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Two Spitfires

Ibsen's Hedda Gabler is inexplicably played for laughs; Spitfire Grill is reinvented as a soulful musical.


Perfectly agreeable: Kate Burton with David Lansbury in Hedda Gabler.  

The revival of Hedda Gabler is introduced by the opening of Janácek's wonderful First String Quartet, which segues into the opening scene, and forthwith all is downhill. This production, after tryouts in three theaters, arrives on Broadway, doubtless encouraged by a New York Times review, as a masterpiece of wrongheadedness.

Nicholas Martin, the director, apparently wanted to make the play more palatable by emphasizing its comic aspects, both those written by Ibsen and those, more numerous, excogitated by Martin. The story of Hedda, General Gabler's neurotic daughter, exasperated by the hamstringing conventions of Norwegian bourgeois life circa 1900 and unhappily married to the dry-as-dust academic George Tesman, is not big on laughs. Hedda ends up creating havoc around her, driving one man to his death before committing suicide herself. Ibsen was a true enough artist to see also the ludicrousness of Tesman, the absurdity of Hedda, and the wry humor in a square-peg-in-a-round-hole marriage (but not to include the belly laughs Martin solicits and, worse luck, sometimes gets from unthinking spectators).

This so-called adaptation by Jon Robin Baitz was first seen in Los Angeles, in a different production directed by Daniel Sullivan and starring Annette Bening. Even unseen, that casting strikes me as vastly more suitable. Kate Burton is a perfectly agreeable actress in less demanding roles, but, especially when grossly misdirected, with no Hedda in her. She affects Victorian-melodrama attitudes, tromps about like a regiment of dragoons, utters horror-film laughs, and spits out a goodly number of her lines. She signifies torment by a look of petulance; even her hair, meant to be light brown, is dyed fire-engine red.

As Tesman, Michael Emerson tries to compensate for his effete speech pattern by frequently bellowing, and gives us a husband who must surely fantasize Hedda to be Hedwig of the angry inch. Even his physique would not have elicited a second look from General Gabler's pistol-packing daughter. As the poetic and romantic Eilert Lövborg (who here has lost even his umlaut), David Lansbury fobs off on us a stockily unprepossessing, beady-eyed, and squeaky-voiced middle-American shoe salesman. Harris Yulin's strangulatedly underacted Judge Brack displays none of the much-needed menace. Even in the tiny part of the maid Berta, Maria Cellario shows no evidence of knowing what she is about.

Angela Thornton as Aunt Juliana (here Julia) does manage to be both dignified and effective, and Jennifer Van Dyck, despite overdirection, still appeals as Thea Elvsted. Alexander Dodge's somewhat stylized set is not inexpressive, Michael Krass's costumes pass muster, and Kevin Adams's sometimes overfanciful lighting is nevertheless dramatic. But what avails all this against Hedda's letting out unearthly shouts, or everyone's lapsing into hyper-Pinterian pauses? A crowning offense reveals Hedda, after shooting herself in the head, bloodlessly and beautifully draped across her piano, with only her father's portrait, high above her, spattered with blood.

Jon Robin Baitz's adaptation contributes little beyond updating Judge Brack's wanting to be the cock of the walk into wishing to be top dog, and having Eilert die of a shot not in, but below, the stomach. Yet it is certainly at our stomachs that this Hedda Gobbler sic, a premature Thanksgiving turkey, takes aim.

The good news is that the modest musical The Spitfire Grill is, if not an unmitigated success, a pleasingly tasteful achievement, worth at a conservative estimate two dozen Urinetowns. With music by James Valcq, lyrics by the late Fred Alley, and a book by both, this is an adaptation of Lee David Zlotoff's 1996 movie of the same name.

We have here an intimate, one-set, seven-character musical that simplifies and softens the film but does not reduce it to a saccharine confection. It is still the story of Percy Talbott, a young woman paroled after five years for a very nearly justified murder, and ordered to report to the sheriff of Gilead, a small town whose social center is the Spitfire Grill, a ramshackle eatery that its owner, Hannah Ferguson, would gladly sell if she but could. The stern, elderly Hannah is persuaded to take on Percy as cook and waitress; later, Shelby, the unhappy young wife of the gruff Caleb Thorpe, joins the two other women in a consciousness-raising alliance that even the town's maliciously gossipy postmistress and the wife-bullying Caleb come to respect.

There is much more to the story, but, though less than in the movie, enough to allow for an amiable country-flavored score, fine direction by David Saint, and aptly understated musical staging by Luis Perez. Michael Anania's versatile unit set, Theoni V. Aldredge's soberly telling costumes, and Howell Binkley's resourceful lighting contribute handsomely, as does the five-piece orchestra. But the triumph is the cast, in which Mary Gordon Murray, Steven Pasquale, and Armand Schultz are on the mark, and the three main women superb.

Phyllis Somerville is a perhaps slightly too young but compellingly acted and sung Hannah, exuding a winning forthrightness in everything she does. As Shelby, the always impeccable Liz Callaway surpasses herself, with breathtaking vocalism and heartwarmingly unfussy acting. The great find is Garrett Long. A young woman of the most unremarkable, unactressy aspect, she offers a Percy whose personality grows on us from an early high point to ever higher ones. As intended, she blossoms before our eyes and ears visually, vocally, and emotionally in a performance that transfigures both her and her audience.

So what if the tunes and lyrics are steadily satisfying rather than unusually clever and original; they are rendered with the kind of conviction and expertise that make them transcendent. It is not often that material and its interpretation move me to tears, but this was one of those occasions: The Spitfire Grill has the heart and soul that your Producers and Full Montys cannot begin to approach. What even in normal times would be a joy is, in these troubled ones, sheer nourishment.

Paul Rudnick's Rude Entertainment comprises three one-acters. Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach, about a flamboyantly gay TV show, is short and mostly funny. Very Special Needs, about a gay couple trying to adopt a Third World baby, is longer and less funny. On the Fence, about what happened to Laramie's murdered Matthew Shepard after death, as he meets Eleanor Roosevelt and Paul Lynde, is longer yet, unfunny, undramatic, and in bad taste. Peter Bartlett, Neal Huff, and Harriet Harris perform well under Christopher Ashley's direction.

Hedda Gabler
Broadway revival of the play by Ibsen, starring Kate Burton.
The Spitfire Grill
Off Broadway musical adaptation of the film.
Rude Entertainment
Off Broadway comedy by Paul Rudnick.


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