KPBS AIRDATE: JUNE 17, 1998
Okay, so the ever-provocative New Yorker, Nicky Silver, wrote a play called “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine.” It had nothing to do with Ernest Borgnine, or his ex-wife Ethel Merman. But when Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd got wind of it, he called his buddy Ernie, and before you know it, Sledgehammer Theatre receives a ‘cease-and-desist’ notice from Borgnine’s lawyers, and Silver renames the play, thanks to a willing friend, “My Marriage to Marisa Tomei.” Now what’s that gonna do to local playwright Michael Hemmingson, who just entitled his latest play, “My Divorce from Ethel Merman?” Well, at least The Merm is dead, and she personally can’t take umbrage. Stay tuned for any dramatic updates.
Meanwhile, the piece had caused some local stir before all this hullabaloo, since Sledgehammer scored the premiere of the play, which was written in 1993 but never had a full professional production. When I spoke to Nicky Silver recently, he said that he was surprised when he re-read it; he found it “shockingly creepy.”
Now why would he say that? Just because a long-ago aborted fetus keeps making return appearances as a young adult? Or because a woman names her Tiffany lamps, treating them as her unborn children? Or is it the brutality, murder, robbery, pedophilia, gay tricking or cross-dressing? Whatever. This play is no more creepy than Silver’s other dark comedies, though it may be a bit darker.
It’s something of a modern-day Greek tragedy, complete with a wisdom-spouting ‘chorus’ (in the person of a precocious 9 year-old). Simon Pelican, an arrogant psychiatrist, isn’t exactly a Great Man, but he looms large on his little landscape, and, like any good tragic hero, he actively contributes to his own inexorable downfall, dragging his wife and assorted others with him. As always in a Silver play, behind the grim laughs are Big Themes, like love and loss, marriage and parenting, trust, abandonment and saviors.
Fritz artistic director Bryan Bevell has done another bangup job with his polished Silver sensibility. He’s assembled a stellar cast — Brian Salmon, Michael Douglas Hummel, Diane Addis, Julie Jacobs and Dale Morris. And the design work is fabulous. The play may shock or unsettle you, but it’s thoroughly engaging in its bleak, black weirdness.
Less engaging, but no less articulate and intelligent, is South Coast Repertory Theatre’s world premiere production of Richard Greenberg’s “Hurrah at Last.” The award-winning playwright was a runner-up for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But this year’s commissioned work isn’t a trophy piece. Like Nicky Silver’s plays, it’s got acerbic wit and piercing insight, but it hasn’t got much in the way of story or character.
Laurie is a brilliant but bitter, starving novelist with dysfunctional parents; a wealthy, fawning and inferior playwright-friend whose young Italian wife speaks no English but keeps making babies; a sister who married rich and spends it all on trying to get pregnant; and the fantasy that, if he only had money, everything would be all right. He spends a Jewish Christmas family gathering trying to find out how much everyone earns. He gets sick, has a crisis of identity, hallucinates, thinks he sees things clearly, and then doesn’t.
Not much of an arc, and not as charming as the Delmore Schwartz poem that gave the play its name. But Peter Frechette is quite wonderful as caustic, quippy Laurie. The other characters and his relationships with them aren’t nearly as well defined, and we don’t wind up really caring about anyone at all. The design work is spectacular. But, overall, this seems like an artful intellectual exercise, clever, well-written, but ultimately unfinished and unsatisfying. Laurie, the central character, says it best: “I don’t think what I say is wise, just sometimes well-phrased.”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.