Staged for TV
What happens when you put Hot Lips Houlihan in yellow chiffon three sizes too tight on a roof with a ghost who looks like he could be a skinny second cousin of Elvis Presley? Paste this scene against a Technicolor blue sky reminiscent of those you see in toilet paper commercials with babies floating in them. Sprinkle this with sound effects from a time when advertising slogans were called jingles, and what do you get? Well, if it's Pee-wee's Playhouse, you get a perversion of nursery rhyme props and characters, which the marginally dyslexic and demented rerun watchers of the world still find hilarious. But if it's the Coconut Grove Playhouse's production of A Passionate Woman, you get a made-for-TV movie onstage.
British playwright Kay Mellor's comedy demands to be discussed as television, because her script has the emotional depth and the ringing clichés that are staples of Sunday-night network movies. It turns out -- surprise! -- that Mellor is a television writer, and she just made her feature-film screenwriting debut with Fanny and Elvis, a romantic comedy released in Britain that has garnered criticism for its shallow characters. Also not surprisingly Mellor is currently in the process of turning A Passionate Woman into a TV movie. This process should only involve a moving van for transporting the set and costumes, more-sophisticated technology to enhance the ghost's shenanigans, and a real hot-air balloon instead of a basket powered by a hydraulic lift.
The Playhouse is delivering the American debut of A Passionate Woman, the story of Betty, an unhappily married housewife who goes into crisis on the day of her only son's marriage. When the scene opens, Betty has holed herself up in the attic, where her son finds her and attempts to coax her down to his wedding. Betty (played by Loretta Swit) rummages through old boxes and steamer trunks while her son, Mark (played by Scott Andrew Harrison) alternates between pleading with her and humoring her. Occasionally Betty's husband, Donald, played by John FitzGibbon, bellows out from downstairs: "Did you find her? Bring her down here!"
The scene drones on, and news of an illicit love affair Betty had early in her marriage is unearthed. Well, unearthed is not the most precise word, as we are following such superficial dialogue there is little to unearth. The accents don't help. According to the play notes, it is set in the suburb of Leeds, England, but the accents seem to be some kind of Irish-Oregon hybrid.
The premise is that Betty and her son have a very open and communicative relationship, but she is flipping out because he is leaving the nest. All this emotion, intimacy, and turmoil are conveyed in banal exchanges. For instance when Betty says, "We won't be able to talk like we used to when you're married," her son responds: "Sure we will, Mom. You'll always be special to me."
While not overwhelmingly comic, Harrison does manage to make his character the most believable of the play. He even gives Mark a sort of hip, Gen-X slant by acknowledging and accepting his mom's hanky-panky quite effortlessly.
Of course in rummaging around, Betty finds -- you guessed it -- the Peggy Lee trinity of lost loves: a letter, a Nat King Cole album, and a chiffon dress. There's a flurry of letter opening, swooning, crooning, and the inevitable squeezing into the three-sizes-too-tight chiffon dress. In the midst of it all, an odd but welcome plot change emerges in the specter of Craze, the long-lost love, whose tousled bangs hanging over one eye and tight pants are undeniably Elvis (though the Elvis metaphor is never really developed).
In any case W.C. Green, who plays this would-be Elvis, is the only one in the cast who has sense enough to try and salvage his cardboard character by playing off it. He takes his character in the only direction it can go: over the top. Our Elvis has something sort of Jim Nabors about him as he loosens his baritone voice across the stage toward Betty. At first a dreamy, Love Boat-type persona, he later becomes goofy and dull. And at the end Craze is just the ghost of a young married guy who got caught trying to get his groove on. (It turns out his wife shot him in the back for his philandering.)
Because of its proportion to the stage (almost all set and no stage), the set looks like one on TV. Shifts in emotional tone and set changes are signaled by sound effects reminiscent of ... TV, in particular that Sixties show Bewitched. Remember the twinkling noise when Samantha twitched her nose before doing something witchy? These are the sounds that signal scene changes and dramatic moments in A Passionate Woman. None of this offsets the fact that clichéd and uninteresting emotional pleas make up the bulk of the script: The son pleads for his mom to come down from the attic; the father demands the son and the mother come down from the attic; the son and the husband beg the mother to come down from the roof. When an attic, a ladder, a roof, some rope, and a hot-air balloon indicate the rising dramatic tension, you're in dangerous Seventies slapstick sitcom territory.
In Act Two Donald and son Mark actually manage to have the most penetrating dialogue of the entire play. They begin to peel away the layers of their father and son roles and confront what has been a mostly distant, empty relationship. Donald reveals to his son that he knows about Betty's affair. He observes: "Marriage is hanging in there when you know you're not wanted," one of the more interesting lines in the play for its veracity. He also reveals he has felt like an outcast in his own home for the past 30 years. The scene is fairly strong, but instead of embracing, getting teary-eyed, and moving on, Donald is given this line: "I think I must be catching a cold." Another TV moment. Robert Bly would stomp out of the theater with his band of sensitive yet rugged men! What could Mellor have been thinking?
It suffices to say that Betty is not a passionate woman. The implicit requirement of that trait is to be impassioned about something. Antigone, passionate about justice; Rosalind, passionate about intelligence and equanimity; Stella, passionate about passion. Hysteria is not passion. There is nothing passionate about Betty, because there is nothing unique about her. Superficially the frantic choices she makes in the last five minutes of the play are feasible. But emotionally her decisions are not very convincing. We haven't seen the psychological unloosening and emotional experimentation that make a believable metamorphosis.
Comedy is an equation, not a formula. Unlike tragedy, it cannot be foreshadowed, because it springs from the character's reaction to life, more than from life itself. And A Passionate Woman is not funny. Loretta Swit, as an icon from the popular television show M*A*S*H, has two options. She could play such a strong and well-developed character that the audience forgets who Hot Lips is within the first five minutes. (Recall Jean Stapleton in the Playhouse's Eleanor: Her Secret Journey for that.) The other and more feasible option would be to play off Maj. Margaret Houlihan's hot-tempered and mouthy persona. Use it to add some depth to Betty. Swit transcends her past, but she doesn't create anything interesting enough to replace it. That can mostly be blamed on the script, but a more resourceful actress, say Kathleen Turner, could have pulled off.
In the end Betty hovers over the audience in a hot-air balloon juxtaposed against the aforementioned blue sky. She waves and shouts at us: "You know something? We've got to live every moment in this life. It may be all we've got." Yet another TV moment! We have not been entertained but distracted. Contented audience members cheer. Carpe diem! But what about those of us who still go to the theater to find out what connects us to one another as human beings? What about those of us who want to be shocked or surprised, or who want to have new insight into the human condition? What about those strong female roles seen superbly executed before on the Coconut Grove Playhouse's stages, like in Goodbye, My Friduchita; Eleanor; or Medianoche? Considering the unevenness of the theater's programming, it's about a 50-50 chance they'll re-emerge.
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