KPBS AIRDATE: August 18, 1993
What ever happened to the American Dream? These days, it’s a full-blown nightmare. It now seems like the only way to turn rags to riches is to win the lottery. It’s hardly a matter of perseverance and perspicacity. Hard work often leads to hard times. The apple pie of post-Civil War novelist Horatio Alger has been splattered in the faces of too many Americans.
But that was true even in the thirties, when writer Nathanael West penned his four novels of the American Dream turned inside out. Next to Alger’s 110-volume output, this was a meager offering. But it had an effect on writer-director James Lapine, who, for ten years, has been thinking about retooling West’s 1934 novel, “A Cool Million” into a stage play or musical.
His sometime collaborator, Stephen Sondheim, wasn’t interested. Wise move. Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein had already given us a wonderfully spirited musical version of Voltaire’s “Candide,” a story that turns eternal optimism on its ear. But Lapine was undaunted, and now we witness the results of his persistence in “Luck, Pluck and Virtue,” which is having its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.
The production has more style than substance. It’s got a glorious, Crayola-colored, two-dimensional, layered look. And a highly capable, inordinately flexible cast. But the cynical coupling of buffoonery and dismemberment just doesn’t work. There’s too fine a line between silly and sullied here. The comedy is slapstick tinged with acid. But it’s more iterative than inspired, more exaggerated than engaging.
Lapine the director is obviously having a ball. But the script handed to him by Lapine the playwright just isn’t worth all the hoopla and hullabaloo.
This is the story of one young Lester Price, played with superbly agile and ebullient naiveté by Neil Patrick Harris, aka Doogie Howser, M.D. He’s got terrific comic timing, and he leaps and falls with aplomb. Lester leaves his muddled, Midwest, TV-addicted Mom to make his fortune in the Big Apple. But all he gets is the pits. He also gets a couple of jail sentences. But mostly it’s about what he loses: his teeth, his eye, his thumb, his leg, his scalp and ultimately, his life. What price, innocence!
Lester is haunted by all manner of nineties nightmares: cops and robbers, skinheads and lawyers, movie moguls, cult leaders and pseudo do-gooders. But he’s missed by gays and AIDS (even in “Candide,” syphilis is an issue). And in the end, what’s the point? What does he learn? How does he benefit from all his lousy experiences? He gets a little more cynical, he has a dream about the way things should have been, and then he dies, pointlessly. Ho-hum. Lapine’s genius is obviously more on the stage than on the page.
But he’s assembled an excellent design team and a wonderful ensemble, most of whom change character magically, by the minute. In this realm, Dan Moran stood out. But everyone’s much more than good. And under it all is the melodramatic music of Allen Shawn, who sits stageside, plunking away at the piano.
What we’re ultimately served up is a lot of fresh ingredients poured into a confection that falls flat. God knows, it’s not too sweet; there’s bitterness in every bite. We walk away feeling over-fed, but under-nourished and honestly, somewhat dyspeptic.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.