Baa, Humbug

Get Me Rewrite: John Lithgow as the columnist J.J. Hunsecker, in Sweet Smell of Success.Photo: Paul Kolnick

There is a smell at the Martin Beck Theatre, but it is neither sweet nor that of success. It is a mystery why people would buy the rights to the striking 1957 movie Sweet Smell of Success only to rewrite it almost beyond recognition (even while retaining some of its most memorable lines). Some things must change from medium to medium, but this musical Sweet Smell of Success is a bummer.

The film could not quite explain why the ruthless gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker (loosely based on Walter Winchell) would adore his 19-year-old half-sister, Susan, to the point of having a corrupt cop and his thugs beat her boyfriend to near-death. Incest and a repressed homosexual’s need for a beard were hinted at, but today this could have been clarified and developed. Clifford Odets’s dialogue is not bettered by John Guare, whose work here is uncharacteristically wishy-washy: The introduction of a quasi-Greek chorus labeled “the whisperers” undercuts the gritty realism the film’s noir plot thrived on.

The small-time press agent Sidney Falco, who becomes J.J.’s toady, dirty-work-doer, and finally victim, was in the movie the disturbingly angel-faced Tony Curtis in his best role; here it is the rather ordinary Brian d’Arcy James. Susan Harrison, the movie Susan, was touchingly weak; here, the colorless Kelli O’Hara is tougher and duller. The bargirl Rita, a memorable dumb blonde (Barbara Nichols), has become a sweet cigarette girl (Stacey Logan) who eventually bands together with Susan in a sisterhood-is-beautiful moment. Susan’s musician boyfriend, Dallas, a straight arrow in the movie, becomes now the sleazy-looking Jack Noseworthy, more realistic but unsympathetic. Even the movie’s crooked policeman is less flavorous here. But the biggest problem is the J. J. of John Lithgow, a fine actor in the right part, but not cut out for a song-and-dance man. The show takes rather too seriously J.J.’s past in vaudeville, and the resultant number provided Lithgow by Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Craig Carnelia (lyrics) is no singular sensation.

The skilled British director Nicholas Hytner could not rescue a sick project. Christopher Wheeldon’s dances only intermittently look original and lack Broadway panache. Carnelia always struck me as a tepid lyricist, but from Hamlisch I hoped for more than one hit song, “Dirt,” and even that with humdrum lyrics. The good set designer Bob Crowley has come up with a ponderous, inflexible New York skyline, which Natasha Katz, however, has lighted brilliantly. But can you come out of a musical humming the lighting?

We read in Guido Ruggiero’s The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice: “The Signori were not the least interested in masturbation except as it related to intercourse with a goat.” So they should have found Edward Albee’s latest caper (from capra, Latin for goat) of genuine interest. Still, as a young woman leaving The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? explained to her escort, “This is a metaphor.” But for what? Pederasty? Pedophilia? Pediatrics?

One problem with the play is that it makes no sense. Martin, a famous and happily married architect, tolerant of his teenage son’s homosexuality, has just turned 50. While shopping for a farm in upstate New York, he sees a goat making googoo eyes at him, falls in love with her (it’s a she-goat, nothing queer about Martin), has an affair with her, and names her Sylvia. This last may be a tad de trop.

Poor Martin gets no sympathy from his oldest friend, Ross, who betrays him to his wife, Stevie; from his gay son, Billy, who does, however, end up kissing him passionately on the lips; or from Stevie, who goes around smashing whatever is breakable in their living room and making beastly jokes about Martin’s paramour.

Now, for a metaphor to work, it must first function on the literal level, but one melting caprine glance does not usually induce zoophilia in a 50-year-old enjoying good sex with his attractive wife. The author compounds his error by having Stevie perform an offstage act well beyond a female amateur’s capacity. An even bigger mistake is Albee’s dialogue, which slipperily shuttles between the farcical and the portentous, inducing gales of laughter in the most inappropriate places. Especially irksome are three perennial Albee tics, here reaching their culmination. One is semantic one-upmanship, whereby characters continually and gratuitously correct one another’s grammar and metaphors. Another is needless repetition of obvious things, because the hearer was preoccupied, deaf, or just thick. The third is relentless use of obscenity for cheap laughs.

Jeffrey Carlson is adequate as Billy, the somewhat goatishly named gay son; as Ross, the meddling friend, Stephen Rowe is rather poor. Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl do wonders for the hapless spouses, all to no avail. Most amazing to me was having overheard one producer say Albee’s previous work, The Play About the Baby, was put on to obtain the rights to the “much better” Goat. Can it be that producers cannot tell much better from equally bad?

Metamorphoses, which turns Ovid’s inspired hexameters into Mary Zimmerman’s earthbound prose and watery shenanigans, is no different in its current Broadway premises from what it was Off Broadway. The stories enacted in obsolete and etiolated story-theater form concern mythic metamorphoses, but the flimsy spectacle can no more delve into the two-dimensional characters than dive into the shallow onstage pool. In another work of Ovid’s, the Fasti, Jupiter asks the nymphs to stop their sister Juturna, his designated prey, from plunging into the river.

No one, alas, has stopped Zimmerman’s characters from splashing around that kiddie wading pool, or Zimmerman herself from mucking about in Ovid’s lambent poetry. Of course, without that cute pool and juvenile aquacade, there wouldn’t be much to the show; even with it, it is dated and dull.

I lasted 35 minutes at the visiting Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre production of Cymbeline at BAM. The very idea of mounting this sprawling, large-cast spectacle on a bare stage with only six performers in identical white pajamas, and two similarly clad onstage musicians belaboring a plethora of outlandish instruments, strikes me as no more ingenious than, say, staging Hamlet with a flea circus.

At the very least, the four actors would have to be Oliviers, and the two actresses Judi Denches. Here we get four who could handle one role each, and a couple you would prefer not to see in that many. Most of them have been scooped up from British regional theaters or touring companies, and could probably knock them dead in Kingston upon Hull or Southend-on-Sea, but—with the notable exception of the personable Fergus O’Donnell as Pisanio—are ill-advised to venture much beyond. The director, Mike Alfreds, as longtime artistic director of Method and Madness, has evidently become a master at making the twain meet. American audiences must learn not to confuse British accents with Shakespearean expertise.

Sweet Smell of Success
Musical adaptation of the 1957 film, starring John Lithgow.
The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
By Edward Albee.
Adapted from Ovid by Mary Zimmerman.

Baa, Humbug