Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing the second post in a new monthly feature here on this blog — a sort of “potpourri” series for classic Broadway plays, specifically comedies, that I’m studying for (mostly) the first time. For this entry, I selected three plays that were all performed — at some point — by I Love Lucy’s great Vivian Vance, who was born on this date in 1909. So, consider this installment a tribute to her…
HERE TODAY (1932)
Logline: A playwright plots to make her ex-husband desirable to his new lover’s snooty mother — until she realizes she’s still in love with him herself.
Author: George Oppenheimer | Original Broadway Director: George S. Kaufman
Original Broadway Cast: Ruth Gordon, Charlotte Granville, Charles D. Brown, Donald MacDonald, Paul McGrath, Sally Bates, Geoffrey Bryant, and Elizabeth Taylor (not that one)
Thoughts: This vehicle for the charming Ruth Gordon cast her in a role allegedly inspired by Dorothy Parker. It’s a proto-screwball comedy that I’m surprised was never adapted for the screen — it would have been a great showcase for someone like Katharine Hepburn or Irene Dunne — as it’s got a delectable relationship-driven farce about a witty writer, Mary Hilliard, who descends on the Bahamas with her wise-cracking pal to visit her ex-husband Philip, a novelist currently courting a Boston babe whose mother much prefers the daughter’s stodgy but wealthy fiancé. After initially scheming to make the difficult mother approve of Philip by building him up as a pedigreed catch, and simultaneously painting the current fiancé as an undesirable cad, Mary realizes she still loves her ex, and then must undo what she’s already done, culminating with the right pairing of couples: the boring elites and the wacky creatives. It’s a whole lot of laugh-out-loud fun that gives Mary many choice moments — I’m sure Ruth Gordon was a delight, along with the other notable ladies who played the part elsewhere, including Eve Arden, Tallulah Bankhead, and Vivian Vance (she toured with it between her stints as Ethel Mertz and Vivian Bagley) — and I can see how it would be a hoot. My critiques are few. The first is that there’s a clear delineation between the comical characters (Mary, her friend, and the mean mother) and the non-comical ones — this imbalance is a little too rigid, and as a sitcom connoisseur, I inherently find it unideal, for it means not everyone is a key participant. Also, the script doesn’t really snap into form until Mary appears midway through Act One — prior to that it’s a lot of slow exposition. Oh, and the comic mania suggested by Mary and her pal isn’t exactly focused until Act Two, when it’s channeled for an established narrative purpose, with Act Three then about her deliberately reversing course… Ultimately, though, it’s a comedy that’s actually funny and I wish it was staged more often.
Jackson’s Rating: 7/10
THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE (1943)
Logline: An aspiring young actress fights her attraction to a visiting sergeant on leave.
Author: John Van Druten | Original Broadway Director: John Van Druten
Original Broadway Cast: Margaret Sullavan, Elliott Nugent, Audrey Christie
Thoughts: A little more serious-minded than the other plays in this post, The Voice Of The Turtle is nevertheless quite funny as well. It’s easily the best written text here, with three terrifically nuanced and well-drawn characters who collectively have a beautiful way of speaking (it’s John Van Druten, after all), but a lot of enveloping humanity that really makes them feel both believable and multi-dimensional, emphasizing their differences. The story — set in New York City during World War II — is a very adult examination of evolving attitudes on premarital sex, largely contrasted by the perspectives of two friends: an actress in her early twenties who feels guilty about her previous promiscuity, and an actress in her late twenties who’s stopped even trying to deny her passions. The younger woman’s vow of renewed celibacy is put to the test when her friend dumps a sergeant on temporary leave at her apartment — in favor of a better offer. The Army man and the conflicted actress then spend the rest of the play falling for each other. With only a human trio and a single set, it’s nothing but characters in direct interaction, and that’s exactly the kind of material I love, especially when it’s as thoughtful and dramatically interesting as depicted here. The show had a lengthy Broadway run but is probably best known for its 1947 film adaptation — starring Eleanor Parker, Ronald Reagan, and Eve Arden. Of course, Lucy fans also know of the title because Vivian Vance toured with it for a while as the older woman — a performance that Desi Arnaz saw when she stopped at the La Jolla Playhouse in the summer of 1951. After having read the piece, it makes sense why he thought she might be a good Ethel — another slightly mature woman who takes on a wiser, “big sister” posture towards her younger, naiver friend… At any rate, it’s a well-written play with three well-crafted parts and enough laughs to satisfy. A definite (and rare) gem.
Jackson’s Rating: 8.5/10
THE MARRIAGE-GO-ROUND (1958)
Logline: A professor and his wife are shocked when their colleague’s daughter asks him to father her child.
Author: Leslie Stevens | Original Broadway Director: Joseph Anthony
Original Broadway Cast: Charles Boyer, Claudette Colbert, Julie Newmar, Edmon Ryan
Thoughts: After two strong plays, we’ve come to one that doesn’t work quite as well — a strained sex comedy that was also adapted into a film (with original Broadway cast member Julie Newmar). Although The-Marriage Go-Round enjoyed a long initial run (likely due to its big stars), it was never widely well-received, and I’m afraid I can see why: it’s got a tired take on an interesting but gimmicky comic idea — of a woman asking a married man to father her child, simply because she wants his DNA — and it’s propped up by characters who behave strangely and without enough emotional logic to make the laughs feel earned. I suppose it’s a bit novel to read a play like this now in the 21st century, when there are ways of conceiving a child that don’t involve two people actually fornicating, but in 1958, that was the sole option — and so, when Leslie Stevens presents a rather thought-provoking premise of a brilliant woman wanting to mate exclusively with someone who’s also brilliant, even though he happens to be married, the conflict isn’t about giving her a baby, it’s about s-e-x! And, unfortunately, the text then can’t avoid its perhaps natural tendency to devolve into a clichéd attempted/avoided seduction routine — with Julie Newmar taking the role of temptress, hoping to lure the husband into a moment of weakness: a notion that just seems ordinary and uninspired, especially given this unique, stunty logline. What’s more, the attitudes taken by the husband, the wife, and the wannabe mother towards each other feel false — there’s an initial attempt to make them appear “adult” and progressively understanding, but it quickly pivots into a jealous misunderstanding climax (with a convenient secondary male whose existence is totally contrived) that, again, isn’t earned and comes off as unpleasant — neither as believable nor as funny as we want these relationship-driven comedies to be. Vivian Vance portrayed the wife (Claudette Colbert’s part originally) in several productions throughout the 1960s and 1970s; it wasn’t her best pick.
Jackson’s Rating: 3/10
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more sitcom fun!