Laugh Back in Anger
TomFoolery was first produced by the Actors' Playhouse in 1989, when the troupe was operating out of Kendall. They did it there again in 1992 and again in 1996, at the current location on Miracle Mile. Now they're doing it once more. All four actors involved in this musical revue had parts in those previous productions, and they slide into their roles like feet into old boots.
Yes sirree bob: feet into old boots. Despite the subversive overtones in the playbill's director's note, and the blatantly subversive content of TomFoolery's songs, this is another one of those hoary Equity productions that feels exactly as shopworn and comfy as it is — tailor-made to titillate nostalgia junkies and make them feel as if they are, in fact, still alive.
And maybe they are. Who knows? It's a crazy and mysterious world, and TomFoolery probably has a place in it. The show is a tribute to and celebration of the work of Tom Lehrer, an unclassifiable Harvard man-cum-mathematician-cum-tunesmith who penned 37 ugly songs of loathing and violence over the course of about 20 years. His career, if you can call it that, was built on the success of a mail-order record and an endorsement by Princess Margaret (which makes one realize that even in the Fifties, people tended to miss the point). Lehrer gave up the cause just as the Sixties counterculture was getting ready to make rebellion look silly forever. This really is probably why he hung up his hat, though it has been joked that Lehrer quit political satire after Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. He did go on record saying Kissinger's win made "political satire obsolete."
But Christ Almighty, at the Actors' Playhouse — surrounded by mayors and politicos and establishment heavies on opening night — it felt almost like Kissinger was there. It was more his crowd than Lehrer's, but everybody hooted and hollered and clapped just like they were buddy-buddy with the twisted old songsmith all the same, sharing a little joke at one another's expense.
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And what did these people hear when Margot Moreland, Oscar Cheda, Stephen Jordan, and Francisco "Pancho" Padura took the stage?
They heard "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," performed to a sweet, almost childlike melody of incomparable buoyancy and joy: All the world seems in tune/On a spring afternoon/When we're poisoning pigeons in the park. They heard "Werner Von Braun," a song so full of bitterness and moral outrage that one gets the sense Lehrer couldn't tell whether to finish the song or shoot himself in the head: You, too, may be a big hero/Once you've learned to count backwards to zero/"In German oder English I know how to count down!/Und I'm learning Chinese!" says Werner Von Braun. They heard "National Brotherhood Week," a song that can be described only as the sound of a soul dying: But during National Brotherhood Week/Lena Horne and Sheriff Clark are dancing cheek to cheek!/It's fun to eulogize/The people you despise/As long as you don't let them in your school.
There were less heavy things too. "The Vatican Rag" is an affectionate poke at the poor bastards who got together for Vatican II, laboring through the Scriptures and arguing late into the night, thinking they were doing something terribly important and sweating yellow stains through their vestments in their agonizing efforts to stay current. "I Got It from Agnes" is a fun song about, presumably, crabs, and who got them from whom. "Smut" is an ode to pornography. These numbers are all applause-worthy and add up to very cool, sophisticated entertainment. But they're not quite the point.
The point is this: Tom Lehrer was and probably still is a very angry man. Asked recently why he doesn't do political satire anymore, he said, "I'm not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn't figure out what kind of song I'd write. That's the problem. I don't want to satirize George Bush and his puppeteers; I want to vaporize them."
The nastiest songs in TomFoolery communicate with all the subtlety of grenades, for all of their smart jazz chord progressions and wordplay. What we are seeing is a man responding to a vast moral vacuum in the center of our collective conscience; we are watching him watching it, deciding as he does so that he must transform his rage and incredulity into humor, lest his horror eat him alive. The results are often funny, but to laugh at it, we, too, are consenting to avert our eyes. "When You Are Old and Gray" is a song about the immutable transience of love; "So Long, Mom" is a cheerful tune about the casual destruction of millions of lives; "We Will All Go Together When We Go" is a joyful forecast of mass extinction; "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie" is a song about an entire region of the United States that would be better off not existing. Acknowledging that an intelligent man could be moved to write such things should be sobering. Acknowledging our own compunction to laugh at what he wrote should at least make us reassess our own tendencies toward psychic masochism.
Alack, this is entertainment. You will not find the throngs outside the Miracle Theatre in tears or engaged in rapt discussions of The Meaning of It All. The only place outside of the songs themselves where one might find a hint of what's really going on in this show is in the actors' eyes, as they perform it.
Backed by a tight, rocking little three-piece, the four players sing and dance and make light of all they do. There is never a moment when they are anything but transported with joy over their project. They have done this before.
Watch them singing these old lines, however, and you'll see the silhouette of something dangerous just behind their smooth showbiz surfaces. Beneath Moreland's big alto, Pancho's lovely tenor, Stephen Jordan's Rod Stewart-esque croon, and Oscar Cheda's inspired mugging, there is something feral thrashing around, giving the comic performances a wild-eyed intensity that would be frightening in any other context, but here harmonizes with the music so perfectly that it seems normal. It's a good thing to look for. Even if TomFoolery has been defanged by repetition, time, comfort, and context, it is apparently still impossible to sing these words without seeing some of what Lehrer saw. This is good news for all of us, in ways that have nothing to do with showbiz.
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