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"Taller Than a Dwarf"

Elaine May's "Taller Than a Dwarf," alas, isn't.

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In Taller Than a Dwarf, elaine may attempts the marriage of two mismatched genres: Jewish comedy and absurdist farce. It plays like Paddy Chayefsky rewritten by Eugene Ionesco, and, like other injudicious unions, cries out for the divorce court. Right off, we get characters bizarrely popping up to absurdly introduce themselves with typical Jewish humor in a grotesque wedding of styles. Given how unpregnant what follows is, it turns out that pregnancy is no prerequisite for a shotgun wedding.

Howard and Selma Miller are intended as the paradigmatic young Jewish couple from Queens, he bored with his office job, she frustrated with taking in typing only to have Howard steal the typing money. Her widowed mother, the goofy Mrs. Shawl, and his archetypal parents, the meddlesome Mrs. M. and her subaltern husband, complete the family caricature. Everything derives from the alarm clock not waking up Howard in time for work, and the hot-water knob in the shower coming off in his hand. Who dare call upon an ogreish super, even if the soaked bathroom floor threatens to collapse?

The snarling super and his termagant wife (improbably named Enright) intensify the crisis, as does Selma's struggle to find a plausible excuse for Howard's no-show at the office. And there is also Howard's failure to shepherd the small but vociferous black neighbor boy across Queens Boulevard, thus keeping him from school. And when Howard spills the lunch Selma prepared for him onto the sidewalk and exasperatedly tramples on it, a cop is there with a summons for littering, unless he is given an immediate bribe.

The absurd climaxes when Howard decides to stay in bed, play with puzzles and stuffed animals, sing loudly to himself -- all to the consternation of the frantic family and the solicitous boss who brings Howard's work for him to do at home. Jewish comedy reasserts itself as the family, under the lunatic command of Mrs. Miller, tries to avert calamity, which culminates when the bathroom floor collapses and Selma decides to leave for good.

May can still write isolated funny lines, but don't look for a viable play here. Alan Arkin's direction does what desperation can; the production values (especially Tony Walton's amusing set) perform dutifully, as does the mostly proficient cast. Matthew Broderick is a resourceful zany, Parker Posey is adorable as his distraught wife, and Joyce Van Patten is the Jewish mother every good Jew wishes on Saddam Hussein. But the play would be hard put to find a dwarf smaller than itself.


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