Married . . . with Problems

Imagine two straight upper-middle-class white couples on the deck of a Long Island beach house. Chloe Haddock pushes food on everyone, peppers her speech with badly pronounced French, and sings the wrong lyrics to show tunes. Her husband, John, completes the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink and lusts after his sister-in-law, Sally Truman. Sally evades John, oil-paints a beach scene, and frets over a man she's seen swim too far out into the ocean. Meanwhile her husband, Sam (Chloe's brother), makes homophobic remarks about the neighbors and worries that everyone is talking about him. Sally's brother, recently dead as a result of AIDS-related complications, left his house to her, so the couples gather there for a brief July 4th weekend holiday.

Within the imposed structure of three acts, this quartet of characters in Terrence McNally's 1991 Lips Together, Teeth Apart lurch toward and away from each other, acknowledging their fears, their needs, their mortality -- sometimes to themselves, sometimes to each other. Always they attempt, against considerable odds, to make contact. After all, they exist in McNally country, a dramatic landscape of trenchant one-liners, distinctly drawn personalities, emotional complications, and a relentless belief in the possibility of connection between human beings. And Hollywood Boulevard Theatre brings this territory to South Florida in a funny and finely acted production. With only one weekend remaining in its run, you should make an effort to catch this show.

Considered a leading American playwright -- his Love! Valour! Compassion! won this year's Tony award for best play; his new Master Class, about opera diva Maria Callas, is on its way to Broadway -- McNally began his career in the 1960s off-Broadway movement. Identified as a master of the bitchy quip, McNally also has been known for working with particular actors, over the years writing specific parts for Kathy Bates and Nathan Lane.

Certainly he has failings as a playwright. For one thing, he too glibly fancies himself a descendant of Anton Chekov. ("We'll all drink Russian vodka and get Chekovian," says John in Lips, both a nod to the stellar dramatist and a pat on McNally's own back for assembling small communities of characters and having them yearn, hope, and mourn together.) For another thing, he loves the sound of his own voice. His plays go on too long, and we often hear him speaking instead of his characters, as in the closing speeches of Lips, which too neatly resolve the characters' emotional dilemmas. Yet in challenging himself to explore character and structure with greater precision in each new play, McNally's work has deepened over the years. Although he leavens the intensity in Lips with humor, he does not hesitate to go to the heart of the characters' terrors, from fear of AIDS to fear of intimacy.

David Taylor London's affection for the Haddocks and Trumans dominates his succinct, expertly timed direction. Where McNally's script balances compassion for the characters and a merciless rendering of their self-delusions, London's direction emphasizes the play's more charitable aspects. And in the hands of a talented acting ensemble, this interpretation -- less scathing and more warmly amusing than McNally might have intended -- works just fine.

Hugh M. Murphy, fresh from his drag stint as Sylvia St. Croix in Ruthless! tempers his character's dry-witted self-control with a vivid loss of that control during a fight scene with Sam. Oscar Cheda delivers an utterly natural performance as the high-strung, rough-around-the-edges Sam. Andrea O'Connell reins in the over-the-top Chloe with enough comedy to prevent the character from becoming too irritating. And although Maribeth Graham succumbs to her musical-theater tendency to smile broadly enough to light up the back of a 500-seat house, her deeply felt characterization of Sally gives the production its emotional core. Behind the too-ready grin lies a strong dramatic actress.

McNally's work is a presence in South Florida theater this season. He wrote the book for Kiss of the Spider Woman, which opens the Broadway series at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on October 6. And Love! Valour! Compassion! comes to Boca Raton's Caldwell Theatre in the spring. The two straight couples on holiday in Lips foreshadow the four gay couples who tell jokes and contemplate love and mortality in L! V! C! Check out all three shows, and experience how a writer's work evolves.

Stage Notes
Unless you've had your head in the sand, you'd be hard-pressed not to have heard about the controversy regarding Neil's Garden, Geoffrey Hassman's play about euthanasia and its effects on a gay couple's 40-year relationship. After its widely praised world premiere at Area Stage Company on Miami Beach in May, the show moved to Brian C. Smith's Off Broadway Theatre in Broward County, supposedly to be directed by Area's John Rodaz. However, it's no secret that Rodaz and Smith had a parting of ways once the show crossed the county line. According to Smith, the script underwent considerable changes during its long summer run under his directorship at Off Broadway. So when the twentieth annual Carbonell Award nomination ballots were being compiled this summer, the question for the 1994-95 awards production committee, which determines award eligibility, was whether or not both theaters qualified to receive Carbonell nominations for the play.

After wracking their brains during a long August 30th meeting, committee members voted in favor of dual eligibility. The ruling went public in the September 14 Carbonell Awards nomination announcement, which stated, "Because the play differed greatly from the Area Stage and the Off Broadway theaters, the show was ruled as two separate productions." A panel of 30 local theater critics and theater professionals (including this critic) awarded the show seven nominations: Best New Work, Best Director, and Best Set Design for Area; Best Production of a Play, and Best Set Design for Off Broadway; and Best Actor nominations for Bill Hindman and Walter Zukovski, who appeared in both productions.

In a letter to the South Florida Critics Association, Rodaz protested the decision, claiming, "The Area Stage production of Neil's Garden at the Off Broadway Theatre was not recast, was not redirected, was not reworked, was not rehearsed, was not rewritten and redesigned enough to be considered anything other than a move to a new venue." Additionally he asked for a "correction" from the nomination committee.

"We find nothing in John's request to make us change our decision," says Hap Erstein, theater critic for the Palm Beach Post and president of the critics association. "The decision of the committee was in no way a comment on quality. What we wanted to define was what, in general, makes any one production different from the other, and we determined if they have different directors, they are by definition different productions."

Smith insists the productions were radically different. "If he [Rodaz] was going to have this violent a reaction to nominations that are mostly in his favor," Smith notes, "then it might be credible if he'd come to see the show to have a point of reference."

"My protest has nothing to do with the nominations," counters Rodaz. "But to say that the productions were significantly different I cannot accept. We had the play too long and worked it too hard. We had it for three and half months. They [Off Broadway] had it for three days, one day of which I directed, and as anyone in the theater knows, two days is not enough time to make significant changes in a play."

Having seen only the Area Stage production, I'm not in a position to judge whether Smith recycled or redeveloped Rodaz's work. I did, however, receive countless press releases and postcards from Off Broadway heralding its production, with nary a reference to Area Stage. Regardless of the extent of any changes, the show did originate at the Miami Beach theater, and acknowledgement of that should have been explicit. Smith asserts it was: "I put Area Stage in the program. It said, 'Neil's Garden first produced by Area Stage and directed by John Rodaz.' I did not deny them any credit they deserve. After we had the final break, I just felt there was no reason for me to be connected to him."

Not a cordial situation. Lest Neil's Garden and its multiple nominations appear to dominate this year's Carbonells, however, congrats are in order to other nominees. The Caldwell Theatre Company garnered the highest number of nominations (twelve), including four for The Price and five musical nominations for Company. Ruthless! which played both the Colony Theatre in Miami Beach and the Vinnette Carroll Theatre in Fort Lauderdale without contentious directorial changes, led the musicals category with seven nominations, including Best Actress (Margot Moreland) and Best Actor (Hugh M. Murphy). New Theatre in Coral Gables earned nine nominations, including two -- Best Director for Rafael de Acha and Best Play -- for the theater's production of Sight Unseen. Todd Durkin captured a Best Actor nomination for Lenny, with Larry Jurrist up for for Best Supporting Actor in the same production. And for its debut as a company, New World Repertory secured four nominations for Faith Healer.

Reserve a seat for the awards presentation on Monday night, October 30, at the Royal Palm Dinner Theatre in Boca Raton. Dinner and show tickets are $35. Call 800-841-6765 for details.

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