Partners in Rhyme

If you can approach the pocket musical Pete ‘n’ Keely with an open mindlessness, you can have a rattling good time. A 1968 TV studio presents a live telecast meant to reconcile and reinstate an estranged husband-and-wife team on the order of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme or Louis Prima and Keely Smith. The TV special, sponsored by Swell (the product that “put the ‘oo’ in shampoo”), reviews their career, which foundered on his womanizing and her boozing and, later, on the inability of each to make it without the other. But the course of reconciliation never runs smooth.

The score is a mix of golden oldies, including a clever travelogue made of songs about every state in the Union, and silver newies by the show’s musical director, Patrick S. Brady, and stage director, Mark Waldrop. A snappy scenario emerges, enhanced by Keith Cromwell’s neat choreography. Ray Klausen has designed tongue-in-cheek mini-sets that create ambiences with laconic expressiveness. The sassy costumes are by Bob Mackie, that master of clothes exquisitely teetering between daringly good and deliciously bad taste.

James Hindman’s pastiche book is a spirited takeoff on the fifties and sixties entertainers’ acts and lives. It may elicit more laughs from those who remember these targets with fondness, but should leave no one unsmiling. Waldrop has directed with sauciness and gusto; Brady at the piano and two fellow musicians play up, if not a storm, a civilized tempest in a teacup. George Dvorsky and Sally Mayes sing, dance, and spar to comic perfection, contributing stylishness and charm few if any of today’s big Broadway musicals can begin to match.

Joe Orton writes in his diary about a shopping tour with his roommate, Kenneth Halliwell, who later bludgeoned him to death: “We were just too late to miss he means catch a man who’s decided to commit suicide by jumping from the window of New Zealand House. They caught him unfortunately.” Elsewhere in his diary he declares, “I hate this tight-arsed civilization,” which I guess is to be taken both figuratively and literally.

It is out of such ruthlessness and rancor that good farce is often written, and Orton’s last play, What the Butler Saw (1969), is undeniably good farce. It has a suitably convoluted plot – though not much of a story – and takes place in the private clinic of Dr. Prentice, a psychiatrist, beginning as he interviews the fetching Geraldine Barclay for a secretarial job. On a pretext, he makes her undress, and is about to jump her bones, even as she somewhat anxiously inquires about Mrs. Prentice. He answers, “My wife is a nymphomaniac. Consequently, like the Holy Grail, she’s ardently sought after by young men. I married her for her money, and upon discovering her to be penniless, I attempted to throttle her. She escaped my murderous fury and I’ve had to live with her malice ever since.”

That gives you the tenor of things. The other characters are the lewd Mrs. P.; Nicholas, a bellhop with whom she had sex in a hotel and who, by means of a hidden camera, acquired photographs with which to blackmail her; Dr. Rance, another psychiatrist, functioning as inspector (“I represent Her Majesty’s Government. Your immediate superiors in madness)”; finally, Sergeant Match, a matchlessly maltreated policeman, who, like other cast members, ends up near-naked or in drag. With these six at cross-purposes, a mere psychiatric clinic turns into Bedlam unleashed. What the play needs, but doesn’t get in Scott Elliot’s staging, is British sangfroid and coolly clipped British-accented delivery unraveling in just the right places. With the exception of Chloë Sevigny, who manages the beleaguered innocence and frustrated decency (though not quite the accent) of Geraldine Barclay, and Max Baker, as the peeling peeler, the players fail miserably. They act in divergent but equally wrong keys, with little feeling for farce, and stumble in and out of never very convincing accents with no help from the director. But while Dylan Baker, Lisa Emery, and Nick Hetherington are only bad, Peter Frechette, as Dr. Rance (the part originated by Ralph Richardson), is perfectly awful.

The usually terrific Derek McLane provides a merely suitable set; the costumes and lighting will pass. But Scott Elliot demonstrates that whatever acumen he once had as a director is by now woefully exhausted. Sad to find What the Butler Saw turned into what the director did not see, or, borrowing a strategy from Orton’s roommate, bludgeoned to death.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a gay German epigone of Godard, was a movie director with a constituency that extended from cultist to uncultured, from screaming camp followers to sheeplike all-swallowers, but not the better critics. In the vast oeuvre of Pauline Kael, he appears only once, in an approvingly quoted remark by Paul Coates: “The depressive indifferentism of Fassbinder’s films renders them virtually impossible to sit through … the mute, unprotesting audience does not feel it deserves any better.” As the German theater director Peter Zadek puts it, “Rainer’s a little shit, but one can’t help liking him. He … seems to feel this need to work in a permanent state of quarrel.” Appositely, his last film was Querelle (1982), from the novel by Jean Genet, made the same year Fassbinder, aged 36, died from a drug overdose.

To revive his 1971 play The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (the basis in 1972 for his campiest movie), about a lesbian fashion designer’s fatal passion for one of her models, is an act of egregious folly. Especially if it is as poorly executed as this production, directed by Ian Belton from Denis Calandra’s translation, “reworked” by Barbara Sauermann and himself. Mounted on the cheap, it has mildly amusing scenery by Jeff Cowie and costumes by Greco; Belton’s staging merely piles the director’s deficiencies on top of the author’s.

David Thomson, an admirer of Fassbinder, accurately described how his anti-films worked: “flaccid dialogue with crazy rhythm.” In the case of Petra, add loony pantomime and hysterical wallowing. It is impossible to say about the present cast whether the atrocious acting is deliberate camp or sheer ineptitude. Only Anita Durst impresses, as a sinister mute maid of ghoulish aspect, but she has no lines to speak. Characteristic of this dismal production is that the runway model is played by a short, mousy actress, and that we hear about “laying in bed” and someone’s having “hung himself.”

Pete ‘n’ Keely
By James Hindman. Directed by Mark Waldrop at the John Houseman Theater.
What the Butler Saw
By Joe Orton. Directed by Scott Elliot at St.Clements Church.

Partners in Rhyme