Too Much Bull

Hemming and Hee-Hawing: From left, Sean Foley, guest Kevin Kline, and Hamish McColl, in The Play What I Wrote.Photo: Joan Marcus

I gather that if you thrilled to the British comedy team of Morecambe and Wise, which inspired it, Hamish McColl and Sean Foley’s The Play What I Wrote takes on added luster and laughter. We who are uninitiated in Morecambe and Wise may find the new duo more ham than wise, although still intermittently funny. The two also have an associate clown in Toby Jones, who may outstrip them both; an always different mystery guest who, on opening night, was Kevin Kline; and a hard-to-assess but conceivably apt director in Kenneth Branagh. So the evening is not a total loss but, like Paradise Lost in Dr. Johnson’s estimate, is something nobody would have wished longer than it is.

Some of us, in fact, may have wished it shorter. Hamish McColl and Sean Foley are droll all right, but, like Foley’s rubber limbs, possibly overextended, and like McColl’s protruding eyes, more marbles than marvels. I for one would have settled for quite a bit less. As for the mystery guest, he may add a brief fillip—indeed, Hamish, pretending to mistake him for Calvin of that ilk, extracts a pair of briefs from his pants as an homage—but he can ultimately be not much more than a third stooge and fifth wheel.

Although Urban Cowboy: The Musical is not quite an unqualified disaster, it has that patchwork quality better in quilts than in shows. Its 33 composers and lyricists are part of the explanation, as is the unusual number of Broadway debuts in performing, choreography, and design. The prevailing ambitiousness must have read better than it plays; the source—a movie based on a magazine story by Aaron Latham, who co-wrote the book with the late Philip Oesterman—is muddier than potable.

This is the one about the rural Texas cowboy, Bud, who tries to strike gold in Houston, and weds the tough but nice Sissy. The initially idyllic trailer marriage soon goes sour, leading to Bud’s dalliance with the spoiled rich girl Pam, and Sissy’s with the outlaw Wes. Bud first lodges with his uncle Bob and aunt Corene, an earthy couple, and works by day in the oil refinery where Bob is foreman and Sissy is a fellow employee. By night, they hit Gilley’s, a joint run by the worldly-wise Jesse. A hard-to-ride mechanical bull is featured there; a contest for staying on it is the story’s climax.

An attempt to turn the chorus boys and girls into recognizable individuals miscarries; the rendering of Bob’s coaching Bud on another mechanical bull, suggested solely by dancers, likewise fails to ignite. Forced, too, is the telling of parallel marital infidelities on a split stage in simultaneous action and song. The cast generally satisfies—I would single out Leo Burmester, Sally Mayes, and the newcomer Jenn Colella. James Noone’s décor almost accomplishes more with less, as does Natasha Katz’s lighting. But Melinda Roy’s choreography disappoints; Lonny Price’s staging and Jason Robert Brown’s musical direction, though valiant, are up against too much mechanical bull.

I can, at most, transport myself back to age 10; age 5, the proper one for viewing A Year With Frog and Toad, is unfortunately beyond my reach. Hence I can judge the Robert and Willie Reale musical only from an overripe vantage point, whence it is hopelessly old hat, witless, and, as my brash 10-year-old self would have put it, lousy. Rather than go into superfluous detail, let me just say that if you have a 5-year-old able to behave (the one behind me was not), and are willing to fork over rather hard cash, go ahead; otherwise, despite its gallant cast, you might as well overleap Frog and Toad.

If you are an aficionado of country music in general and Hank Williams in particular, Hank Williams: Lost Highway is for you. Otherwise—and I confess to being as otherwise as can be—fuhgeddaboudit. This is really a concert of H.W.’s greatest cum not-so-great hits (I can’t detect much difference between the two), interlarded with something posturing as a play. That is mostly narration, as either Hank’s mother, a member of the band, or a waitress girlfriend—who, along with an old black singer, largely hovers on the fringes of the proceedings—tells you what ought to have been dramatized.

The salient features of H.W.’s life—premature stardom that drove to drink, a marriage turned living hell—are vestigially there, but not duly explored. Instead, more and more songs about lovesick blues, lonesome blues, and being so lonesome you could cry keep reiterating away. The performers act and play their instruments well—Jason Petty may even be, for all I know, the spitting image of H.W.—but for me, there’s not enough cheatin’ heart and way too much bleatin’ throat.

“Critics,” wrote Alan Bennett, “should be searched for certain adjectives at the door of the theatre—‘irreverent,’ ‘probing,’ and (above all) ‘satirical.’ ” So I’ll refrain from calling Talking Heads, two Bennett evenings of three monologues each, irreverent or satirical. But I can’t quite forgo “probing,” for in each of these penetrant character sketches, one main and several ancillary figures are—all right, not probed, but sweetly, humorously, compassionately apprehended. With an uncanny sense of detail, and with sympathy for their foibles, pity for their failures, and joy in their Pyrrhic victories, Bennett conjures up struggling creatures of riveting genuineness, and grants them their all too often overlooked heroism, writ small but felt deep.

The personages are a zealous antiques dealer who makes the blunder of a lifetime, a nosy meddler and compulsive complaint-letter writer who is fulfilled in prison, an atheistic and alcoholic vicar’s wife who finds happiness bedding an Indian grocer, an earnestly self-deluded skin-flick actress spouting soulful platitudes, a mentally disturbed mama’s boy and closeted homosexual with selectively sharp insights, and a woman who forms a bizarre but satisfying relationship with her elderly chiropodist. For all their denuding self-exposure, they are clothed in the author’s sheltering tactfulness.

The excellent actors are Brenda Wehle, Christine Ebersole, Kathleen Chalfant, Valerie Mahaffey (adorable but not always audible), Daniel Davis (so good we should see much more of him), and the authentic, inimitable Briton Lynn Redgrave. But the five Americans also manage highly creditable regional or class accents. Michael Engler’s incisive direction, Rachel Hauck’s smartly stripped-down set, Candice Donnelly’s shrewd costuming, Chris Parry’s unfussy lighting, Wendall K. Harrington’s helpful projections, and Michael Roth’s tongue-in-cheek music contribute handsomely. One question remains: Is Bennett imitating life, or is life imitating Alan Bennett?

Theater Listings
Openings and Closings
Broadway Shows
Off-Broadway Shows

The Play What I Wrote
Comedy staged by Kenneth Branagh.

Urban Cowboy
Musical based on the film, by Aaron Latham and Philip Oesterman, with music Jason Robert Brown.

A Year With Frog and Toad
Starring Mark Linn-Baker and Jay Goede.

Hank Williams: Lost Highway
Starring Jason Petty.

Talking Heads
Six monologues in two evenings by Alan Bennett. See Theater listings for details.

Too Much Bull