STAGE LIFE: The Way They Were

Remember when cable TV talked of “narrowcasting”?

We heard the word a great deal in the ‘80s. In case you weren’t around then – or in case you’ve forgotten — narrowcasting involved a cable network’s targeting shows to an audience it knew was comparatively small and that the vast majority of viewers would change the channel.

There’s some narrowcasting going on right now at the Lion Theatre where STAGE LIFE is playing. It’s a show for either those who knew Broadway as it used to be or those who’d now like to know how the theater once was.

Martin Tackel has created a non-musical revue that could have been produced a half-century ago. That is NOT a criticism, just an observation, although in some cases, it serves as a warning. Those who feel that Broadway didn’t exist or matter until WICKED came on the scene should stay home and listen to its original cast album (which they probably call “a soundtrack”).

How many today will recognize the name Boris Aronson? And how many of us would have had he not worked for Hal Prince during the last years of his career? He’s mentioned here.

Going back some time before that, do you know who Max Gordon was? He was once one of Broadway’s most prolific and successful producers; in the ‘30s alone he mounted no fewer than 19 productions – including some whose titles still resonate today: THE WOMEN, JUBILEE, THE GREAT WALTZ, DODSWORTH, ROBERTA and THE BAND WAGON.

Granted, Gordon is only mentioned in passing, when an actor enters, moves to the lip of the stage and delivers a line he once said about the theater business. Such a quotation is delivered after each sketch. If you aren’t rankled that virtually every one of them was said by someone long dead, you’ll appreciate many a pungent perception.

Gordon produced alone, which was the norm in those days. A stage manager later speaks about another solo producer who gave him “every show he had for the next couple of years.” That reminds of us of a time when shows didn’t have mammoth runs and tied up theaters for years or even decades. There was a lot of theatrical crop rotation in those times.

There’s a quick mention of a show that “opened on Monday.” Yes, plenty of them once did – which is why we had so many eight-performance flops back then. The ‘60’s alone had 20; the 17-plus years of this century have yielded only one: AMERICAN BUFFALO. Most shows now open on Thursdays so they can be reviewed in Friday’s paper and spur people to get tickets for the opening weekend.

Some sketches are relevant to today, such as the one where a man attending A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE laughs so uproariously that he bothers the woman sitting next to him. We’ve all had that happen (perhaps as recently as on our last trip to the theater) and we’ve all wanted to speak up. The woman does – which leads to a surprise ending.

Your eyebrows may shoot up in equal surprise halfway through a letter we hear written aloud: “Dear Mr. Barrymore” it starts. Firing the performer is the reason for the missive, and if indeed if you know anything about the Barrymore family beyond the fact that a Broadway theater is named for one of them (and not the one cited in this sketch), you may reach the wrong conclusion.

One sketch is almost eternal. A frustrated dramatist can’t find a pencil that will allow her to begin writing. Once she finds it, though, she still isn’t happy – because now there’s no excuse to keep her from buckling down and doing the work.

While procrastinating playwrights will always be plentiful, don’t you think that there are precious few playwrights around who still use pencils?

Even if you have never heard of Jose Quintero and Geraldine Page, you’ll be heartened by their story. Page was a would-be actress who was now at the point where she believed she was a never-be-actress. She’s resigned to her “not so bad” job of working in a sewing factory. But once again we’re reminded that talent even on Page’s lofty level can take you only so far, and that there’s nothing better than being in the right place at the right time.

At least two of the tales Tackel tells come from THE PASSIONATE PLAYGOER, the 1958 “personal scrapbook” in which George Oppenheimer collected numerous articles about our very different

Broadway in the first half of the twentieth century.

One has a talk show host interviewing two critics, who come out with one cliché after another. Yes, so many of us do have a limited vocabulary, don’t we?

Then comes the story of Gilbert McBride, a producer who made David Merrick seem like Pee Wee Herman. Even those who know 20th century theater inside out won’t necessarily be able to recognize the name, because McBride never existed. He was, however, based on Jed Harris, a producer whom many wished HAD never existed.

As the story unfolds at the Lion, it may seem to be a variation on THE BAD AND THE BEAUTFUL. Indeed, that Academy Award-winning screenplay of 1952 was adapted from two short stories that George Bradshaw had written for magazines – stories that had dealt with Broadway, not Hollywood, as the film preferred the locale to be. Now we get the non-Tinseltowned version; seeing the story return to its roots is a treat.

There’s a James Thurber story that my friend Ed Glazier told me originally appeared in that 1960 revue A THURBER CARNIVAL but didn’t make the original cast album. Here a big Agatha Christie fan happens on a copy of MACBETH, sees it as a murder mystery and delivers her own (far-fetched) theories of whodunit.

But soon we return to the arcane where Russians — Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Danchenko – negotiate who’s going to be the big guy when they start the Moscow Art Theatre.

Director Gwen Arment hasn’t been narrow in her casting, for she has found six winners to play more than two dozen characters. Stuart Zagnit is particularly expert as Sanford Meisner. (Who, you’re asking? Actually, let’s hope you’re not.) He’s also superb as Danchenko to Brandon Schraml’s equally adept Stanislavski.

MarTina Vidmar capitalizes the “T” in her first name, and if it’s to remind us that she has talent, she has a point – and a mighty strong one. It’s in great evidence when she portrays the critic.

Brittney Lee Hamilton is often called upon to play the dimmest of bulbs, but when she’s asked to portray Geraldine Page, we see her rise beyond the occasion.

Judy McLane proves that playing over 4,000 performances of MAMMA MIA’s 5,758 doesn’t necessarily jade an actress to the point where she walks through performances. McLane can emulate the naiveté as the just-starting-out actress who attends a party and learns a great deal about performers during the evening. She’s droll when writing to Barrymore, and later makes the mystery reader so sure of herself when deconstructing MACBETH that it’s a wonder that Peter Husovsky can keep a straight face.

But in the end, this is NOT a show for those who don’t know Billy DeWolfe from Billy Dee Williams. And if that line made you smile, STAGE LIFE may well be for you.