally, the intriguing potpourri of plays being presented this week by the eighth International Hispanic Theatre Festival are contained in the "Theater Listings," and over the next two weeks, I will be reviewing the highlights.

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