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After the Night and the Music: Shut Up and Dance

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The first new play of the 2005-06 Broadway season is a total charmer. Elaine May has written a funny, sentimental piece that lifts your spirits and slaps an indelible smile on your face. In the lead roles, Eddie Korbich and J. Smith-Cameron put in strong early bids for the next Astaire Awards as Broadway's leading dancers as they demonstrate the magic in our lives that can be attainable every day. As directed by Daniel Sullivan and choreographed by Randy Skinner, the first new play of the Broadway season starts us off on an optimistic high.

Unfortunately, the first new play of the Broadway season, titled Curtain Raiser is only about twenty minutes long and is followed by the second and third new plays of the season in Elaine May's trio of one-acts, After the Night and the Music. So disappointing are May's last two efforts, this show may be the best known argument against second-acting. In fact, if money is no object, I'd recommend starting your evening with Curtain Raiser, then checking to see who has a 9:00 show at one of the nearby cabarets.

But let's begin with the good stuff. Curtain Raiser features two of New York theatre's more reliable performers in a sweet, albeit predictable, premise and milking it for all the joy and humor that can be found. J. Smith-Cameron is a wallflower lesbian who prefers to stay by herself at a dance hall bar while her light-footed girlfriend (Deirdre Madigan) plays belle of the ball. Eddie Korbich, looking puffy and less than elegant in his drab suit, bad comb-over and unflattering frames, has been turned down by every woman in the place and finally asks Smith-Cameron for a dance. Reluctantly, when convinced he wants nothing more than a dance partner, she gives in to his persistence. As you might have guessed, especially if you're familiar with Korbich's work, the guy is a former dance instructor and soon the two of them are floating on air. Watching her break out of her clumsy hesitancy, trying to keep up with his wild exuberance is a sight that warms the heart and tickles the funny bone.

Curtain Raiser's success comes primarily from its situation and the ability of its two leads to express their characters within the humorous choreography. The next two pieces rely primarily on the author's verbal wit, and never comes close to matching May's former glories. Yes, there are laughs and the occasional flashes of high wit, but they are isolated occurrences that never build into a satisfying comedy.

Giving Up Smoking, the evening's darker piece, opens with Jeannie Berlin sitting by the phone, waiting for a fella to call her for a date. She's interrupted by calls from a friend played by Jere Burns; a lonely lisping gay man obsessed with The Wizard of Oz, a characterization that leans heavily toward being a negative stereotype. (In the third play there are a couple of jokes about a father being thankful his son wasn't gay. They were received with uncomfortable silence the night I attended.) They're eventually joined on stage by Brian Kerwin, as Berlin's potential date, and Smith-Cameron as Burns' cancer-stricken mom. Each actor is restricted to a small piece of John Lee Beatty's set, speaking out to the audience in alternating monologues on the subject of "why I'm not depressed." The play about the inability to connect with others rarely connects with the audience. Perhaps it would have had a better chance without Berlin in the central role. The playwright's daughter, she was Oscar-nominated for a wonderful comic turn in the May-directed, The Heartbreak Kid, and often appears in her mother's projects. But although her slow, drawly, deadpan speaking voice works well with one-liners and zingers, it seems to get in the way of her ability to develop a fully-realized, sympathetic character.

The last piece, Swing Time, is a sex farce reminiscent of the old 70's TV show, Love, American Style. Remember that one? Each week they featured 2 or 3 sitcom-style stories giving viewers a sneak peak into the sexual revolution and liberated women, but after all the teasing and pseudo-hipness everything would wind up rather chaste and traditional. In this one Smith-Cameron, who is remarkably winning and funny with such bland material, is nervously preparing the apartment she shares with hubby Burns for a visit from their best married friends (Berlin and Kerwin). For reasons that are never explained, they've decided to have a sexual foursome. The expected gags revolved around body insecurities, performance anxiety and middle-aged people using marijuana are all there, but little of it is especially clever.

Elaine May will surely be remembered as a significant contributor to American comedy, especially for her work with Mike Nichols, but the best that can be said about parts two and three of After the Night and the Music is that they are somewhat more watchable than her last theatrical venture, the horrendous Adult Entertainment. But if you don't mind paying a top ticket price of around two bucks a minute, Curtain Raiser should send you out into the night kicking up your heals.

 

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Brian Kerwin, J. Smith-Cameron and Jeannie Berlin
Bottom: J. Smith-Cameron and Eddie Korbich

 


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From This Author Michael Dale