Let's hear it for the aging ex-chorus boy and dance instructor from Akron, Ohio, the guy with the bad comb-over, a paunch and a desperation to get up and really move.
He's the heart and soul of "Curtain Raiser," the first of Elaine May's three uneven one-act plays that Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting under the collective title of "After the Night and the Music" at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre.
It's a brief beginning, but a potent one, particularly since this would-be Fred Astaire is played by Eddie Korbich, delivering one of those rare performances that manages to be touching and hilarious at the same time.
Korbich is a New York theater trouper who always delivers - in such shows as "Seussical" and revivals of "Carousel" and "Sweeney Todd" - but he usually operates under the radar of overt audience appreciation. Not so here.
The setting of "Curtain Raiser" is a bar where a morose lesbian (J. Smith-Cameron) sits and waits out the maneuvers of her girlfriend, who is off on the dance floor, cutting it up with a stranger. After a bit of arm-twisting, Korbich gets this lonely, antagonistic woman to dance, and they take off as if she has become Ginger Rogers. All of a sudden, he is young again, and she has a smile on her face. And the audience smiles with her in this winsome bit of self-esteem raising.
Unfortunately, the goodwill delivered by "Curtain Raiser" is nearly squandered by her second work, "Giving Up Smoking," which presents an exasperating quartet of mostly needy New Yorkers. May, author of the screenplays for such movies as "The Birdcage" and "Primary Colors," certainly knows her neurotics.
They are present here, although they are drawn in stereotypes that are short on illumination and long on whining. Joanne (Jeannie Berlin) sits at home and waits for a phone call from Mel (Brian Kerwin), a man she has met in a bar. Her stewing is interrupted by Sherman (Jere Burns), her gay best friend, who also is waiting for a phone call from a friend of his. Mel, too, sits by the phone, wondering if he should call Joanne - if he can remember her name.
Although no one seems at a loss for words, conversational paralysis sets in. So does an irritation at their incessant complaining. Why aren't these people out in the world, doing things? In between calls, Sherman, for example, is watching "The Wizard of Oz" -what else. Add to this mix Sherman's ailing mother (Smith-Cameron), who seems to be the one sane person in the group.
After intermission, we are faced with "Swing Time," a frantic and occasionally funny treatment about what happens when two married, middle-aged couples decide to get together for group sex. Fumbling seems to be the operative word for their misadventures. Berlin, Kerwin, Burns and especially Smith-Cameron handle their clumsiness with appealing unease, but it's pretty minor stuff.
Director Daniel Sullivan moves matters as quickly as possible. Yet despite the evening clocking in at only two hours and Korbich's galvanizing performance in the first playlet, these sitcom sketches seem to go on far too long.
No one ever topped Mike Nichols and Elaine May in the art of comic improvisation that brought them fame 45 years ago.
Each of the three one-acts in May's "After the Night and the Music" suggests an improvisation. Only one of them, however, successfully carries through the spirit of playfulness and wit that once seemed effortless.
The evening might be more satisfying if the one that really works, "Curtain Raiser," were retitled "Encore" and done at the end.
At a dance hall, a rather sullen lesbian (J. Smith-Cameron), whose partner is cutting up on the dance floor, is annoyed at the attentions of a short, pudgy, unattractive man (Eddie Korbich) who claims to be a great dancer and a great dance teacher. Finally she relents, and, in minutes, the two are cavorting elegantly around the floor.
It is a fable, but Smith-Cameron and Korbich are so splendid, both in the edgy seduction and the way they dance, that the sketch just carries you away. The premise, however, contains the kind of disconnect that sinks the other two pieces. The idea of a dancehall where lonely singles meet seems a holdover from another period.
In "Giving Up Smoking," about a chain of people telephoning each other, misunderstandings take place because the phones are as unsophisticated as they were in 1966. However, it is not presented as a period piece. So, despite the best efforts of Jeannie Berlin, as a highly neurotic woman, and Jere Burns, as her loyal, gay friend, the whole thing seems artificial.
The same is true of "Swing Time." Sexual "swinging" was titillating when "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" came out 36 years ago, but it seems quaint today. So, although Berlin, Burns, Smith-Cameron and Brian Kerwin all understand the wry humor, the play itself never comes together.
So what has Elaine May done for us lately? Since that dazzling start to her career in quick-witted partnership with Mike Nichols half-a-century ago, May's trajectory has been uncertain.
Her current offering, "After the Night and the Music," opened last night at the Biltmore Theatre and marked the low-keyed start of the 2005-06 Broadway season, together with the beginning of the Manhattan Theatre Club's subscription series.
It marked very little else, apart from a couple of stylishly mannered performances from J. Smith-Cameron and an amusing comic turn from Eddie Korbich.
The evening was billed as "Three New Plays in Two Acts," which seemed something of a misnomer, as they were sketches rather than plays, and the only one that had even a whiff of novelty was the brief "Curtain Raiser."
Here an acidulated lesbian (Smith-Cameron), uncertain of her dancing prowess, drinks alone at a dance-hall bar while her partner whirls off with others.
At last she's persuaded to take a turn on the floor by Keith (Korbich), an avowedly unattractive, middle-aged dance instructor, who almost instantly turns her into a tentative Ginger Rogers. There's also a final punch line that fails to connect.
The trouble with the writing becomes apparent with what are supposed to be the more considerable two sketches, "Giving Up Smoking" and "Swing Time."
The first is a dissertation on loneliness and the telephone, while the second -a flaccid joke about aging, would-be swingers - would have been topical in the late '60% around the time of the movie "Bob &Carol & Ted &Alice."
The level of comedy is reflected in such lines as "Women hate men; they don't know it until they marry you'." And then there's a depressed divorcee extolling vodka as "less fattening than wine because you need less."
Invariably, May's essentially cartoon sensibility - perhaps fair enough for blackout sketches -confuses irony with humor and the unexpected with wit.
Worse, the dialogue is churned out by stereotypes ineffectually posing as people, like the disillusioned gay watching "The Wizard of Oz" on his DVD player. Come on - there's more real life in a fish tank.
The settings by John Lee Beatty are serviceably chic, Peter Kaczorowski's lighting shows more imagination than the writing and Michael Krass' costumes are cleverer.
Daniel Sullivan's staging does all with the evening that conventionality can, but the acting, Smith-Cameron's apart, is variable, from the agreeable Korbich, to an acceptable Jeannie Berlin and Brian Kerwin, to an appalling Jere Burns.
Only Smith-Cameron's wide-eyed and emphatically inflected comic style provides the evening with such little savor as it has. But even she must be beware of the comedy-of-mannerism syndrome that, without due care, could swallow her up.
Manhattan Theatre Club must also beware of the choice of plays for its fairly new and rightly cherished Broadway outlet. In retrospect, Ron Hutchinson's entertaining "Moonlight and Magnolias," recently seen at the company's off-Broadway Stage One at City Center, would have been a much better bet here.
Possibly Hutchinson is a less well-known brand name than Elaine May - but always, the play's the thing.
The latest offering from Elaine May, that fluttery but enduring pioneer of the comedy of neurosis, is officially described as "three new plays in two acts." But the word "play" suggests a degree of substance that does not apply to the wispy comic vignettes that make up "After the Night and the Music," which opened last night at the Biltmore Theater.
Though they have been given a full-dress production by the Manhattan Theater Club, what are being performed here are irrefutably skits, the theatrical equivalent of unshaded line drawings or portraits by sidewalk artists. Now skits can sometimes sting, delight and surprise while leaving a lingering tattoolike impression.
But as you watch Ms. May's new collection of quick takes on urban angst, they mostly seem to dissolve before your eyes, as if they had been written in disappearing ink or configured on a self-erasing Etch A Sketch screen. And though the production, directed by Daniel Sullivan, is dotted with tasty fillips of the deadpan hysteria for which Ms. May is celebrated, you may later find yourself unable to muster the energy to remember just what it was you saw.
"After the Night and the Music" isn't painful, like Ms. May's Broadway flop, "Taller Than a Dwarf'; nor is it rip-roaringly funny, like long, gleeful stretches of her "Power Plays" and "Adult Entertainment." Aside from a charming curtain raiser (modestly and accurately titled "Curtain Raiser"), "After the Night and the Music" mostly feels terminally torpid in the way that overworked and familiar material often does, even when it comes from comic geniuses.
Part of the generation of performers who cut their teeth in the great improvisational clubs in Chicago in the 1950ts, Ms. May became famous as the onstage partner of Mike Nichols, with whom she created priceless duets about anxious, eccentric souls for whom all the world was a psychiatrist's couch. Mr. Nichols, of course, went on to glory as a director of film and theater (currently represented on Broadway by "Monty Python's Spamalot").
But it's Ms. May who has continued to wave the flag of idiosyncratic sketch comedy that first put this pair on the map, with her screenplays ("A New Leaf," "Heaven Can Wait" and the notorious "Ishtar"), as well as stage comedies. At their best, her scripts sustain the illusion of a spontaneity that you associate with the best improv, that sense of a feverish and fertile imagination devising the wayward course of a sketch as it happens.
Little in "After the Night and the Music," which features Jeannie Berlin (Ms. May's daughter and frequent onstage alter ego) and the invaluable J. Smith-Cameron, achieves that impression of self-astonishing inventiveness. The show's two longest segments, "Giving Up Smoking" and "Swing Time," feel congealed in their symmetry. And despite of-the-moment allusions to the latest antidepressants and diet plans, these playlets also seem to belong to an earlier era, particularly "Swing Time," a wife-swapping skit about two nervous middle-class couples who might as well be called Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.
"Giving Up Smoking" is a sort of "Eleanor Rigby" exercise - as in "ah, look at all the lonely people" – a quartet for four souls in Manhattan, waiting for the phone to ring. (The cityscape backdrop for John Lee Beatty's set summons the visual cinematic cliche from countless New York movies: a million windows, a million stories.) The lines in their monologues are sometimes irresistibly quotable. ("That's probably what mourning really is: nausea of the heart.") Just as often, they are simply weary. ("Let's face it, if women didn't sit by the phone waiting for the guys to call, why would you need a women's movement?")
The ensemble, which also includes Jere Burns and Brian Kerwin, is more dutiful than inspired. Ms. Berlin has some funny moments, though she has plied her droll lisping monotone to more piquant effect elsewhere. Ms. Smith-Cameron, who appears in all three skits, admirably brings warmth and conviction to each one. And along with Eddie Korbich, she figures in the show's happiest sequence.
That's "Curtain Raiser," a deft bit of froth that in summary sounds like a moldy joke: surly, attractive lesbian in heterosexual bar is asked to dance by shy, dumpy man who can never get a date. But as embodied by Ms. Smith-Cameron and Mr. Korbich, the lesbian and the nebbish, who turns out to be a dance instructor, wind up making sweet footwork together.
As choreographed by Randy Skinner, this assembly-kit odd couple come to fluid human life by finding their rhythms to the vintage strains of "Dancing in the Dark.'' "Curtain Raiser" feels like a sketch that did indeed come out of improvisation and managed to hold on to its improvisatory freshness. An aura of giddy, startled discovery pervades this scene, the first in the production. When it's over, so is the show's lilting comic music. The night, however, still has two acts to go.
To say that nobody writes like Elaine May is not invariably a compliment. But mostly it is.
May, whose legend began with Mike Nichols in the 1950s, has always been more of an inspired sketch writer than an artisan of the well-made play. Her comfort zone remains with second-generation Jews in existential crisis and the ancient rhythms of the hysterical. We come to her with expectations of obsession, shame, desperation, calorie-consciousness and the humor of big-hearted rue. To one who truly liked the May-penned "Ishtar," this is a gift.
"After the Night and the Music," a trio of one-acts that the Manhattan Theatre Club opened on Broadway last night at its Biltmore Theatre, includes enough referential throwbacks to fill a trunk: single-line telephones, gays watching "The Wizard of Oz," swinging married couples.
And yet, Daniel Sullivan has directed a crackling cast of comic-ambiguity specialists with affection and, maybe, the profound relief of being far away from his misadventure earlier this season with Denzel Washington and "Julius Caesar."
Yes, the motivating conflict in two of the three plays would vanish with the introduction of a cell phone or the acknowledgment of e-mail. But as a couple of hours with May reminds us, technology and sociology change, but the humor of insecurity lasts forever.
If you don't question the dubious premise, the opening "Curtain Raiser" is a charmer: a ballroom dancing twist on a double Cinderella story. J. Smith-Cameron is an angry lesbian with two left feet whose dance-loving partner (Deirdre Madigan) drags her to a straight dance hall because at the gay bar - who knew? - "no one can lead." A short, bald guy with glasses - Eddie Korbich - offers to teach the woman to lead and the result, with choreography by Randy Skinner, is an enchanting dance lesson that moves both ways.
The centerpiece comes next, an almost musical quartet of lonely interlocking solos called "Giving Up Smoking." It could just as well have been called "Here's Why I'm Not Depressed." First Jeannie Berlin, May's actor-daughter and virtuosic mouthpiece, slides out on one of designer John Lee Beatty's platform sets of solitary home life. "Here's why I'm not depressed," she says to us; you know, she's healthy, she has a job, she doesn't have children, who would have been scarred by her bad divorce.
She is waiting for a phone call from a guy she met named Mel. Instead, her gay friend Sherman, also waiting for a guy to call, keeps tying up her line with needy conversation. After he starts telling us why he's not depressed, he and she are joined in their solitude by Mel, a jerk waiting for his ex-wife to call. Then Sherman's mother - the marvelous Smith-Cameron in another shape-shifting role - slides out to confide that the chemo hasn't made her as nauseated as she expected.
"My poor little mama," said Sherman earlier, "she was a girl for five minutes, then a wife, then a mother, then older, then sick - then dead."
These are people who wear their internal monologues on the outside. We love them and hate them and are embarrassed by them for being so exposed. In contrast, "Swing Time" - the one about spouse-swapping - never gets us beyond the superficial vanities of middle-aged friends suddenly forced to think about each other as sexual. For all the tired running gags about spilled potato salad and mismatched underwear, the four expert actors manage to make us squirm under their skin. Icky, yes, but in the nicest possible way.