imPossibly Bad

Though it aspires to boulevard comedy, High Infidelity is at best back-alley farce. The only truly funny thing about it is that anyone should have chosen to produce it. Written by John Dooley, whose list of works is long but comprises not a single item known to me, it takes place in the mid-seventies and was probably written then, and must already have seemed dated.

Dr. Edward Finger and his assistant, Jane McAlpin – a fellow therapist in love with him but to whom he can’t commit – run a marriage clinic on the Jersey shore in a ramshackle Victorian house. Despite a write-up in Newsweek, they are broke. So when Senator Gordon, who is running for president, and his wife, Ellen come to them seeking treatment – the couple’s violent public fights have jeopardized Gordon’s candidacy – the prospect is a difficult one to refuse. But the Gordons have only three hours for treatment, and Finger isn’t eager to take on the impossible task. Jane, who poses as his nurse but knows as much about therapy as he does, and is smarter to boot, changes Finger’s mind, with an assist from the empty fridge.

What follows is equally preposterous as therapy and as playwriting. The characters could give stereotypes a bad name; the dialogue is laboriously unfunny, the plot woefully laughable. Perhaps the biggest yock comes when Gordon’s birdbrained bodyguard exclaims in horror as he fingers Finger’s card, “The rapist?” and Finger corrects him, “Therapist.” Asked by Ellen what they call this type of therapy, Jane explains that since giving someone the Finger wouldn’t sound right, it has no name. “I’ll give you a blow for blow,” Gordon tells the president over the phone once they get reconnected. Beat. “No, it’s just an expression.” As it turns out, even the infidelities in this opuscule are fake.

As the Gordons, John Davidson and Morgan Fairchild, both TV veterans, are ideally matched. Both look synthetic: his face made of rubber, hers of porcelain. His crinkles more than a shar-pei puppy’s; hers is ironed to unearthly smoothness. She at least has learned how to simulate acting; his notion of it would just do for a game-show host. Dan Ziskie does the dumb bodyguard to unholy perfection; as Dr. Finger, Neil Maffin comes across as a failed chorus boy, able only to make an unbelievable part more so.

Harrison Williams has done “over 45 sets for schools in Manhattan” (the “high” in “high school” putatively qualifying him for High Infidelity) but won’t, on the strength of this one, graduate to college shows. The costume and lighting designers, Carrie Robbins and Jack Mehler, are pros but don’t get much of a chance here. The director is Luke Yankee, and his staging rings about as true as his name.

There is one redeeming feature: the enchanting Jennifer Roszell, making her New York theatrical debut as Jane. She plays her absurd role with more conviction than seems possible, not to mention a charmingly ingenuous sexiness. She speaks and moves well, and is delicious from top to toe. Running around barefoot, she evokes George du Maurier’s tribute to the feet of his heroine Trilby: “They were astonishingly beautiful feet, such as one only sees in pictures and statues – a true inspiration of shape and color.”

At one point, Ellen offers the hyperventilating Jane a Cartier bag and says, “I find a good Cartier bag will get you through anything.” Never before could I so have used one.

For imPerfect Chemistry, you need another kind of bag: not Cartier, but barf. Beware of any play whose title displays typographic cutesiness; actually, imPerfect Chemistry deserves 4 and 1/2-point Diamond type, if that.

A scientific laboratory, Avalon, is run by an avuncular golf fanatic, Dr. Goodman (God). The only visible scientists are two naïve young geneticists, Alvin Rivers and Elizabeth Gibbs (Adam and Eve), whose problem is that they have no problem to work on (don’t they know what show they’re in?), and Dr. Bubinski (Satan), who wants to exploit Avalon’s superdupercomputer (the Tree of Knowledge) for fast and filthy lucre. There is also an obnoxious factotum, Harry Lizzarde (the snake), played obnoxiously by Brooks Ashmanskas, and a singing and dancing chorus of four, who help make the shoddy and derivative score by Albert Tapper and James Racheff, and the abysmal choreography and direction by John Ruocco – incredibly – worse yet.

After aeons of marking time, the story lets Rivers and Gibbs invent Loxagane, an elixir that grows hair better than Rogaine and Propecia combined, with, however, the side effect of turning the newly hirsute into murderous troglodytes. That is all you need to know about the imbecile plot. Rob Odorisio has designed an amusingly outlandish giant computer (a direct descendant of the anthropophagous plant in The Little Shop of Horrors), and Curtis Hay has supplied the campy costumes.

“There is nothing so yare / As a five under par,” sings the golfer Dr. Goodman, played by John Jellison, who, in a fright wig, doubles as Dr. Bubinski, managing to be awful in separate but equal ways. But then, the show, which is easily 55 below par, makes everyone bogey.

Now for the really frightening part. This is the first offering of a new “partnership by a group of veteran theatergoers” called Back to Back Productions, dedicated to “developing two musicals simultaneously … to keep the American musical alive and kicking.” I shudder to think of the companion show kicking itself similarly in the back-to-backside. My only hope is that the other kicking shoe will never drop.

What our theater needs desperately is producers not blinded by the mindless compulsion to produce. In the old days, men like Alfred de Liagre (nice) and David Merrick (not nice) were professionals. But the new Back to Back Productions hides its amateurish perpetrators under that double-dorsal cover. Producer Jennifer Smith Rockwood foolhardily bills herself above the title of High Infidelity and employs the services of Back Door Productions. My advice to theatergoers: When you see the word back on a poster or program, back off as fast as you can.

imPossibly Bad