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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
Beggar on Horseback
by Les Gutman
A few days ago, the Roundabout Theatre unveiled its new home on 42nd Street. In keeping with current trends, it named the theater after American Airlines, a corporate sponsor that gave it a large sum of money. It's first presentation is Kaufman and Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner. How funny would it have been had the Roundabout instead presented a different Kaufman play, Beggar on Horseback (written with Marc Connelly)?
Beggar, you see, is an expressionistic parable that rails against the perils of trading one's artistic autonomy for lucre. Neil McRae (Todd Allen Durkin) is a poor young classical composer. Worrying about how hard he's working at odd jobs to make ends meet, his friends -- a doctor visiting from back home (Robert Tyree) and his neighbor, Cynthia Mason (Alicia Minshew), in whom, incidentally, he has more than a passing interest -- urge him to ask Gladys Cady (Tara Sands) to marry him. Her daddy (Robert Arcaro) is rich. He also happens to come from the give-em-what-they-wanna-hear school of musical composition.
It takes an elaborate dream sequence to save Neil from the clutches of the corporate world, where "ideas come over from the Inspiration Department"
Peccadillo Theater Company, like the Roundabout, is interested in reviving these old classics. It's home, however, is a place with an old-fashioned non-corporate name, Bank Street Theatre. But that's about all that's old fashioned there. Reviewing the Roundabout's The Man Who Came to Dinner the other day, my esteemed editor Elyse Sommer said: "Okay, so it is somewhat dated with neither the stated nor the veiled references to celebrities circa 1939 likely to mean much to young theater audiences." Well, Peccadillo's revival of this 1924 play fixes all that. Neil's odd jobs are for a website, and just about everybody's got a cell phone or a beeper.
In the original version of the play, Neil was fending off intrusions from Tin Pan Alley. Now, his competition is a blend of rap, hip-hop and funk. Director Dan Wackerman has enlisted fusion choreographer Bev Brown to give the show a robust MTV atmosphere. She's brought with her a corps of spirited young dancers (who also cover all of the play's many supporting roles), the net effect of which is a thoroughly contemporary feel.
Does the play succeed overall? I'd say yes. Beggar is certainly not Kaufman's finest work, nor Connelly's either. (Connelly, one of the founders of The New Yorker, won the Pulitzer for Green Pastures.) But it is smart and well-paced and, considering the infrequency of its staging, well worth a look. Younger audiences will likely be surprised to learn it is not a new play, although nostalgic older audience members (including several vocal ones at the intermission of the performance I saw) will more likely be horrified by what they'll judge to be far more than a peccadillo..
Performances varied measurably. Luckily, the show's center was in the very capable, appealing hands of Todd Durkin. Perhaps it's a sign of the show's currency that the most obvious way of describing his portrayal of Neil is to say it is in the style of Matthew Perry's Chandler on the television series, Friends. (It doesn't hurt that they have much the same eyes.) That portion of the population that is not responsible for making Friends a hit may well claim no credit if Beggar on Horseback follows suit.
Ms. Minshew was trying way too hard in the show's first scene, but she eventually settled down nicely. Mr. Tyree was particularly apt not only as Dr. Rice, but also as his many manifestations in Neil's dreams. The red flags go up, however, anytime a character with the last name Cady is on-stage. (In addition to Arcaro and Sands, that's Colleen Smith Wallnau as the hymn blurting mother and Simon Petrie as the sickly son/brother, Homer). It's clear Dan Wackerman wants us to loathe these people, but having them incessantly screaming their lines, overacting and moving about annoyingly came damn close to ruining the rest of his production. Although they occasionally got too far out on a limb to be saved, the dancers generally acquitted themselves nicely, especially when called upon to essentially play themselves.
Production values were simple but fine. The set was aided effectively by the use of projections, which were also used to good surreal effect in the dream sequences. Robert Auld's sound design was very commendable for conveying the effect of the music -- even in club scenes -- without making it so deafening it compromised the dialogue. Lighting was also unobtrusive and good.
Now if I go back to the West Village and see a sign for Peccadillo's AT&T Long Distance Theatre, I am going to be mighty upset. In the meantime, I wonder what it would take to get Roundabout head honcho Todd Haimes down for a couple of little lessons from Messrs. Kaufman, Wackerman et al.
LINKS TO OTHER SHOWS MENTIONED ABOVE
Kaufman and Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner