There's No Business Like Slow Business

Though I was provided with excellent seats for "Give 'Em Hell Harry!", and though artistic director Arnold Mittelman was gracious enough to invite me to his theater balcony supper afterward, I must confess that I walked out of the play shortly after intermission. Now, as a critic, one might argue, there should be no exit, even in the most tedious of situations. What about that tacit agreement ordering reviewers to endure any and all degrees of hogwash until the bitter end? I came prepared for this argument by doing extensive research before taking the job, anticipating the possibility that one day, in order to save my sanity, I might have to forgo adherence to theatrical etiquette. As it turns out, Walter Winchell walked out of The Admirable Crichton by J.M. Barrie, loudly expressing his disapproval. In 1974, Stanley Kauffmann gave The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin about an hour before fleeing but still wrote the review, while Bernard Levin of England's The Daily Express refused to even see a particular production of Peter Pan, based on his knowledge of the cast and staging. (P.S. Those who actually attended claimed Mr. Levin's review was uncannily accurate.)

Other famed critics wouldn't even bother to make an apology, or bestow on such a pathetic piece any more than a single line. For example:

Dorothy Parker: House Beautiful is play lousy.
Parker, again: Guido Natzo was natzo guido.
George S. Kaufman on Gertrude Lawrence in Skylark: A bad play saved by a bad performance.

Then there's my personal favorite, and most apropos to Kevin McCarthy's impersonation of Harry Truman. This critical remark comes from Alexander Woolcott writing to George and Bea Kaufman on the occasion of their fifth wedding anniversary: "I have been looking around for an appropriate wooden gift and am pleased hereby to present you with Elsa Ferguson's performance in her new play."

McCarthy similarly makes a nice wooden gift to celebrate the opening of the Grove Playhouse's new season, which is not a good omen. It makes one wonder how many more inanimate objects will be appearing on the stage this year.

Allow me to explain my reasons for leaving, keeping in mind that these comments only refer to Act One, which I endured in its entirety, not even taking a suggestion from one of Bernard Shaw's contemporaries to "learn to sleep sitting up."

Sleep probably expresses the most appropriate reaction to this piece of work. Nothing can empty a house quicker than boredom, not even the call of "Fire!" Bad actors and poor plays might contain inadvertently entertaining moments; a performer going way over the top stuns in an almost hypnotic way, like watching a car crash. But McCarthy goes under the bottom, void of any energy except his constantly gritted teeth and slight tremble each time he flubs another line -- I counted fifteen in Act One alone. He doesn't hypnotize, he somnambulizes. All around me, in every row, some younger person -- who didn't remember Prez Truman and so felt no inherent duty to stay awake -- was nodding out on his or her chest. I haven't spotted so many drowsy people at a live event since the Grateful Dead allegedly spiked the water supply of The Filmore East with Quaaludes.

Perhaps the real Harry S. Truman was a great man, a scrappy little pugilist, the kind Perot pretends to be. Forget that stuff about Hiroshima and his blatant anti-feminist policies. As with Kennedy, history crowned Truman with sainthood, and since his reign took place pre-Watergate, we'll never know if he had sex with his cat or cheated on his county tax returns. But Truman also possessed charisma, while McCarthy, by fifteen minutes into the play, displayed that disturbing affliction called negative charisma, a black hole absorbing any semblance of life that might exist on-stage or in the house. He makes Barbara Bush look like Madonna, George like James Dean.

The script by Samuel Gallu -- a writer best known for his work on the kitschy horror classic, Theater of Death, with Christopher Lee, and even more impressive, Howdy Doody -- contains so much exposition I might as well take a history class. In respect to both acts of the play, let me assure you I am informed, having seen James Whitmore (with far more magnetism and skill) fight to make drama out of this borefest when it opened in 1975. Even in his case, dragging the audience through Truman's career from Independence, Missouri, to the Oval Office, detail-by-painstaking detail, almost buried Whitmore, let alone a rigid fossil like McCarthy.

Why I missed Act Two, then, should be clear. Having seen the show in its entirety, I knew the script never improves. And it was eminently clear that McCarthy undercut even the leaden text, so what was going to happen after intermission? Was Moses going to part the meager set and make a miracle? Was Jesus going to turn flat lines into fine wines? Unfortunately it never works that way, especially in a one-man show -- or should I say one-man slow.

Please understand that I intend to handle such dreadful situations more diplomatically in the future. I promise to do my best never, ever again to walk out on anyone's show, no matter what George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward did. Read my lips. No more joyous escapes.

I'd like Mr. Mittelman to ask Kevin McCarthy a question, though, since he has been doing this directorless role so listlessly for so long. Was his (and Mittelman's) secret intention to make our current candidates look spritely in comparison to this mummified performance of a dead egomaniac? Did the Republicans or Democrats or Perot-cites pay someone off If they did, bravo! The scheme worked.

"GIVE 'EM HELL HARRY!" by Samuel Gallu; with Kevin McCarthy. At the Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy, through November 15. Performance schedule varies weekly; call 442-4000 for more details. Tickets cost $15-$35.


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