There’s quite an impressive performance going on at the Shubert Theatre right now, a dizzying Broadway spectacle. The performance is that being given by the audience for Hello, Dolly! which is under a sort of spell suggestive of rapt Scientologists hearing one more time about how Earth was founded by spacemen from the Galactic Confederacy. The audience cheers the overture, the costumes, the set, and especially—deliriously—the star of the show. Yet the Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium–level pandemonium being unleashed nightly by Bette Midler is somewhat in excess of what is merited. At age seventy-one, Midler sings like a rusty bandsaw being fed into a coffee grinder, and she moves like Frankenstein’s monster in a body cast. When the rest of the cast dances, she shuffles laterally a bit. No matter: the audience cheers lustily when we first see her, and again when she makes her next entrance, and her next. When she triumphantly materializes at the top of a red-carpeted staircase to deliver the title number in a red sequined dress and a matching feathered hat the size of a jumbo turkey, the applause stops the show for long enough that it’s an ideal time to consider going out for a sandwich. Parents of grade-schoolers at the spring pageant were never more blind to the performance shortcomings of their offspring. But the school show probably doesn’t charge $299 for “premium orchestra” tickets.

I think two factors underlie the early reaction to Hello, Dolly! among theater insiders: nostalgia and massive pent-up demand for Midler. Here is a quintessential Broadway-type performer—strutting, campy, larger than life, a human brass section. She’s an old-time broad who imposes her personality on the theater as though stamping her feet in wet cement. And yet she hasn’t actually appeared in a Broadway book musical since before anyone knew who she was, way back in the original 1960s production of Fiddler on the Roof. The original production of Hello, Dolly! was on the boards concurrently and became exactly the kind of wholesome, inoffensive musical comedy farce that high-school theater clubs staged in the 1970s. That was when today’s late-middle-aged Broadway audience first caught the theater bug, and maybe even slipped into the city around that time to see one of Midler’s nutty revues, or the 1980 movie adaptation of the best-known one, Divine Madness. Midler is not just gay-friendly but a gay icon, and was one long before that was cool. It’s only paying back a long-owed debt, then, for sixty-ish gay men to crowd the Shubert and detonate with joy.

A quintessential Broadway-type performer—strutting, campy, larger than life.

That the show is overrated does not mean it isn’t enjoyable. To captivate an audience, a performer really needs only one stellar attribute, and Midler still has one: that smile. It lights up 44th Street, and even if you were seeing her for the first time, you’d be sorely pressed not to adore her. Meanwhile, Jerry Herman’s songs are clever and Michael Stewart’s book is zany, farcical fun. At the turn of the twentieth century, the widowed New York City schemer Dolly Gallagher Levi (Midler) tells us early on that she has set her cap for the Yonkers hay-and-feed merchant Horace Vandergelder (hilariously played by David Hyde Pierce) who happens to be a “half a millionaire” but is already betrothed to the widowed milliner Irene Molloy (Kate Baldwin) and determined to get married right away. In his big early number “It Takes a Woman,” he explains his longing for female companionship in these terms: “It takes a woman/ All powdered and pink/ To joyously clean out the drain in the sink . . . she’ll work until infinity/ So three cheers for femininity.” Pierce, under his whiskers and a puzzled look, makes it clear throughout that befuddled, miserly Horace has no chance to defend himself against the gale-force charm attack Dolly will soon be unleashing on him.

Meanwhile, his shop assistants, Cornelius and Barnaby (Gavin Creel and Taylor Trensch), hatch a plan to journey to the city where their chief interests are to see P. T. Barnum’s stuffed whale and kiss a girl. Dolly, who knows everyone, knows these two also and expertly steers them to Irene’s hat shop where Cornelius hits it off with Irene and Barnaby with the shop assistant Minnie (Beanie Feldstein). In a brilliantly timed piece of physical-comedy bravura that makes the most of Pierce’s deadpan facility for playing the straight man, Horace inconveniently shows up, and as he looks around the tiny shop his terrified assistants keep one step ahead, finding unlikely places to hide from him.

Based on Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker, Dolly was at one time the longest-running musical in Broadway history, but three subsequent revivals (in 1975, 1978, and 1996) all flopped, as did the 1969 film version. Tastes grew more sophisticated, and comedy that played to the cheap seats fell out of fashion. Fiddler, which opened a few months after Dolly in 1964, heralded a new era in which weighty socio-cultural elements and historical wrongs could add depth even to comedies, and Fiddler also raised the bar for musical craftsmanship with its many tender, gorgeous melodies. Dolly belongs musically to the mid-century style in which brash, thumping, insistent choruses ideally suited to marching bands were considered sufficient to build a show around; Herman (now eighty-five) is a fine lyricist, but his music tends towards the boisterous and the bumptious. Even “Before the Parade Passes By”—a lyrically reflective and bittersweet moment for Dolly to show us her emotional bona fides (“I’ve had enough of just passing by life”)—is, musically speaking, exactly like something you’d hear in an actual parade. Oblique Herman is not, and so the ironclad Midler makes for an apt leading lady.

Midler and Dolly stormed into town at the same time as many other plays in which women took the lead. Sally Field ruled an uneven, stripped-down, and now closed revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Phillipa Soo of Hamilton fame won the opportunity to be the center of attention for the first time in an aggressively kooky musical adaptation of the film Amélie (which, mercifully, closed on the same day as The Glass Menagerie), and Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon are doing marvelous work alternating between the two lead female roles in a punchy, pleasing take on Lillian Hellman’s saga of Southern connivance, The Little Foxes,which also features outstanding supporting work by Michael McKean and Richard Thomas, old hands still best known for their 1970s TV alter egos Lenny and John-Boy. All of these highly anticipated productions are topped, though, by two new works: the musical War Paint and a drama with the cheeky title A Doll’s House, Part 2. One is about two backstabbing harridans who hate each other, and the other is about the errors and solipsism of feminism. Broadway is politically correct about some things, but it does occasionally question received wisdom, often acerbically.

Lucas Hnath, the playwright who conjured up A Doll’s House, Part 2 (at the John Golden Theatre through July 23), did so with a mischievous streak, well aware that continuing the story of Nora Helmer, Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 proto-feminist, will strike many inveterate theatergoers as not only presumptuous but even superfluous, bordering on sacrilegious. Who could possibly be audacious enough—foolhardy enough—to invite comparison to the great social-problem dramatist of his time, possibly of all time? Hnath has not merely continued the story, however, but offered a stinging rebuke to it, and to Nora. In the process he has created a work superior to Ibsen’s original play.

Hnath has not merely continued the story of  A Doll's House, but offered a stinging rebuke to it.

A Doll’s House might well have been revolutionary in its day, but art carries the burden of historical context, and today it measures up poorly against our expectations for theater. Overdetermined, declarative, stolid, and didactic, it’s a message play. Nora, an innocent bourgeois housewife greatly wronged by her deceitful husband, Torvald, concludes the play by discovering herself, walking out the door, and slamming it behind her.

What then? asks Hnath. It’s a question one senses went unasked by the Noras of the 1970s and 1980s, when the divorce rate spiked among Baby Boomers in the wake of widespread enchantment with the idea that women could best achieve liberation by walking out on their men. If families were destroyed in the process, those were just so many broken eggs needed to make the self-actualization omelette. Liberation was all that mattered, and damn the consequences. After fifteen years on her own, Nora (a grandiose Laurie Metcalf) returns to Torvald’s house in a burst of self-satisfaction to tell his maid Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell) about the huge success she has enjoyed as a writer, working under a pseudonym. Her signature work—dissatisfied wife, treacherous husband—sounds a lot like A Doll’s House. She has returned to Torvald not out of affection but for a more practical reason: she has discovered that he never divorced her. As the two are still married, the many contracts to which she has been a party stand to be invalidated because he did not co-sign; it’s a plot that neatly dovetails with the selfless forgery Nora commits in Ibsen’s play to save her husband. In a near-manic monologue Metcalf delivers with total self-confidence, Nora explains that marriage is an institution that necessarily subjugates women, who are far better off being unencumbered by domestic duties so they can pursue free love and careers. At the performance I attended, the audience chuckled merrily throughout, then burst into merry applause.

So far, so continuous with Ibsen. Nora is simply baldly stating the themes of the first play. But Hnath and Part 2’s director, Sam Gold, hint that they have another layer to reveal. You begin to notice the contemporary quality to Hnath’s vernacular (“Just so ya know,” “Keep guessing”) and subtle touches suggest a dialogue between Ibsen’s period and our own. Before the play begins, Gold posts the title of the play over the stage in garish yellow electric lights of the kind you’d see on a gift shop on Eighth Avenue; the set, a single posh room, is timeless enough in decor that its like could be found on Park Avenue today. To the rear there is a box of tissue—the disposable kind, not yet invented in Ibsen’s day.

When Torvald finally enters, far from being the bully we remember from Ibsen, he’s played with gentility and woundedness by Chris Cooper. He can still hardly believe she left him and their children, and her presence is tearing at his scabs. Defending herself, Nora starts to seem less like a trailblazing independent woman and more like a mindless solipsist. By the time their grown daughter, Emmy (Condola Rashad), appears, and Nora tries to coax the girl into abetting her in a fraudulent scheme, Ibsen’s view of Nora has been turned inside out—shown up as a kind of dramatic fraud. “Having epiphanies is easy, but actually doing something about it is hard,” Torvald notes. The Noras of the world hide behind feminist rhetoric because it’s a convenient excuse for dumping their problems and pursuing their dreams, irrespective of the marriage covenant or the responsibilities of maternity.Staged in a single shrewd act of ninety minutes, A Doll’s House, Part 2 is an unexpectedly cutting rebuke to Ibsen and what you might call Ibsenism—a willingness to overlook the messy complexities and hidden motivations in relationships in the interest of making a clean and direct point. It is certainly the most conservative play of the Broadway season, and easily the best.

Approaching feminine failings from a comic angle, War Paint is set in the gorgeously appointed salons of “Miss Elizabeth Arden” (Christine Ebersole) and “Madame Helena Rubinstein” (Patti Lupone), two entrepreneurs the show presents as both canny businesswomen and charlatans pitching useless goop as breakthrough medicines. The clinical, scrubbed environs of their flagship Manhattan salons, the stern labels on their beauty products, and even the faux-scientific lab coats of the staffers are all meant to suggest to New York’s dowager class that aging is a disorder no more difficult to treat than one of your lesser bacterial infections. In their ability to separate suckers from their (husbands’) money, Arden and Rubinstein proved to be the Barnums of the Park Avenue set, and the songs (composed by Scott Frankel with lyrics by Michael Korie) revel in shameless duplicity. From the opening number, “Best Face Forward,” in which well-heeled women are lured into Arden’s realm with come-ons by unseen advertising pitchmen, the songs are consistently madcap and delightful: “For your rosacea chronic,” suggest Arden’s minions, “might we suggest a grapefruit colonic?” Within the spa is an idyll: “Breathe the perfume of fresh floral splendor/Soft light to soothe the feminine gender/ Rose petal pink with Louis Quatorze decor.” Who wouldn’t love to have her skin and ego stroked so solicitously? Whether presented as a “Vienna youth masque” to freshen the face or a rolling pin applied to the fanny to reduce that “excess adipose tissue,” Arden’s innovations were lushly crafted, utterly irresistible placebos. Skin food à l’orange! Electrodes on the forehead! Arden and Rubinstein were quacks nonpareil. Yet the show never slips into preachiness, maintaining a frothy rather than damning tone as it lampoons all manner of folly and fraud.

War Paint maintains a frothy rather than damning tone as it lampoons all manner of folly and fraud.

In terms of stage drama, War Paint is rather light: Arden, played with impeccable wasp froideur by Ebersole, and the Jewish immigrant Rubinstein, whom the hilariously unhinged LuPone portrays as a frightening Ayn Rand of the makeup counter, knock each other, hire away each other’s chief male business partner, recast their products as beacons of freedom during the war, and have a spat that results in both being dragged before Congress, which elicits the unpleasant information that unsavory ingredients such as insect parts are used in expensive cosmetics. John Dossett, playing Arden’s husband and business partner Tommy Lewis, who decamps to work for Rubinstein as his marriage crumbles, maintains an amusing detachment from the two quarreling harpies, while Douglas Sills is equally fine as Harry Fleming, the gay marketing maven from Rubinstein’s shop who goes to work for Arden. Doug Wright’s book maintains a perfectly pitched sense of borderline absurdity without ever tumbling into camp, and as the rivals scheme and sputter oaths against each other from the 1930s all the way to a final, waspish but mutually respectful meeting in the 1960s, the director Michael Greif has great fun rotating through sets and costumes. It all connotes a tongue-in-cheek respect for past notions of glamour and fashion.

In harmony with the dubious marketing tactics used by Arden and Rubinstein as they sold various kinds of hope in a jar, War Paint is pitching itself to well-off New York ladies as a kind of female-empowerment tale about strong, independent women shattering glass ceilings. But really it’s a gleeful satire of weapons-grade bitchiness on the part of two domineering figures who spent their lives fleecing the gullible yet growing ever richer and more respected as they did so. Hillary Clinton, who attended the opening-night performance of the show, must have nodded appreciatively.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 10, on page 42
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
https://newcriterion.com/issues/2017/6/three-cheers-for-femininity

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