The myth of the artist as outsider is not without foundation. Take the case of Richard Greenberg and his handful of handicaps. He is obese and homely and, on snooty Long Island, Jewish and homosexual. But Greenberg also has a compensatory weapon: wit. In several of his plays, he has demonstrated his ability to write well beyond the odd one-liners a string of zingers zooming up to the capstone of the ziggurat. In top form, he is the gay heir to Neil Simon.
But there is always a but. Greenberg writes two kinds of plays: type A, in which he has something to say, and type B, where wit is everything. His last full-length play, Three Days of Rain, was about something, as was the just-revived one-acter The Author’s Voice. But in these, his humor forsook him. Though a certain ingenuity and literacy were still evident, there was also strain and the feel of shaving with a blunt razor. Conversely, in a play such as The Extra Man, Greenberg latches on to a funny situation but, beyond milking it for all its comic worth, doesn’t quite know where to go with it.
Now we have Hurrah at Last, which looks for one act as if he had finally mastered type C, blending in the strengths of A and B, but reverts in Act Two to Type B. There is a daringly different concept in the first scene of this second act, which takes place in a hospital room – but also somewhere else that I must not divulge – yet the very cleverness of the idea is self-defeating. The seventeenth-century chronicler Tallemant des Réaux reports about the Marshal de Bassompierre that “he was always ready with repartee and was said to prefer losing a friend to the chance of making a witty remark.” Luckily for him, he was only grand marshal of France; had he been a Broadway playwright, making an audience feel foolish would have cost him more.
Nor does it help that the hero’s seemingly insoluble problems are glibly smoothed out in the final scene. A bohemian novelist of considerable depth but shallow pockets, Laurie stumbles on an easy solution I can’t, alas, reveal. Why, this outsider who never even owned a good blue suit suddenly appears in an immaculately tailored one of uncertain provenance – rather like the play’s happy ending.
Even so, there is much to commend and enjoy here. Greenberg makes jokes that are literate as well as funny. Having read Virginia Woolf helps you to appreciate a line such as “One of those novels those English ladies write, where 200 pages later they pour the tea.” And a touch of elitism would enhance your pleasure in a Jewish mother’s invidious advice to Laurie, who protests that he is no John Grisham: “You could write as badly as he does if you tried.” Again, when he asks his mother where the Jews stand on the afterlife, Reva replies, “We don’t think about it. We certainly don’t talk about it. We find this world enough – almost too much.”
Here is Laurie’s marginalized father, Sumner, on his formidable spouse: “I married your mother, and I thought, ‘Oh, shit! At least before, I had my own bed.’ ” This is the man who says of his bachelor days, “I was a loner. I was extremely popular among people who didn’t want to be bothered,” and adds ruefully, “Marriage is just a prison; children, the abyss.”
Hurrah at Last concerns Laurie’s plight as an impecunious highbrow writer, bugged by his playwright friend Oliver, whose rubbish makes millions. He has even been lucratively commissioned to adapt one of Laurie’s novels for the screen. Oliver seems happily married to Gia, a philoprogenitive airhead who, knowing little English, dumbly serves his lust. Most irritatingly, Oliver fulsomely worships Laurie, extols the artist to the skies, and hugs and drools over the man, obeying his most outrageous bidding. Yet, unlike Laurie, he won’t admit to being gay.
Poor Laurie also comes across as an ingrate to his (less than doting) parents, well behind his sister, Thea. She is happily married to an Irish nabob, Eamon, whose Midas touch makes even his goyishness forgivable. Though their tireless efforts to produce an heir have thus far been unrewarded, hope of offspring springs eternal. And these sweet people do not even mind when Oliver’s gigantic canine, Thunder, keeps wrecking their fragile art treasures. Thunder, by the way, is flawlessly incarnated by a mountainous mastiff whose stage name is Dreyfus but whose dog-show name is Bound for Glory, perhaps leaving him as split in two as Richard Greenberg.
Most of the actors live up to Dreyfus’s high standards. As Laurie, Peter Frechette is that remarkable actor unafraid of creative exaggeration. He sweats misery and oozes resentment as he pants after money in a fine hyperbolic frenzy that puts him right up there with our other master of plummy overachievement, Kevin Kline. As Oliver, Paul Michael Valley is superbly obnoxious as he idolizingly yet also smugly bestows on Laurie adulation as welcome as a gorilla’s embrace. The good Judith (formerly Judy) Blazer squeezes out all that the part of Gia can offer, and Kevin O’Rourke copes gallantly with the luck of the Irish clinging to him like Spanish moss. As the parents, Larry Keith and Dori Brenner are impeccable. Only the Thea of Ileen Getz, a TV comedienne of grotesque aspect, is unworthy of this company. The design team is in splendid form under David Warren’s exemplarily resourceful direction. And even if the author cannot quite pull things together into a purposeful whole, the seeds of his fulfillment may be stirring here.