Extracting the Pain

Anne Meara’s “After-Play,” a conversation piecenow at the Canon Theater in Beverly Hills, is a kind of “Look Back inAnguish” conducted by two middle-aged couples whose lives seem toencompass all the failings of the past half century: broken families,marital spite, psychoanalytical distress. It is also marked by a formof social cynicism coupled with transcendental longings. During thecourse of the evening, the dubious virtues of “the old days” arekeenly sentimentalized, and even “the old comedy” is trotted out as arelic of a bygone era.

Paul Dooley, playing a show-biz writer with a fondrecall of the old vaudeville routines, bemoans the loss of the broad,mid-century sense of humor and quite rightly questions: What in helldo young people find funny today? It is a telling point that, in the1990s, modern comedy — flippant, self-abusive and off-the-wall –seems to have a subject matter that is curiously remote to those 50or older.

I mention this allusion to comedy, as “After-Play”is deliberately crafted with an eye toward comic effect, much of itachieved. The playwright, the distaff side of the team Stiller andMeara (who are to Nichols and May what Abbott and Costello were toWeber and Fields), is a dab hand at concocting verbal comedy, andDavid Saint’s perfectly judged production is blessed with first-classfarceurs such as Bea Arthur and Paul Dooley, Marian Mercer and RobertMandan.

Arthur, whose television appearances in “Maude”and “The Golden Girls” have already created a persona cozily familiarto American audiences, has honed comedy timing down to a nuclearscience. She knows just how long to hold an attitude before segueinginto a wisecrack and precisely when to dovetail a quip into anaggressive tirade. To call it “technique” is almost to belittle itsmagical synchronicity. Arthur combines the superciliousness of theBeverly Hills matron with the poisonous tongue of a Brooklyn dinerwaitress.

She is more than ably partnered by Dooley, who,with great resiliency, bounces his sulks and slow burns off hiswife’s stonewall façade. Mercer and Mandan, in aless-pressurized relationship, provide the Blondie and Dagwood toArthur and Dooley’s Punch and Judy.

If I linger on the performances in “After-Play,”it is because they are its greatest virtue. The play is a series ofverbal repercussions taking place in a chic Manhattan restaurant andpreceded by a Broadway play that triggers passionate reactions — proand con — among the reunited couples who have just witnessed it. Asis so often the case, personal reactions to art open up undergroundcaverns in which the disputants reveal horrors and calamities farmore appalling than anything that takes place in theaters: in thiscase, mastectomies, grievous bodily assaults, suicide attempts andsavage outbursts of heartless ingratitude from alleged loved ones.The trouble with these anguished revelations is that they emerge asstandardized episodes from our troubled times rather than experiencesundergone by the characters in question. Indeed, the charactersgradually become ciphers who merely recount certain social andpsychic disasters with which we have become all too familiar.

Realizing that she has left out one of the moreprevailing plagues of the 1990s, Meara arbitrarily hauls yet anothercouple into the restaurant (Susan Clark and Kenneth Ryan) to positthe horrors of death by AIDS, which snuffed out the life of theiryoung son. That done, the litany of 20th-century horrors is virtuallycomplete. But the bereaved couple, like the fearsome foursome thatgauchely interrogates them, emerges merely as a symbol in awisecracking morality play representing guilt and contritionrespectively. Indeed, the spirit of the morality play hovers heavilyover the night’s proceedings, with the first couple being named”Guteman” (good men); the second, whose lives have been cut down bymisery and despair, “Shredman”; and the third, expressing the agonyof a filial loss, the “Paines.” And, as in all morality plays, thepropaganda is more prominent than plausibility or individualdelineation of character. Life sucks, Meara seems to be saying, anddiversionary comedy is a convenient way of obliterating thepain.

The verisimilitude of both the restaurant and itsdiners are cleverly subverted by the suggestion that the waiter namedRaziel (which the program tells us is the name of the Angel ofMysteries and the Unknown) is actually an otherworldly spritehovering Pucklike over these terrestrial events. To call the angelicwaiter a stylistic gimmick might cast an aspersion on another kind ofplay, but, in “After-Play,” where the dialogue is itself a monumentto verbal gimmickry, it seems to be quite fitting.

There is more dramatic substance to Meara’s workthan there is, for instance, in Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the LapinAgile,” and the comedy writing is craftsmanlike and cleverlycalculated, but one feels that if one traced its progeny down to itsroots, one would go from metaphysical drama, to inspired sitcom, tominuscule revue-sketch, to shaggy-dog story.

However, what “After-Play” lacks in naturalbeauty, it makes up for in cosmetics. And given the excellence of itsensemble-playing, it is a better way to pass an evening thanlistening to a presidential address (which is also a kind of mixtureof comedy and catastrophe) or savoring the latest installment in thesaga of Monica Lewinsky (which manages to be simultaneously tragicand absurd).


Charles Marowitz, theater critic for The JewishJournal, writes from Malibu.

[ Theater ]  

Collaborative Effort

Actor-composer Hershey Felder, with thehelp of politician and companion Kim Campbell, profiles Holocaustsurvivors in ‘Sing!’

By Naomi Pfefferman,Senior Writer

Actor-composer Hershey Felder, 29, has a way withpoliticians.

Mayor Richard Riordan has asked him to collaborateon a musical. And Felder is writing another musical with KimCampbell, Canada’s former prime minister and the country’s currentconsul general in Los Angeles. Last week, she hosted a luncheon topromote Felder’s one-man show, “Sing! A Musical Journey,” which comesto UCLA’s Freud Playhouse on March 11 and runs through March15.

So why are pols drawn to the pianist? Perhaps it’sbecause Felder, a Steinway Concert Artist, is also a Renaissance man.He began performing on the concert stage at the age of 11, and, as aboy, he acted with Montreal’s Yiddish Theater. By 1988, he wastouring the world as a pianist and actor. Fluent in English, French,Yiddish and Hebrew, he has also interviewed Holocaust survivors forSteven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual HistoryFoundation.

Last week, a reporter caught up with Felder duringthe “Sing!” luncheon at the Canadian consular residence in HancockPark. Felder cooked all the food for the luncheon, which featured anincongruous menu that included chicken soup, stuffed cabbage andpieroges — the childhood food of the Holocaust survivors profiled in”Sing!” Felder said.

Actually, Felder moved into the consular residenceafter he and Campbell, 50, fell in love while collaborating on”Noah’s Arc,” a Holocaust allegory, last year. Today, an enormousmenorah, a Passover plate and a mezuzah are displayed amid the finefurniture in the elegant ballroom; once a month, Felder and Campbellhost a Shabbat dinner for some 35 guests. H
e supervises all thecooking; she recites some of the brachot.

The two had met when Felder came to the consulatein fall 1996 to renew his passport for a trip to Auschwitz. Campbellthen persuaded him to perform selections from “Sing!” at astar-studded Christmas party; eventually, the two became “a unifiedcouple in life and in art,” Felder said.

At first glance, however, the collaborators seeman unusual couple. Felder, the artist, comes from a family ofHolocaust survivors and Orthodox rabbis. Campbell, the attorney andpolitician, is of Protestant, Scotch-Irish extraction. She served asCanada’s first female attorney general, defense minister, justiceminister and prime minister, the latter a brief, turbulent term in1993.

Nevertheless, Campbell told a reporter, hercollaboration with Felder makes sense and is, in fact, beshert. In college, she usedto write for the musical theater. And all her life, she has beendeeply affected by the Holocaust.

Campbell grew up with the World War II stories ofher parents, both veterans; as a child, she devoured Holocaust-themedbooks such as Leon Uris’ “Mila 18.” Her first husband was Jewish, shesaid, and, as Canada’s justice minister, she oversaw the deportationof the first Nazi war criminal from Canada.

“Sing!” she believes, personalizes the enormity ofthe Holocaust. In the play, Felder transforms into several survivorsand also tells his own story of survival. His mother died of cancerwhen he was only 13. Thereafter, he clung to the piano and to themusic lessons he had previously despised. “That was all [I] had leftof her to hold onto,” he said.

After the “Sing!” run, Felder and Campbell willredouble their efforts on “Noah’s Arc,” which they’re hoping to stageas soon as June. “If we have a good response, it will be tempting forme to do this full time at some point,” said Campbell, theco-lyricist.

Actor-composer Hershey Felder in”Sing!”