Directed by David Taylor London, the version at Off Broadway essentially reprises London's production of the play last winter at the now-defunct Hollywood Performing Arts Theatre in Hollywood, with many of the same actors in key roles. In particular, Michael Goldsmith re-creates Eddie, and Walter Zukovski once again plays the colorful Yiddish theater actor Zaretsky. Perhaps because London has not sufficiently accommodated this new production to Off Broadway's much larger stage, Goldsmith and Zukovski's performances lack last year's intimacy. Here, Goldsmith appears vacant-eyed and strains to connect with both the audience and his character, while Zukovski's portrayal could use more spark. Conversely, as Gusta, Charlie's mother, Christine DiMattei re-delivers a spicy performance in a minor role. (Would that Gardner had written a play about her instead of this lamentable homage to her husband: a cruel manipulator, an unapologetically anti-Semitic Jew who considers it his mission to prove that New World Jews can be as macho as their Italian and Irish neighbors).
A keen choice on London's part this time around was casting a new actor as the narrator: Tom Wahl gives a solid performance in the unenviable part of Charlie, a present-day foil forced to sit around grinning as he revisits scenes from the past, or to pontificate when he stitches together those scenes for the audience through long-winded exposition.
Ultimately, whereas Clowns is sweet, Conversations proves saccharine; whereas Clowns is tart, Conversations seems bitter; whereas Clowns slides into sentimentality, Conversations turns positively maudlin. And unfortunately, despite eliciting several decent performances from his actors, director London's interpretation of Gardner's most recent play illuminates all of its shortcomings.
"I have a problem," actress Loretta Swit confides. "I don't know who I am." In Song of Singapore, currently playing at the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Swit stars as Rose of Rangoon, a sultry torch singer suffering from amnesia. In this musical spoof of black-and-white movies from the Forties, Rose finds herself marooned in a seedy Singapore nightclub with a host of disreputable characters on the eve of World War II. Embroiled in a plot that features murder, stolen jewels, an inscrutable dragon lady, crooked police, and Japanese invaders, the lounge diva cannot locate her passport. Not only that, she doesn't remember her name. But she can recall the lyrics to all her songs: Forties-era blues, jazz, and swing tunes written by Eric Frandsen, Robert Hipkens, Michael Garin, and Paula Lockhart. And Swit, as Rose, runs through these numbers backed by an on-stage band, each of whose members has a role in the show.
Unless South Florida audiences also have amnesia, they'll remember the feisty Swit as "Hot Lips" Houlihan on the television series M*A*S*H. While Swit admits that "my experience in television was wonderful," she notes that her performing roots are in the theater: She understudied Sandy Dennis in the comedy Any Wednesday, appeared in the original Odd Couple (both in New York), and spent a year and a half in a Las Vegas production of Mame before being lured away by the small screen in the Seventies. And since her ten and a half seasons as head nurse Houlihan, Swit toured for three years in Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine.
"The stage is where I come from," she notes. "It's my first love and actually was all I thought I would ever do."
Describing Rose of Rangoon as "a combination Dorothy Lamour-Rita Hayworth-Lynn Barry-Jane Greer -- every damsel in distress in a Forties movie," Swit likens Song of Singapore to "a little bit of Casablanca thrown in with the [Bob Hope and Bing Crosby] road pictures, plus a slice of Gilda." And she hints that she and the cast "kind of use the audience, which is a nice surprise and a lot of fun." You can join the act through February 11 at the Amaturo Theater, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Call 462-0222 for further information.
A Thousand Clowns.
Written by Herb Gardner; directed by Arland Russell; with David Arisco, Andrea O'Connell, Sean Russell, Wayne Legette, and George Contini. Through February 4. Call 444-9293 or see "Calendar" listings.
Conversations With My Father.
Written by Herb Gardner; directed by David Taylor London; with Tom Wahl, Michael Goldsmith, Walter Zukovski, and Christine DiMattei. Through March 17. Call 566-0554 or see "Calendar" listings.