There is plenty of casting support in “The Supporting Cast,” the George Furth comedy seen in final preview at the Biltmore Wednesday with Sandy Dennis, Jack Gilford, Joyce Van Patten, Hope Lange, and Betty Garrett. What the cast does not have, unfortunately, is a supporting script.
This is one of those Broadway-sitcom evenings, with some reassuring, familiar faces, miked voices and enough TV connections to market its own cable franchise. The situation – celebrity spouses and tell-all bestsellers – could have walked itself out of Donahue. And the gag-line comedy, despite some promise in the first act, has as much relationship to the undeveloped plot as a laugh track does to its audience. Still, who knows what the hungry will swallow for a few good laughs these days? “Lunch Hour” went through the motions for most of last season, and Sandy Dennis is funnier than that all by herself.
She plays one of four New Yorkers, each attached to a more famous person and each invited to the Malibu home of a mutual friend (Lange) who has thinly disguised them as losers in her first novel. This allows one act to prepare them for the book, one act to arrive at a phony reconciliation with it, two hours to fill with every old New York-versus-Los Angeles (“the ocean’s on the wrong side”) wisecrack this side of “California Suite,” and more time than necessary for the able director, Gene Saks, to make sliding glass doors into the architectural equivalent of pies in the face.
Meanwhile, however, we get the treat of seeing how Dennis matured her bathetic edge-of-tears mannerisms into wondrous clown masks. Her old fidgets are positively oriental now in comic subtlety. Eyes hinged somewhere behind her ears, voice splatting up from a dropped jaw, her madwoman character can burst into a grimace as easily as others burst into grins. And we do. The evening also offers Van Patten’s loving mess of a mate, Lange’s cheery competence, Gilford’s comfortable self-derision and Garrett’s tailored calm. Furth, who lets jokes run his plot all evening, than debases his characters in a frantic need for a pat finale. His characters, not to mention his actors, are better than their fate. A cast gives one kind of support; a crutch means something worse.
The playwright Luigi Pirandello once wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author. At the Biltmore Theater last night George Furth offered his new play, The Supporting Cast. It could have been aptly subtitled “A Joke in Search of a Play.” It never finds it before terminal tedium sets in.
The joke is desperately simple. A group of friends, all living under the shadow of a person they love, adore and hate – and whom we never see – are brought together, more by the playwright’s contrivance than life, when one of the group has written a potentially best-selling novel that tells in more or less graphic detail who did which to whom.
The idea is pretty good. Probably most of us – certainly those of us who have the misfortune to inhabit the world of what is still laughingly called letters – have a certain terror of being people in someone’s alien notebook. There is probably – if you have the guts to tell the truth – secrets in all of us. But we really do want to write about them ourselves.
Furth’s play explores this concept – but there isn’t much to explore. The concept is almost all. What follows are sad or occasionally funny stories of relationships, self-revelations and characters acquiring an awareness of themselves through the forcefulness of that third and foreign eye, the omnipresent observer.
The director, Gene Saks, obviously recognizing the play’s slender material, seeks all the time to give it weight with directorial energy. Of course, it doesn’t work. The staging is certainly cute, but there is a frenzy to its freneticism that is infinitely too apologetic for the script.
Something of the same is true of the designing. William Ritman’s handsome suggestion of a Malibu house, with all its gleaming wood and split levels, and Jane Greenwood’s carefully articulated costumes seem to be intended to make a comment where the play itself should have been.
The actors were lovely – they often are when a play is a losing proposition. Nothing brings out the best in an actor than fighting against a script – even when he or she, or basically even the director, is only existentially aware of it. It is a reality not to be faced.
It is a great cast. Hope Lange as the indiscreet novelist has a sort of bewildered svelteness, a charming innocence that suggests that she really doesn’t understand the chaos her truth-telling is among her friends.
Of the rest, Sandy Dennis, mannered but brilliant, Jack Gilford, mannered but secure, stand out. Yet the less virtuosic contributions of Betty Garrett and Joyce Van Patten also add to an evening that starts out as a magical mystery tour, but tells its solitary secret too quickly and too lamely.
The laughs are as rare as sunbeams in Alaska. In winter.
George Furth's new play, ''The Supporting Cast,'' which opened last night at the Biltmore Theater in defiance of the traditional August theatrical doldrums, is the show-business equivalent of a beach book. It is a featherweight summer-theater comedy that wilts in the Broadway spotlight.
Actually, the subject of the play is a beach book. The heroine, played by Hope Lange, the wife of a successful author, has written her own tell-all novel. Her thinly disguised cast of characters includes herself and other supporting players in famous people's lives - a star's wife, a playwright's husband. She has the peculiar, self-defeating notion of inviting the real-life models - her best friends, although surprisingly they do not all know one another - to her Malibu house for the unveiling of her book. Their shared embarrassment is as predictable as the earth tremors that shake the house before the afternoon has ended.
Once past his promising premise, Mr. Furth does not take time to develop his characters. Each person becomes a walking wisecrack, repeating the same joke as if it were a watermark. Then in an unwarranted reversal, the characters suddenly stop fuming and embrace the roman a clef. Miss Lange simply tells them it's a best seller, and has been sold to the movies, and wrath turns into vanity. They begin to compete with one another to sign autographs and to appear on talk shows.
The playwright's cynicism is showing, but not to its usual comic advantage (as in ''Company'' and ''Twigs''), and the evening closes with a splash of sentimentality. The play might have been sharper as a one-acter, perhaps followed by another one-acter about the stars in the life of the supporting cast.
The humor is preoccupied with California - natural and manmade disasters, fads and sunshine chauvinism - treated with the scorn that can derive only from a transplanted New Yorker. One sample line: ''Everything not screwed down fell into California.'' Some of the other jokes are nearer the target, but in this overfurrowed Astroturf, Mr. Furth is following - at a distance - such acerbic Hollywood critics as Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Blake Edwards.
Visual humor is provided by the glass sliding door on Miss Lange's terraced home - so squeaky clean that everyone except the hostess walks right into it, smashing everything from nose to kneecap. This is a running, or rather, a walking gag, one that is funny the first few times, but soon becomes so overused that at times we find ourselves looking at the door - is it open or closed? - rather than at the actors.
What remains relatively unexplored is the author's supposed central subject - true-life fiction that causes friction among friends. ''The Supporting Cast'' could have given an insider's view of promotion-minded publishers with an eye on Hollywood, of what it takes to make enemies and money between hard covers. However, the playwright seems less interested in social satire than in cartoon comedy.
The director, Gene Saks, is an acknowledged master of Broadway comedy and has been able to compensate for some of the script's flimsiness. The five actors, clothed by Jane Greenwood, seem quite at home in William Ritman's authentic-looking beach house. They are as amusing as their characters allow them to be.
Miss Lange brings believability to the role of the author; she even looks convincing on the eye-catching dust jacket of her novel. As a stage mother of a famous conductor, Betty Garrett is a genteel combination of urbanity and ingenuousness. Jack Gilford underscores his character's meekness with rising ire in the face of insult. He also has one dryly comic silent scene. As the others rush to the beach to rescue a possible suicide, he fussily primps cushions on a chaise longue in order to make the victim cozy and comfortable.
The most overtly comic roles are filled by Joyce Van Patten as a star's dim-witted wife and Sandy Dennis as a neurotic who survives on a diet of pills and vodka and is given to jumping into the fountain at Lincoln Center. Miss Dennis is an expert at this sort of comic pathos, as she demonstrated recently in the movie ''The Four Seasons.'' We smile through her tears. She is easily the funniest member of ''The Supporting Cast.'' As for the show, it needs every ounce of support.