Bernard Slade is a gallant man. In "Romantic Comedy," which came to the Barrymore last night with an unusually engaging cast headed by Anthony Perkins and Mia Farrow, he has made a brave but uneven attempt to restore the merry, frothy attraction of the title that once flourished along Broadway in the skilled hands of such experienced practitioners as John Van Druten and Philip Barry.
Why, it's even in three acts, with a punch line or pregnant pause to end each one, and I devoutly wish I could hail it as a triumph. But while it has many funny moments, including a hilarious confrontation scene, it is a pastiche rather than a fresh example of the genre, and it labors to reach the inevitable clinch at the end of a fairly long evening whose seven scenes span more than 13 years.
We meet Jason Carmichael, a successful co-author of romantic comedies whose collaborator of 11 years has just retired from the Broadway fray, on a spring morning in the mid-'60s in his Manhattan townhouse. An arrogant, self-centered, sharp-tongued chap, Jason (one recalls that Samson Raphaelson once wrote a comedy of that name about a playwright) is about to marry a society belle. And does, in fact.
But the occasion also marks the arrival of a mousy Vermont schoolteacher, a would-be playwright named Phoebe Craddock whose first effort, called "The Girl in the Back Seat," has preceded her. In less time that it takes Jason to climb into a satiny dressing gown, Phoebe becomes his new collaborator and, in the process, acquires fame and fortune during the next 11 years. It is surely giving nothing away to disclose that after many ups and downs, including Jason's divorce and the evolution of Phoebe into a chic celebrity, the two wind up in each other's arms.
To his credit, Slade treads this brittle path lightly for most of the way, even pausing to acknowledge certain indebtednesses to Barry and Coward, but he does veer off it at times to strike both serious and scatological notes. The tone of the play becomes uncertain and its contrivances begin to take on a nervous air. Furthermore, the plot ideas the two partners bandy about are likely to leave the listener skeptical about the avowed success of this team.
Perkins, stiff-backed and stern of countenance, is a starchily amusing figure as Jason, and Farrow, looking about 13 at her first entrance and a stylish 30 or so later on, is a coolly lovely Phoebe who has a habit of speaking in, at the most recent, 19th Century literary forms. They are an utterly delightful pair, and they are excellently supported by Carole Cook as Jason's (later, the couple's) smartly-dressed, worldly-wise yet kindly agent; Holly Palance as the tall and confident beauty Jason marries and who, when last heard from, is running for Congress; and by Greg Mullavey, in particular, as the patient, devoted, reasonable and, of course, untidy journalist whose assignments take him all over the globe. As you watch these fine folk, you may find yourself substituting the features of the younger Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Eve Arden, Gail Patrick and Gary Merrill, or any other five who come to mind. As for the giddy blonde actress played by Deborah May, and whose single appearance furnishes the evening with its funniest sight gag, she may bring cheerful thoughts of Marie Wilson.
Joseph Hardy has staged this exercise deftly in a broad and handsome study designed by Douglas W. Schmidt. The admirably apt costumes are the work of Jane Greenwood, and Tharon Musser has handled the lighting with customary adroitness.
At one point, Jason, defending his metier, remarks that it is hard work being glib. So it is, and artificial comedy requires a light, sure touch that Slade, to our vast regret, is unable to sustain throughout "Romantic Comedy."
Some enchanted evenings you look across a crowded theater and see a darling of a play. Just such a play is Bernard Slade's Romantic Comedy, which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore. When I left the theater I half-imagined that the photograph of Miss Barrymore in the foyer was gently smiling.
If it wasn't it should have been - indeed it should have been downright laughing. Here is a play that can be totally recommended for anyone wanting a zesty entertainment of cool wit and warm sentiment. Not to mention adorable acting.
Slade's specialty is to write '30s dialogue with a '70s twist. He was probably originally born to collaborate with Kaufman but through some crossing of celestial signals arrived too late.
He started on Broadway with Same Time, Next Year, continued with Tribute and now gives us the best of the three, Romantic Comedy. For here Slade combines the adroitness of Same Time with the funny compassion of Tribute.
Slade's hero - played with acerbic vulnerability by Anthony Perkins - is a playwright on the eve of marriage and divorce. His name is Jason, and he is not so much two-faced as two-headed. He is a monster. He eats prose for breakfast and spits it out as epigrams before lunch. He talks in one-liners with built-in pauses for admiration, is sincerely insincere and cultivates a little too assiduously the flat bittersweetness of Noel Coward.
He has broken up with his dramatic collaborator. Hence the divorce. And he has decided to wed the woman of everyone else's dreams, hence the marriage. Enter - hotly pursued by the play - the complication. She says her name is Phoebe, but we know that she is the eternal waif, Mia Farrow, who has come to collaborate with him. Such timing!
He gets married anyway. What do you do when the bride is already in white, except make wistful jokes about the Philadelphia Story, and walk out bravely like a lion to the Christians. And after that it is, of course, a case of waif versus wife. Phoebe falls in love with Jason, and they write beautiful plays together.
A foreign correspondent appears, writing about theater because he has nothing better to do between assignments. The reporter falls in love with Phoebe, and wants to take her away from the tinsel world of Broadway to the harsh realities of a Paris newspaper bureau.
What happens is for Slade to dream, and for you to find out by buying your own ticket as soon as possible.
Most people will have a great time with this comedy of confrontation laced to the last buttons with jokes that vary between the old, the new, the obvious, the sharp, and the brilliant, but keep on coming like arrows at Custer's last stand-up comic appearance.
And the characters are there, larger than life and twice as endearing. Perkins as the curmudgeonly, narcissistic playwright is pure delight in the playwright's conception and the actor's execution. He prickles with ironic wit like a porcupine in heat faced with another porcupine. But he looks like an understandably angry turtle who has lost his shell and is feeling the draft.
This double-edge to the character, the vulnerable literary bully, is matched by Miss Farrow's Phoebe, an uncertain nymph whose cool exterior could hide any kind of mania.
Miss Farrow has proved in England that she is one of the finest stage actresses of her generation, and here matched with the uttermost couthness of Perkins in a dressing-gown mood, they make up a classic double-act.
Joseph Hardy has directed with the lightest possible of touches, and although Douglas W. Schmidt's setting is too symmetrical for a complete evening's workout, Jane Greenwood's naughtily pastiche costumes are both clever and appealing.
It is also an exceptionally good cast. Carole Cook whirls around handsomely as an agent who is all heart and all contract, Holly Palance is perfect as the wife so little in question, Greg Mullavey oozes newsprint and decency as the reporter, and Deborah May proves similarly hilarious as an actress on the make, making it.
This is a play that will make you laugh. It won't change your life, but you should be able to forget about inflation for a couple of hours or so, and if you get lucky you might find yourself running down 47th Street like a blithe spirit. But I wonder what you will think of the ending. Personally I would have preferred the play without the last scene, but you will have to pay your money to make that choice. So don't hesitate - go!
In Bernard Slade's "Romantic Comedy," Anthony Perkins makes one mistake in the first scene and another for the remaining six. As a playwright whose bent is for elegance and whose marriage to a socialite is to take place within the hour, he first mistakes Mia Farrow for a masseuse. He's expecting someone to give him a rubdown, the unfamiliar Miss Farrow has strayed in wearing hearty green knee-socks and her blond tresses shoulder-length (you'd count her Swedish, for sure), and so, of course, when he meets her he is in the nude. She gets the front view, we're confined to the back.
This instantly gives Mr. Slade opportunity to toy with the kind of after-the-fact gagging he most delights in. Miss Farrow, all agape, exclaims "I'm overawed!" Actually, she's overawed to meet so famous a dramatist; she is an aspiring dramatist herself. But the laugh that promptly comes from out front depends on an altogether different supposition, one I'm sure I needn't spell out for you. Then, having got the laugh, Mr. Slade has Miss Farrow explain that her eyesight is poor; Mr. Perkins is nothing more than a big white blur to her. If I do not entirely share Mr. Slade's enthusiasm for this I-take-it-back kind of comedy, it's because someone's cheated. We've smirked first and been declared innocent afterward.
But on to Mr. Perkins's second, more serious gaff. (To tell the truth, he's already mired himself in another by marrying that socialite; she eventually turns into a politician, enabling him to complain that "I married Grace Kelly and I wound up with Bella Abzug"). The big error of his life and our evening is that he takes on Miss Farrow as a theatrical collaborator, spends 11 years and six months with her writing smash hits and fast flops, and, in all that time, never gets around to checking his heart or hers to see if there's a little flame flickering anywhere. Plato was a roué by comparison.
But this brings us to Mr. Slade's mistake. Naturally, he is driven to all sorts of stratagems - including a few genuinely funny mishaps - simply to keep his constant companions apart. Just when Mr. Perkins is secretly hoping for a divorce, his busy wife becomes pregnant. Just when he is on the verge of intimating that passion for Miss Farrow lies somewhere within him, he is caught out taking a troublesome actress to bed in order to make her less troublesome. (He is careless enough to achieve this therapy in his own nearby dressing-room, so that the flustered actress can hastily appear before the assembled family wearing her dress inside out, arm-shields spectacularly on view. Long laughs, but shouldn't jokes be mildly probable? Maybe not.)
All right. Many a playwright has held his lovers apart for hours and hours, if not the years and years Mr. Slade envisions, and still kept us on the edges of our seats devoutly wishing for consummation. But, attractive and able as Mr. Perkins and Miss Farrow are, we feel no such urgency here. What's another 10 years more or less?
Yet even that's not the problem. The author has really created - or "manufactured," which is the way Mr. Perkins describes himself - two people who don't belong in quite the same sort of comedy. Mr. Perkins's whole drift is toward smartness, high style, the lofty and chilly bon mot. "My biggest regret is that Americans cannot be knighted," he remarks with a lift of his chin and a heavenward toss of his well-tailored arm. He is obviously yearning to have been Noël Coward when Coward was most in vogue, and he is willing to brood for a moment before pontifically announcing, "Yes, it takes a lot of thought to be glib."
Now, Mr. Perkins is perfectly capable of managing the haughty stance, the glint in the eyes that announces a whiplash word is on the way, the preening before a mirror while lavishing curses upon his rebellious Saville Row tie. And he is truly funny, once he's faced down the supposed masseuse and got back into his dress-shirt and shorts, going into a paroxysm of embarrassment over his nudity. Bent double and flapping about his bookish study like a whooping crane with stomach cramps, he is the very picture of well-bred agony.
The role isn't consistent enough to keep him altogether in focus, though. The author, perhaps abetted by the director, Joseph Hardy, has forced a feverishness upon him that does give the evening its climactic outbursts but that tends to make the audience perspire along with him. "He's worse than Sheridan Whiteside," someone exclaims, calling rather too much attention to the shift from romantic comedy to Kaufman and Hart farce.
Miss Farrow, fetching in a red baseball cap and a jogging suit she wears when working, is - as written - a much milder cap of tea. Eternally childlike, eternally composed, she is also eternally the virginal schoolmarm who first sought Mr. Perkins out. She speaks primly ("Did you know that one's knees actually do knock when one is apprehensive?"), she speaks in paragraphs ("Still trembling from the encounter, I turned away"), and she's not at all certain which generation she belongs to ("Do they still call them dates?"). With her prolonged celibacy, her bland naïveté, and her habit of sitting miles away from Mr. Perkins as though fearful of the briefest encounter, she belongs, surely, to the generation of "The Moon Is Blue." She looks it and acts it, while acting it gently and well.
But what are these two doing in the same vein of artifice? It's almost as though they were moving on separate trolley-tracks cut into the stage floor, passing and passing and always waving goodbye. They rarely reach out to touch, comically or cozily, and we're not even rooting for them to. If we do root for anybody, it's for Greg Mullavey as a down-to-earth magazine writer who's willing to give Miss Farrow a minute to think about marrying him, and who whistles during the minute he waits. Coming late to the festivities, there's something surprisingly dimensional about Mr. Mullavey, as though he might have drifted in from "Born Yesterday."
Well, that's enough title-dropping, though the play itself goes in for gobs of it. It also goes in for show-biz cliché-dropping. Explaining away the failure of a play they've loved, one of the partners shrugs it off with "The chemistry wasn't there." I'm afraid it's not here, either, nice as the performers and décor and some of the more straightforward quips are.