Nothin’ Doin’

The first half of the title It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues is honest; the second half is a fib. The show has been promoted as a history of the blues, but all we get is a few slide projections and no spoken or other insight. Of the 22 numbers in the first half (all I could endure), quite a few were not blues at all. The one outstanding item was the trusty “St. Louis Blues,” which Gretha Boston sang nicely but with peculiar pauses; nothing else approached this old favorite.

Even though the show boasts five writers and four producing theater companies, there is scant evidence of writing, and less of imagination; comparisons to the wonderful Ain’t Misbehavin’ are absurd. The seven performers are mostly seated behind their individual mikes, though they do get to stand up for solos and even sashay about a bit. All are competent, but one would want to see them in a more favorable context. Visually and choreographically, the show is a snore, but you might be awakened by the hyperboisterous audience carrying on like a claque, which it may have been.

I was particularly taken with the two white, middle-aged, middle-class women behind me clapping after every number like crazy, usually also whooping like unhinged cranes, and shouting out “Oh, yeah!” to prove themselves possessors of soul. Talking to a savvy record-company publicist, I found that he, too, left after the first half. We racked our brains for someone who stayed on for the second to enlighten us about it. He finally came up with somebody, but she also loved the first half, which, we felt, disqualified her. Rabid p.c. is alive and well at Lincoln Center.

An equally questionable enterprise is the Atlantic Theater Company’s The Cider House Rules, adapted by Peter Parnell from John Irving’s overstuffed novel. The adaptation is in two parts of more than three hours each, but Atlantic can afford to mount only the 195-minute (with intermissions) first. It thus becomes the longest commercial (or teaser) ever: You have to buy the book to find out how it all comes out. I myself left after the first two hours, figuring that if I am (thank goodness!) not getting the whole Cider House Rules, it mattered little whether I quit after Cider or after House.

I consider such an endeavor at best otiose, at worst anti-literate. Novels of this kind can be adapted for the movies, as this one is about to be, but not for the stage, where they are turned into that dreariest of genres, story theater. It means that a character, Homer Wells, will stalk across the stage saying (I improvise), “As Homer Wells stumbled across the threshold and nearly split open his skull, he looked at Dr. Larch and said softly …” followed by whatever he softly said. This runs counter to everything drama stands for, and soon becomes torture.

The horrid hybrid was invented so that playwrights who have burnt themselves out can continue writing, if that’s the word for it. And so that directors – in such cases usually actors themselves – can employ a large number of undistinguished colleagues, whom they can push around in countless small but busy parts, making them and themselves look good – or so they think. The co-directors here are the actor Tom Hulce and the ex-actress Jane Jones, now “co-artistic director of Book-It … a Seattle-based company dedicated to transforming great literature into great theater through presentation of the author’s narrative voice.” But the theater is not about narrative voice, which, in any case, involves in a novel the author’s scene-setting and analytical passages, which film, unlike theater, can at least approximate.

As literate people know, a work of art is as much form as content, and form is unique unto itself and should respectfully be left alone. Book-It, which lists a number of reputable authors among its victims, should be ashamed of itself. It makes people who have seen both parts of the adaptation in California complacently desist from reading the book. I know the device worked once – for Nicholas Nickleby – but that extraordinary convergence of talent is not likely to recur in one lifetime.

The two principals here, Colm Meany and Josh Hamilton, do admirably, but I have enjoyed both of them more in real plays or movies. Some of the others also squeeze out a bit from their fragmented roles, but I have a problem with Jillian Armenante. It may well be that Irving wrote Melony as a frightening freak – he revels in creepiness and brutality – but it is one thing to read about such a thing and quite another to have one’s nose rubbed in it.

Nothin’ Doin’