"Tricks of the Trade" is a dog of a thriller that chases its tail around the broad expanse of the Atkinson stage, where it opened last night, until you've given up wondering which end is which well before the 10th and final scene. Why that consummate actor George C. Scott should be wasting his time in it, I hesitate to guess, unless it's to be that much closer to his pretty wife Trish Van Devere, who appears opposite him in what is, for the most part, a confused and confusing duel between the sexes.
The setting is the expansive and rather elaborate, though oddly flimsy-looking, office of a Manhattan analyst, Dr. August Browning (Scott), who acquires a new patient, a petite young woman named Diana Woods (Van Devere). The good doctor may or may not have a degree to practice, may or may not be a CIA agent, may or may not be happily married and the father of two, but does operate a coffee shop on the side to help pay off loan sharks he's deeply in debt to; at least that much is clear.
For her part, Diana may or may not be crazy, may or may not be a Russian spy, and may or may not be falling in love with Browning.
Each tries to outwit the other over the space of nearly a year in scenes timed, apparently in a feeble attempt to add bits of color, around Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Valentine's Day, along with more ordinary periods.
Now and then, two menacing fellows, Howard and Paul, respectively played by the accomplished Lee Richardson and a callow young actor named Geoffrey Pierson, barge in with veiled threats and references to dark doings in foreign places. Gadgetry, in the form of a hidden TV camera and concealed screen, and weaponry, in the form of a Magnum that keeps winding up in different hands, also have their uses in this indigestible stew.
As I recall, everything ends happily, or at least with the dog's tail firmly between its teeth or the couple in each other's arms.
The author of this murky pell-mell exercise, Sidney Michaels, has tried to keep it circling about with bright chatter, mainly about sex, that might have been considered daring 25 years ago, though heavy-handed even then.
Scott breezes through the role of the doctor-agent like a seasoned vaudevillian doing a familiar turn while speculating on where he'll grab a bite after the show. Striding about, smiling a great deal, and in sure command of the stage, he browbeats his patient from the very start, treating her cavalierly and even roughly for reasons that become apparent - well, dimly so - later on. Van Devere, understandably sporting a different frock for each session, is a winsome foil.
Gilbert Cates, who also happens to be the producer, had directed the silly thing smartly enough, though the pace is broken repeatedly by a dropped curtain and covering music between scenes, the intervals evidently allowing Van Devere time to change duds and the prop man to insert small objects (Christmas tree, stuffed animal, etc.) in an otherwise unchanged scene.
"Tricks of the Trade" wouldn't even make a good bad movie. Isn't it time somebody wrote a play with a part allowing Scott full exercise of his individual and considerable powers as an actor?
It is always dangerous to say that a play is the worst play of the season - one never knows what lies in wait, ineptly snarling, just around the corner.
However, if Tricks of the Trade, which unaccountably opened, and must therefore be accountably dealt with, at the Brooks Atkinson last night is not the worst play of the season then its vanquisher must be awesomely awful indeed.
Sydney Michaels calls his play "A Romantic Mystery." I don't know about the romance but the mystery is why such an experienced man of the theater as Gilbert Cates directed it and produced it, and why the ever-formidable George C. Scott and the ever-beautiful Trish Van Devere consented to act in it.
Scott is a lay psychologist, who seems to place as much emphasis on the lay as on the psychologist. Miss Van Devere visits him at his New York City office apparently for treatment. But does she? Is there another motive?
It soon becomes apparent that Scott is, or was, or could have been a C.I.A. agent. As for Miss Van Devere. And how about the K.G.B.? What is the mystery at the back of Scott's office? Is there a list of names or...or is there not? What is the difference between a double agent and a triple agent?
The plot thickens incessantly. In fact it is a plot that does very little else. Of course, you do have to care about what is going to happen. But despite a final slew of obvious surprises all I could care about was the number of signs around the theater all tantalisingly named EXIT.
No play with Scott's gruff urbanitty and shark-like rictus of a grin could ever be a total write-off, and the playwright has, particularly at the beginning, given him funny lines which he gleefully pounces on. And Miss Van Devere is charming, even at her most mysterious.
But the play is no Deathtrap. Audiencetrap might be an apter term.
"Tricks of the Trade," Sidney Michaels's Central Intelligence Agency melodrama, which opened at the Brooks Atkinson last night, calls itself "a romantic mystery." Well, the only mystery about this play is why George C. Scott elected to star in it. It's true that Mr. Scott has not always been a genius when it comes to picking material - remember "The Savage Is Loose"? - but he has really outdone himself here. "Tricks of the Trade" is so limp it makes the cold war seem slightly less exciting than "Bowling for Dollars."
Mr. Scott is cast as Dr. August Browning - wonderful name! - an East Side shrink whose office looks like a Rock Hudson bachelor pad in a 1961 Doris Day movie. Dr. Browning, who early on confesses he never went to medical school, has unorthodox methods: he doesn't care about his patients' childhood memories or dreams, and he isn't averse to doing crossword puzzles in the midst of a $75-an-hour session. But he's a man of wide interests. He also owns a restaurant on 53d Street and dabbles in espionage work for "the Agency."
"Tricks of the Trade" is about what happens when Dr. Browning takes on a new patient, Diana Woods, played by Trish Van Devere. Diana is rather strange. She won't say where she lives or talk about her parents. More alarming still, she pays her bills in cash, thereby forfeiting her tax deduction. Dr. Browning gets suspicious. Is it possible that Diana is the assassin who killed his best Agency pal in Prague last year? Is it possible that she's Nadia, the feared Russian agent? Is it possible that she will lure the good doctor to bed? One thing is certain: it is more than possible that you won't care who she is or what she does.
In any case, there is lots of talk about moles and leaks and secret lists and plane tickets to Zurich and microfilm - not to mention the occasional invocations of the dread East Germany. Much of this talk takes place on the phone, and some of it is recited by two nefarious gentlemen in raincoats (Lee Richardson and Geoffrey Pierson) who pop up now and again. There is also a large stock of red herrings, whose fishy smell is strong enough to carry from the stage of the Atkinson clear out to 47th Street. For his climax, Mr. Michaels has come up with a triple-twist ending that I wouldn't give away even if I understood it.
The playwright's method of dramaturgy is quite strange. The entire story is unbelievable, right down to the smallest details. (The doctor won't sell his posh Manhattan co-op because he's fearful of a financial loss.) Then there are the matters of structure and dialogue. "Tricks of the Trade" is a series of brief, perfunctory scenes, each of which has two purposes: to add a single plot point and to allow Miss Van Devere to change into yet another one of Albert Wolsky's endless supply of hideous red and purple costumes. For humor, there are some doctor's couch jokes that date almost as far back as Smith and Dale. And each scene ends with Mr. Michaels's idea of a dramatic punchline: a sudden thunderclap perhaps, or the swatting of a fly, or Mr. Richardson's immortal insult to the hero, "Chiropractor!" Act I concludes with Miss Van Devere disrobing in near total darkness; it was the only time the audience gasped.
It says something about the level of acting that the stars, who are married in real life, never convince us that their characters' eventual romantic attachment is real. Under Gilbert Cates's static direction, both performances are unusually irritating. Miss Van Devere, who has been quite charming in films like "Where's Poppa?" and "Movie Movie," here delivers every line in the same grating sing-song. It's unfortunate that Mr. Michaels has given her the recurring bit of dialogue, "I don't know who I am" - "I'm just walking through it."
Mr. Scott does an extremely relaxed version of the Ernest Hemingway he did so well in the film "Islands in the Stream." Portly and wheezy, he gets to play drunk, to smoke cigarettes and to sing a raspy "My Funny Valentine." For some reason, even in his more intimate tête-à-têtes with Miss Van Devere, he delivers many of his lines in the heavenly direction of the balcony. It's too late for prayers now.