Before I try to convince you of the virtues of Harmony, Barry Manilow’s musical (which was on through May 15) about a 1930s German singing group with three Jewish members that gets caught in the gears of Nazism, allow me to emphasize that it’s not a jukebox musical and it’s not at all campy. Which is a shame, because I expected to be able to regale you with a string of puns: “Can’t Heil Without You,” “Looks Reich We Made It,” etc. Yet the compositions in the show, which are highly polished Broadway tunes rather than bombastic Seventies easy listening, betray no hint of Manilow’s signature style. The show does owe a debt to a hallmark of the Seventies, but said classic is Cabaret, not “Copacabana.”
The Comedian Harmonists were a vocal group of six men formed in Weimar-era Berlin who became such celebrities that they starred in more than twenty films, sang with Marlene Dietrich, and toured internationally. Manilow and his longtime collaborator, the show’s librettist/lyricist Bruce Sussman, who together have been tweaking the show for a quarter of a century, have devised a cunning range of songs for both the boys’ cabaret act and to illustrate their off-stage dramas.
The offerings range from snappy, sometimes slightly naughty comic numbers suitable for debauchery-seeking Weimar nightclub audiences to lush ballads such as the standout duet “Where You Go,” which is sung by the wives of two of the singers. When the Comedian Harmonists first start to chafe at the regime, after being informed by a fan who is also a Nazi officer that they project the image that Germany is amusing and non-threatening, Manilow and Sussman work up a knockout satirical number for them that’s as stinging as anything in Cabaret. Costumed like marionettes, and assuming they are beyond the notice of German authorities while touring in Copenhagen, the group performs a witty but chilling song, “Come to the Fatherland,” to mock the party in power. “Come to the Fatherland,” the song concludes. “Or we’ll come to you.”
At that point, you could have heard a hair falling on a pillow in the room: the show was staged this spring at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan. Inviting actors costumed as Nazis to stomp around screaming in a space dedicated to Holocaust remembrance is not a lightly taken decision, but the presence of this show in this building indicates that it’s a stirring tribute to Jews, those who married them, and those who shielded or aided them during the twelve-year nightmare in Germany. The show’s simmering conflict explodes when a joyous double wedding scene that ends with the traditional stamping on the glass segues instantaneously to a rendering of Kristallnacht, suggested by projections of broken glass. It’s one of many spellbinding moments engineered by the veteran director/choreographer Warren Carlyle despite what appears to be a limited budget. (The sets are minimal, and changes of scenery rely heavily on video and photographic images).
Sussman has organized the show around a narrator who serves as a conduit from present to past.
Sussman has organized the show around a narrator who serves as a conduit from present to past: the amiable, twinkly Chip Zien plays an elderly man of our era (the last survivor of the group died in 1998) who looks back on how he joined the group as a rabbi-in-training and provides tense, regretful commentary about the mistakes he and the others made. In New York for a triumphant show at Carnegie Hall in early 1933, with nbc offering a meeting and American celebrities starting to notice them, the group discussed staying in the United States. But the performers decided they would never be welcome here, and instead returned home, into the fire. Act I concludes powerfully, with the Old Rabbi pleading in anguish with his younger self to make a different choice before it’s too late.
Zien—small, friendly, relatable, menschy—is much the opposite of the ghoulish Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret, giving the show a wonderful heart as well as amusing borscht-belt interludes when, for instance, he makes appearances as Albert Einstein or Marlene Dietrich. The six members of the group (Sean Bell, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Steven Telsey, Blake Roman, and Danny Kornfeld as the younger version of the rabbi) are somewhat thinly drawn in certain cases—there are just too many characters to give each of them his due—but they have spectacular singing voices, as do the female leads, Jessie Davidson and Sierra Boggess.
Manilow, aged seventy-eight, says in the program notes that as he looks back over his professional life, Harmony is the work of which he is proudest. Composers his age rarely produce anything of significance, and I can hear you thinking, “Why would he start now?” But the combination of sincerity, comedy, dramatic impact, and tunefulness makes Harmony a beautiful if surprising capstone to Manilow’s spectacular career. Broadway producers would be wise to bring it uptown next season.
Strong evidence that Broadway producers are unwise is presented by their decision to stage POTUS, a new farce whose animating principle is that dirty words are automatically funny, but really awfully funny if they’re screamed at maximum volume by women with extremely unpleasant voices. Thus: “C**t,” or rather, “C**T!!!!” is how the play begins, and if you don’t laugh at the ensuing hysterical exchange between two White House aides about how the president of the United States was overheard using this word in the first scene of the play, you probably won’t laugh at anything that follows, because that’s as good as it gets.
The president, we are told, referred to his wife as “c**ty” in the presence of reporters, and everyone is in a tizzy about this, just as they are about the contretemps caused when the president disrespected an envoy from Bahrain by refusing to sit for a meeting—a decision he made not for any political reason but because he had an abscess on his bottom which he acquired during some rough sexual practice.
Outrageously raunchy stuff, no? Such is the hope of POTUS (at the Shubert Theatre through August 14). It was written, or perpetrated, by Selina Fillinger, rendered more coarse, vulgar, and stupid by the director Susan Stroman, and made completely and punitively unbearable by its performers, especially Julie White as the White House chief of staff, whose staccato voice suggests broken glass being fed through a rusty lawnmower and who is unable to communicate in any register but the demented screech. Reviewers (grading the work on a curve so as not to be accused of straying from feminist orthodoxy) are delicately referring to the play as “uneven,” but it is resolutely even: its linoleum-flat surface is never disrupted by a single funny moment.
Fillinger thought it might be wicked fun to do a comedy about a (male) president without showing the chief executive at all (except for his feet), instead making it clear that the real executive power is wielded by ladies toiling behind the scenes. (The season’s big new musical Six—reviewed in The New Criterion of December 2021—in which the wives of Henry VIII discuss their plights but the monarch himself does not appear, takes a similar tack: the theater is erasing important men.)
POTUS focuses on the frantic backstage shenanigans of seven women.
POTUS focuses on the frantic backstage shenanigans of seven women: the aforementioned chief of staff, the snobby first lady (Vanessa Williams), the press secretary (Suzy Nakamura), a nervous low-level aide who appears to clothe herself via the discount rack at Kohl’s (Rachel Dratch), a Time magazine reporter (Lilli Cooper), the president’s drug-dealing lesbian sister (Lea DeLaria), and a dimwit floozy from Iowa (Julianne Hough) who turns out to be the president’s girlfriend and is pregnant by him. Hough at least comes across as sweet and cute. The play is the opposite of these traits: her character is supposed to generate laughs by copiously and frequently upchucking a frozen blue soft drink (she has morning sickness) and by offering to help distract from a crisis by giving (off-stage) oral sex to Secret Service agents.
The play is evidently intended as a girl-power lark that aims to attract bulk ticket-buyers from feminist political groups; its subtitle is “Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.” Since the principal crisis in the play is, however, caused by the women and their squabbling rather than by the president, the play fails even to live up to that trying-far-too-hard subtitle. A handy rule for those who attempt comedy is: don’t beg the audience for laughs. It’s counterproductive.
POTUS never comes close to being funny. One of its central comic conceits is to have the character played by Dratch, who has no talent, accidentally ingest some drugs and spend half the evening stumbling around in a stupor in increasingly silly accessories (an inner tube, a pile of men’s hats, sticky notes). In the second act, Dratch actually races up and down the aisles, pursued by two other characters, in one of the most cringe-inducingly desperate pleas for laughter I’ve ever seen. The more the play leans into wacky hijinks the more dreadful it becomes.
It’s impossible not to compare POTUS (a more generic title could scarcely be imagined) to its sitcom counterpart Veep, in which elaborately profane insults were a bottomless source of laughs. As barbed and imaginative as Veep’s dialogue was, POTUS’s is stale, inert, and lacking any comic voltage whatsoever. The playwright evidently thinks the word “c**ty” is so brilliant that merely having characters toss it into a sentence is bound to produce hilarity—“There is a c**ty dawn coming!” is the play’s crowning line, the one that is meant to trigger gushers of applause. Throughout the play, people make off-color remarks that aren’t actual jokes or witticisms: “the only way I could get rid of him was by saying I had explosive diarrhea,” or “I didn’t know you preferred your p***y post-partum these days.” These lines aren’t any funnier on stage, delivered as they are by actresses who have all the comedic chops of whoever writes the software-licensing agreement for TurboTax.
Stroman attempts to cover for the text’s shortcomings with a sort of over-caffeinated mania, ordering everyone to speak as loudly and as quickly as possible and, between scenes, blasting out high-volume bursts of rock-radio classics while the costly turntable set rotates from, say, the press briefing room to a restroom to the anteroom outside the Oval Office. Stroman’s attempt to create a party atmosphere for girl-power aficionados is as pitiable as it is strenuous. She might as well have concluded the evening by firing water cannons loaded with strawberry margaritas into the audience’s mouths, and for all I know she did, but I wasn’t there for the final bow. When the curtain calls began I exited the building as though my shoelaces were on fire.
Over the years many of my correspondents have chastised me for “politicizing” my reviews, i.e., declared me guilty of noticing (or even rebutting) the political implications of a given work of art. I reply that I routinely praise left-wing artists despite my disagreements with them. Moreover, I would never dismiss a play merely for advancing progressive dogma. What irritates me is all things trite, boring, contrived, hysterical, predictable, and phony.
Tracy Letts is a sternly left-wing playwright (and a superb character actor on both the stage and in such films as Ford v Ferrari) who in his latest Broadway effort The Minutes (at Studio 54 through July 10) has built a piece of theater that is fresh, interesting, cleverly constructed, surprising, and plausibly grounded in public debate. I won’t give away the political twist to this initially non-political play, but I expect that by the end progressives will be nodding along with approval whereas some conservatives will be irritated by the message. What Letts winds up saying, though, albeit after much comedic misdirection, does contain a potent dose of truth. Letts cannot fairly be accused of fabricating the central dilemma about American history he dramatizes in this brisk, one-act, ninety-minute play.
The Minutes takes place entirely in the council chamber of a boring little burg somewhere in an unnamed Western state. (The main clue to the location is that there are references to Sioux Indians having populated the area in the nineteenth century.) Letts himself plays the mayor, whom he has delightfully named “Superba” to emphasize the preposterous self-importance of these local-government knaves, dweebs, and fools. The clash of pomposity with irrelevance is straight out of Parks and Recreation or Waiting for Guffman. A funny running gag emerges from the way these pseudo-intellectuals routinely mispronounce words.
Letts’s character doesn’t monopolize the action, which provides roughly equal opportunities for most of the cast of ten to take their turns as the point of focus.
Letts’s character doesn’t monopolize the action, which provides roughly equal opportunities for most of the cast of ten to take their turns as the point of focus. Mr. Peel, for instance, played with an appropriate mix of naivety and eagerness by Noah Reid, is the audience’s surrogate: he (like us) doesn’t know what happened at last week’s meeting, having missed it to attend his mother’s funeral, and he has a hard time penetrating the thickets of Robert’s Rules of Order to learn about it. The minutes of that meeting seem to have gone missing. “Not missing!” thunders the mayor: they are merely delayed.
Yet whatever happened last week has left a highly visible residue: there is an empty chair in the council chambers, one that used to be occupied by a Mr. Carp (Ian Barford). The mayor drily informs the curious Mr. Peel that Mr. Carp (whose name also turns out to carry some rich symbolic implications) is, suddenly, no longer a member of the City Council.
Letts expertly fashions a light comic satire out of this defective crew: also present are a grumbly curmudgeon called Mr. Oldfield, played with impeccable timing by the venerable Austin Pendleton, now in his sixth decade on the stage; a speechifying windbag played by Blair Brown, made up to look exactly like her real-life counterpart Dianne Feinstein; and a guy named Assalone (Jeff Still) who frets that nobody ever pronounces his name correctly. (Why would they? It’s too much fun to get it wrong.) One council member (K. Todd Freeman) thinks the town can solve its revenue problems by hosting cage matches featuring a professional combatant costumed as Abe Lincoln (who was not connected to the town in any way); another wants an expensive new plaza and fountain built in the center of town because people in wheelchairs (notably including his sister) can’t see the bottom of the current fountain.
Peel’s questions about the town hero who would be memorialized in a statue set above the fountain lead naturally and seemingly harmlessly to a discussion of the town’s nineteenth-century past, which Letts presents in two very different ways that contrast powerfully, never letting us see what he is up to ahead of time. Letts uses the closing moments of the play to shift registers again, ranging very far from the sitcom feel of the play’s first half hour and creating a mesmerizing tableau that combines myth and ritual to leap into the debate over today’s socio-historical reevaluations. Broadway drama of recent years has largely become a fief ruled by pedantic dullards and their ham-fisted metaphors, but Letts has crafted a slyly effective work of théâtre engagé.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 10, on page 46
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