The Cuban thing, as Jack Gelber titled it in his one-night flop of a dozen years ago, seems to elude playwrights ambitious to have a go at the Castro revolution and its effect on the privileged class. As a matter our fact, Howard Sackler's provocatively-named "Goodbye Fidel," which came to the Ambassador last night in a blaze of fustian, only uses it as a kind of exotic background for a conventional love triangle. The lethargic work, which meanders along from Cuba (1958-61) to Miami, San Juan and Madrid in 1962, is a soaper with a sluggish Latin beat.
There's no need at this late date to report that Jane Alexander, who plays the central role of Natalia, a fortyish widow of the pre-Castro aristocracy, is an accomplished actress. But she's about as Latin as a New England boiled dinner. Nevertheless, the sensual Natalia, reassuringly swinging her hips from time to time, faces life sportingly. Rejected by an errant son she never does manage to catch up with; forced to abandon her ancestral home; engaging in a love affair with a young married British diplomat that has tragic consequences; and reduced at one point to manning a switchboard in a seedy Miami hotel, she is yet able to lift a glass in Madrid with her circle of ex-Cuban pals at the final curtain. And just when I thought the evening was going to turn into "Tovarich." That scene really did look like the beginning of a play, not the end.
Actually, the seven scenes are much less interesting than the ghosts who introduce five of them with monologues, much better written than the dialogue. And the best of these is the one delivered at the start of the second half by the philandering diplomat's bitter, puzzled and sympathetic young wife Peggy Sinclair, played by Pamela Brook in the evening's most striking performance. To say that she steals the show isn't much of a tribute, but she does in what marks the Broadway debut of the British actress who has done distinguished work at the Stratford (Ont.) Festival.
Natalia's late husband (Ralph Byers), who died of a broken neck, evidently (judging from his costume) the result of being thrown by a polo pony, opens the show, but unlike his spectral successors, who introduce scenes in which they appear, he is glimpsed no more, though I admit it's sometimes difficult sorting out all the characters milling about. Next comes Natalia's doddering mother (Gale Sondergaard), then a militant member of Natalia's circle turned revolutionary (Kathy Bates), after her the spirited Peggy, and finally Bobby (Tony Diaz), fatally turned bullfighter in Spain but one of the exiled celebrants when we last see him.
Christopher Cazenove, another British actor making his Broadway debut, has the male lead of the British diplomat James Sinclair, and though it is a thankless part in which he spends most of his time either declaring his love to the distracted, gliding Natalia, or else imploring her to wait out his strangely stagnant marriage with the attractive Peggy, the handsome flaxen-haired newcomer performs winningly.
The large cast includes, in addition to rude and leering Castro soldiers in fatigues and white-haired Miami women and many other minor characters, Lee Richardson as a hard-drinking Cuban landowner named Alvaro who manages to get his money out in Sinclair's diplomatic pouch; David Schramm as an ebullient homosexual painter named Miguelito; and Guy Sorel as an elderly financier named Leon whose offers of financial help are repeatedly but kindly refused by our proud heroine.
Edwin Sherin has had the task of directing this sprawling work, and he has gone about it manfully, Rouben Ter-Arutunian's spare settings (his budget must have been severely cut) with their flimsy or shadowy backgrounds resemble stock-company work, and they may or may not be enhanced by Toshiro Ogawa's lighting scheme, which often concentrates on the forestage, leaving the rear in brooding near-darkness. Florence Klotz' costumes are well-conceived.
Sackler, a writer of talent and, when required, passion, has gone wildly astray with "Goodbye Fidel."
Clearly the obvious thing to say about Howard Sackler's play Goodbye Fidel, which most venturesomely opened at the New Ambassador Theater last night, is Goodbye. But while this would not be entirely unfair it would certainly be discourteous.
However in a season that only the generous could term less than distinguished, this one stands out as a monumentally bad play. Its pretensions so effortlessly squelch its aspirations, that somewhere along the line, one suspects a death-wish emerged from the play's woodwork.
Sackler is a writer of considerable distinction - his play The Great White Hope justifiably won any number of awards, and the rest of his work has been consistently infused with both intelligence and immediacy. He has, so far, not revealed himself as the kind of playwright to move mountains, but on his right night he has done credibly and creditably in moving audiences.
Last night was not one of his right nights. In the future he will look back on Goodbye Fidel, with a wry smile. Meanwhile it gave its first night audience a quite deplorable two hours. Or rather more. Even now, as I recall it, were it not for the calendar in front of me, I could almost have judged it in a week. In Cuba's rainy season.
Plays need, most desperately, to be about something. And what Goodbye Fidel was about seemed consistently and abundantly unclear. The play, which has an ambitiously enormous cast, seems to be politicall motivated. It is set, around the world, in the period between 1958 and 1962. During the years when Fidel Castro seized control of Cuba, and the period of the Soviety missile crisis.
This, one would have imagined, might have formed the basis of a serious play, and a trampoline upon which ideas might have been bounced, a landscape against which character, caught in a nexus of political necessity, might have been assessed. Wrong. Totally wrong.
Disconcertingly Sackler has devised a cartoon-like view of events that are totally banal, without any of the profundity such a venture would demand, or Sackler's previous track record would suggest. After all, this is by no means a trivial playwright.
The almost enormous cast - by Shakespearean standards it is scarcely immense but it certainly is not your unhappily normal two to four character Broadway play - is obviously intended to reveal the stratification of Cuban society during the swift convertability of Castro. Yet it doesn't.
The action, what there exists of it, revolves somewhat listlessly around a widowed society matron, played by Jane Alexander, and her affair with an effete British consular official, played by Christopher Cazenove. Miss Alexander plays, and narrowly wins, while Cazenove suffers almost total defeat.
Miss Alexander, manning a telephone switchboard in a moment of almost hilarious emergency, can even, with her sweet-bitterness make a phrase such as: "I have to call Madrid," take on some kind of meaning. Cazenove - do you think his name was made up by his agent? - is apparently a British television personality, and will doubtless soon return to his legitimate personality-style work. Interestingly, for a TV personality he looked rather seedy. Still, his English accent was perfectly impeccable.
Others involved in this Cuban crisis were Gale Sondergaard, who still looks marvelous, and Lee Richardson, who still looks impressive. The settings by Rouben Ter-Aruntunian proved imaginative, the costumes by Florence Klotz looked appropriate, and the staging by Edwin Sherin was little less than gallant, even if little more than stupid.
Even in a good season we would not need Goodbye Fidel. In a bad season it merely adds injury to insult.
Howard Sackler's new play, "Goodbye Fidel," begins and ends with a party -the first is in Havana, the last in Madrid - but what happens in between is less than a fiesta. In the intervening four years, Cuba has gone through a revolution and an invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Fidel Castro is in power and the former elite - artists as well as aristocrats - have become exiles. The subject is filled with timeliness and dramatic potential, but what we see on stage at the New Ambassador Theater, where "Goodbye Fidel" opened last night, is, principally, a banal domestic drama.
By his own admission, Mr. Sackler, the author of the prize-winning "The Great White Hope," has not tried to write a play about Fidel Castro, but about Cubans of a particular social and intellectual class. Except for one effective scene in a Havana prison - the sudden juxtaposition of twinned confusions, helpless traditionalists and hostile radicals - revolutionary zeal seems largely a matter of a few fatigue-jacketed soldiers stealing mangoes and mobilizing to the tune of Karl Marx. It is not that we miss Castro, but that the play is unable to articulate the impact of the revolution or the sadness of those who are dispossessed from home and country.
As he demonstrated in "The Great White Hope" and "Semmelweiss," Mr. Sackler is a dramatist who can vivify and personalize historical figures. In both those previous works, he not only chose an exciting subject, but also a central character of complexity and magnitude; Mr. Sackler's versions of the boxer Jack Johnson and the scientist Semmelweiss represented far more than themselves.
For "Goodbye Fidel," he has created characters who are paradigms of uselessness - sipping daiquiris, swapping jokes about sex and Castro, and watching the sun go down on their lives, people devoted to a way of life but not to a nation. Experiencing cataclysmic political and personal upheavals, they never lose their artificiality.
The heroine, Natalia (Jane Alexander), is an independent widow, dedicated to her aging mother (Gale Sondergaard), who is meant to be emblematic of the old Cuba. Natalia pursues her romantic impulses, which lead her into an unprofitable - for her and for the play - affair with a younger man, a married English diplomat (Christopher Cazenove). As Cuba detonates, the lady and the diplomat dally and his wife smolders. The romantic triangle and the accompanying dialogue simmer until they are overcooked.
Natalia is supposed to be the swirling center of stylish Cuban society. Vainly, we search for the glamour; it exists neither in the conception of the play nor in any of the characters we see on stage. Miss Alexander has proved her excellence as an actress in a wide range of roles, but she does not naturally project an aura of magnetism. In two scenes - her incarceration in prison and her exile in Miami, where she briefly works as a switchboard operator - Miss Alexander communicates the anxieties of her character and offers us a glimpse of the promise of the evening.
In her soul-of-a-nation cameo, Miss Sondergaard bears a quiet dignity. Lee Richardson is saddled with a colorless role as a sugar-mill entrepreneur, Mr. Cazenove is appropriately shallow as the diplomat, and David Schramm adds a few comic touches as a painter who tries to adapt to the new Cuba. Only sporadically do the actors, many doubling in roles, convey a Latin manner.
Rouben Ter-Arutunian's settings, including a pastel seaside vista and a drop curtain that looks like a black mantilla, accentuate the vastness of the stage. As director, Edwin Sherin, who has collaborated so successfully on Mr. Sackler's other plays, is not able to overcome the prosaic script.
Between scenes, dead men and women step forward and tell tales on themselves and on others. This adds a funereal touch to an already adumbrative evening. The idea is that the dead leave a void in other people's lives, or as one character says, "Empty spaces, señores." Unfortunately, there are also a great many empty spaces in "Goodbye Fidel."