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The Two Americas

Our country, great and ghastly: Little Sheba comes back, and Jerry Springer plays Carnegie Hall.

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Illustration by John Gall and Ned Drew  

If Jerry Springer—The Opera is headed to Broadway—and, after the million-watt rave it just got from the Times, it might as well be—the protesters outside will be as impassioned as anybody onstage. This time, I plan to join them. As the insulted faithful sing, pray, and denounce the show’s many sacrileges (as they did in front of its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall), I will hold a candle in one hand and a portrait of Oscar Hammerstein in the other, and walk in slow circles wearing a sandwich board that says WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN NARRATIVE COHESION? on the front and REWRITES SAVE! on the back. Because once you get past the jolly fun of chicks with dicks and a potty-mouthed Jesus in Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s opera, this is, deep down, a pretty funny show that doesn’t really work.

As when I saw the show in London five years ago, the premise seems dubious but worth considering, in an oh-what-the-hell sort of way. Though we sophisticates mock Springer’s guests—the mullet-heads, the fetishists, the statistical outliers of every conceivable profile—they harbor dreams and desires that deserve as much respect as our own. In song, they express their truest selves, whether it’s Shawntel aspiring to be a pole dancer or Montel singing the praises of shitting himself.

The New York production boasts the kind of spectacular voices—guided by director Jason Moore (of Avenue Q fame) and musical director Stephen Oremus—that really do ennoble these men and women. But the talk-show episode only brings us to intermission, with a long trip through the supernatural still to come. Finding himself in hell, Jerry has to mediate a fight between Jesus and Satan. With nothing much to say about God, Mary, et al., the show opts to fire indiscriminately into a crowd of Judeo-Christian beliefs: Jesus is “a bit gay,” Adam and Eve were brawling trailer trash, and other sub–South Park blasphemies.

Fortunately, I could keep myself amused by playing a variation on that game where you add “in bed” to the end of fortune-cookie messages. Someone just said “what the fucking fucking fuck”—at Carnegie Hall! Someone just called somebody a “three-nipple cousin fucker”—at Carnegie Hall! Those outbursts won’t have the same zing on Broadway, where bad taste is a way of life. But the show’s prospects might improve via another change, and a painful one to propose: recasting the host. Jerry needs to be lively enough to propel the show from aria to aria. Alas, the halting Harvey Keitel hangs back, as though waiting for a chance to bust it in the jaw.

On the night of the South Carolina primary, Come Back Little Sheba looked to me like some weird dramatization of Bill Clinton’s ugly behavior toward Barack Obama. The gnawing, self-defeating bitterness Doc feels in this play when a younger man beds his nubile boarder Marie prefigures the ex-president’s dismay at the thought of Obama grabbing hold of those luscious, luscious delegates. That odd resonance aside, even a revival as fine as William Pressman’s can’t save William Inge’s play from feeling mired in the styles and concerns of 1950. It’s all here, the Speech Expository (“Now you’ve been sober almost a year”), the Slang Antique (“You’re a swell skirt”), even the Metaphor Freudian (“I can throw that old javelin any old time”).

This story of lost chances and small-bore desolation gets a plum cast, from Zoe Kazan as the alluring but conflicted Marie to the terrific Kevin Anderson as the imploding alcoholic Doc. Best of all is S. Epatha Merkerson, who’s so transparently convincing as Lola, Doc’s ill-used wife, that I forgot to worry about the implications of making them a mixed-race couple. Though she specializes in mustering whatever toughness or smarts a character demands, she projects a sweet sadness here, a wonderful lack of guile. After years of watching Merkerson on TV and (too rarely) onstage, I’d never noticed that she has dimples.

Jerry Springer—The Opera
Music by Richard Thomas. Carnegie Hall.

Come Back Little Sheba
By William Inge. Biltmore Theatre.

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.


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