The people behind Seussical the musical aimed at an audience from 7 to 77. They may have got the more infantile 7 and the senile 77; they didn’t get what lies between. A potentially amiable show became something that only (see the ads) Rosie O’Donnell and Liz Smith could love. Here and there a bit of talent, an idea or two, make their mark; the rest is all militantly cheerful, mercilessly whimsical murk.
Just about everything went wrong, starting with the music of Stephen Flaherty, the lyrics of Lynn Ahrens, and the book by both perpetrators, with Eric Idle as accessory. By picking bits from several Dr. Seuss books, they came up with a patchwork instead of a story line; by retaining some of Dr. Seuss’s writing and grafting onto it their inferior own, they achieved further destabilization. Rather than speak the sooth, or the Seuss, they speak with worse than forked – at the very least trifurcating – tongues: They speak mishmash, about as faithful to Seuss as Messalina was to the emperor Claudius.
There are two kinds of songs: the generic and the simplistic, with only the Lion King-ish “Solla Sollew” and the eclectic “Havin’ a Hunch” showing signs of at least borrowed life. The choreography, by Kathleen Marshall, is similarly uninspired, hurtling from cute to desperate without passing Go. Kathleen’s brother, the genuinely talented Rob Marshall, was brought in to revise Frank Galati’s direction (Galati was the worst possible choice for a cute show), but true redirecting would have required not a director but a dam builder.
The producers seem to have scapegoated Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Eugene Lee’s sets for their fiasco in Boston. Zuber, apparently, stuck too close to Seuss, which strikes me as correct. They brought in William Ivey Long, a specialist in sophistication, and his costumes now look like a nightmare cross between Arcimboldo and Vegas. Lee, who excels at the stark or structural, was another wrong choice. The clever Tony Walton, brought in to brighten things up, could not quite remove the ereal from funereal. Natasha Katz, usually splendid, turns stage and auditorium into one huge dance hall, but a Roseland by any other name is still a Roseland.
The concept and casting of the characters is the final catastrophe. As the Cat in the Hat, the charmless David Shiner, a somber clown, is miscast; minus the menace, he is a shiner in the eye of the show. Kevin Chamberlin does what can be done with a Horton made to look less like an elephant than like an elephant hunter. As the wife of the Mayor of Whoville, the able Alice Playten is saddled with a poor part and poorer Mayor. As their son, Anthony Blair Hall is too big for a Who child and too small for a Tom Hanks look-alike. At least Michele Pawk, however mannered, infuses much-needed sass into Mayzie LaBird.
The rest, men and women alike, seem to have been chosen for their lack of appeal, mistaken for humor. Janine LaManna, as Gertrude McFuzz, is a cuckoo hatched in a songbird’s nest. The Bird Girls are a trio of trying grotesques. Most bizarre is hefty Sharon Wilkins, the least of the red-hot mamas, as the Sour Kangaroo, whose credibility requires a quantum leap of faith. Her baby is a hand puppet, for which she is totally unable to ventriloquize a voice. The minor characters and chorus members perform with the grinning despair with which slave workers in a Siberian salt mine would strain to improve their lot. Seussical may be a woozical or a Whosical, but a musical it’s not.
In Wendy Wasserstein’s Old Money, some rich people are enjoying – well, enduring – a dinner party with a complex secret agenda in a sumptuous Upper East Side mansion. There is ample talk about money, art, and relationships, but soon the same characters, mostly playing their own forebears, start wandering in as the play shuttles back and forth, sometimes frantically, between two not quite consecutive generations. Eventually, we meet some of the characters at a still later stage, and a member of a subsequent generation.
As played by eight actors with at least two parts each, the piece becomes a display of how quickly actors can change wigs and costumes, and I lost track of who was doing what to whom, and how one thing bore on another. At times Miss Wasserstein wrote in her own voice, at others in a pseudo-Edith Wharton’s, and the two W’s got more and more into each other’s hair. An offstage character, a dead sister, also thickened the brew; finally, the cross-references became a Gordian knot.
As funny one-liners, but more often vatic profundities (really just one-liners with a halo around them), were batted about, a further magma of Significance shrouded the proceedings. This was Writing Big, whereas our author is best writing small, where a spade remains a spade. After a while, I just sat there admiring Thomas Lynch’s tastefully opulent set, Jane Greenwood’s parade of costumes from grand to Gap, and Mark McCullough’s lighting burnishing all.
Old songs were sung and danced to ad nauseam, and Mark Brokaw directed the whirligig with sweep and zest. But it was impossible to say whether these excogitated phantasms should be played thus or otherwise, and whether the ultimate meaning was how things change or how they don’t. And it was even less possible to care.
It is hard to say whether Robert Wilson is a clever charlatan or an ingenuous idiot; whichever he is, he excels at it. His production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play for Stockholm’s Stadsteater (not to be confused with the Royal Dramaten) came to bam, which seems to specialize in importing the importunate.
Here is the formula for making it in today’s theater. You begin with a couple of splashy outrages that create a succès de scandale, and get the sensation hunters, the phonies, and the sheep – a goodly part of the audience – salivating about you. Thereupon sundry theaters, including many foreign ones, open their arms, and reviewers, as bamboozlable as the masses from which they arose, become your shills. Endowments and awards are showered upon you, and you start your own theater or school, or both.
Presently the institutions of higher learning prostrate themselves before you, and you ride in triumph through Academia. Thereafter no theater, opera house, or museum (see Wilson’s staging of the Armani show at the Guggenheim) can forgo your services, and you are crowned emperor of a realm whose very children are brainwashed into blindness to imperial nudity. The world of the arts is now not so much your oyster as your pissoir.
Wilson has decimated, deconstructed, and destroyed A Dream Play, submerging it in his private, masturbatory images, either irrelevant to or contradicting the text. It is three hours of obscene obfuscation, and I could hardly wait for the intermission, when I – like many others, including some critics – could escape. There remains only for Wilson to figure out how to cut up the world’s great paintings and turn them into Wilson collages.
There is something touching about a man well into his eighties who keeps writing plays, but rather less so if he keeps writing the same one. The subject is always an eccentric Texan or Texas family, and an interminable roster of who was whose great-aunt, grandmother-in-law, or second cousin by marriage, and who died before whom. Horton Foote is a lovely man, but when writing, he becomes a memory-obsessed Horton the Elephant and puts his foot in it.
His latest, The Last of the Thorntons, though only 90 minutes, invites either sleep or parody. The dialogue goes like this: “I was living in West University in Houston, you know, with my sisters, and when they died … Gloria died first, you know, and then Rowena, and I was alone in that house in West University in Houston …” Or: “Frances Jane, she was the oldest, then Sister and Billy, named for his daddy, Mr. Ferguson.” Or: “Do you all remember Punkin Armstrong? … Got drunk … and yelled, I’m a Croom Armstrong aristocrat! … She’s dead. She died after my sister Gloria, but before my sister Rowena.” To which someone replies, “My God, everybody I know is dead. My mama, my sister, Edith, my little brother.” The theater becomes a necropolis.
Much of the talk concerns what became of Alberta’s, the last of the Thorntons’, duplex. Who bought it, or seized and sold it, to whom and for how much, and what was its real worth, and how much of it Alberta got or was cheated out of. Alberta (played by Horton’s daughter, Hallie) is now prematurely in an old folks’ home, affected by others with senile dementia.
Miss Foote is the most monotonous of actresses, especially when she portrays someone deranged. Her voice has as much variety as a ratchet wheel, and her expression is easily as glazed over as ours a few minutes into The Last of the Thorntons. If this play isn’t the last of the Hortons, we’ll all end up, dead of boredom, in Mr. Foote’s elephant graveyard, a long litany of names and a matter of who predeceased whom.