Nobody named Einstein nor a polar bear appears in Tom Griffin's fuzzy romantic comedy of manners that opened last night at the Cort. Nor does J.D. Salinger, whom the central figure, a reclusive author of a couple of esteemed novels, calls to mind. I would have embraced any one of the three by the time the second half lumbered into view.
This is classy stuff, with a capital K. The dried-up writer, Bill Allenson, deals in rare books (mail orders only; no personal contacts) from a cluttered old house he shares with his senile father in a small New England lake town. His only intimates are a few locals: the postmaster-and-postman Charlie, and the Bullinses, Helen and Bobby, whose long marriage hasn't been working out too well in recent years (it will, though, along with everything else, you can rest assured).
On a Friday evening, at the height of a February blizzard, a pretty young thing turns up seeking help, claiming her car has stalled nearby. This turns out to be a ruse, but it's not discovered until she's been given shelter for the night and has warmed a cold heart.
Griffin writes fluently enough, and not without flashes of wit, but he is unhappily given to flossy dialogue. The detached, ironic, supercilious Bill talks as no sensible writer would dare write, much less speak. Among other things, he is overly fond of adverbs ("smally," "literarily," etc.) and would never think of referring to that generation as anything other than the "generation perdu." Charlie, possibly from having poked his nose into too many of the books he delivers and picks up, is almost equally tony in conversation, though in folksy, New England accents.
Au fond...excuse me...the root trouble here is that the author, infatuated with his own glib display of erudition, has made his hermetic hero sound stuffy rather than sparkling, as a Stoppard, say, might have managed.
And though he tries to tie everything together at the finish (the happy ending seems like a hasty afterthought, possibly encouraged by the producers, who almost outnumber the players), he leaves too many loose strands. The work, though constructed along the lines of the well-made play of yesteryear, isn't very well made at all.
There is a polar bear missing from a nearby zoo, and its eventual destruction seems symbolically related to the weakly-explained suicide of the writer's wife some time back. And the senile, otherwise silent father does speak up on occasion to state that he once met the Einstein at the counter of a Rhode Island diner and passed him the napkin container, but that's about all he can remember of his most memorable encounter.
The cast is first-rate. A lightly-bearded Peter Strauss cuts a fine, romantic figure as Bill, and delivers his curlicued sentences, dotted with chic profanities, with style and a good deal of charm. Maureen Anderman, never prettier, is also fine as the interloper Diane, and her talk, too, is spiced with a judicious amount (at today's value) of four-letter nouns and verbs.
Robert Nichols is entirely winning as Charlie, and the Bullinses are amusingly played by Marjorie Lovett (though her character's sweet idiocy is overdone in the writing and direction) and David Strathairn. John Wardwell plays the aged father, whom Bill unbecomingly makes sport of at times, with an interesting combination of vacancy and thoughtfulness.
J Ranelli, apparently christened in too much of a hurry to acquire a full first name, has staged the piece adequately, though with a good deal of downstage posturing that may have been dictated by the script. And the setting, costumes and lighting are all perfectly in order, except perhaps for the fake-looking snow-covered evergreens just outside.
Fine talk is dandy. But as they sing in that other Broadway show, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.
The present Broadway season seems to be about as adamant about opening as the last season was reluctant in closing.
As we drift into November there has been, according to my accounting, only five major Broadway openings - an imported British comedian, an imported British epic (and let us thank God and the Royal Shakespeare Company for Nicholas Nickleby), a rock Elizabethan musical and La Colbert and La Woodward reigning queenly.
Last night at the Cort Theater we had the official opening of Einstein and the Polar Bear, a new play by promising playwright Tom Griffin. It is graced by two elegant performances from Peter Strauss and Maureen Anderman - of which more anon - the play itself does not honestly add up to a hill of beans. It doesn't even dishonestly add up to a hill of beans.
A reclusive author - someone in the J.D. Salinger mode - is now chiefly engaged in dealing with antique books in a small New England town. Nothing happens at once.
A mysterious woman arrives at the house in a blizzard. At first she seems a stranded damsel in distress with a car that has broken down. But is she? Fairly soon we suspect that she's someone out to break the author's anonymity. She certainly planned the blizzard, and one wonders about the car.
The play is not badly constructed, but its predictability soon, or too soon, becomes devious. The situation is not merely trite, it is unimaginative. And the characters have a quaint foolishness to them as if they have just emerged, warts and all, from the pages of Reader's Digest or the pictures of Norman Rockwell. They are lovable to a fault, but faulty even to a love.
I'm sure that Griffin will write better plays than this - for all I know he already has - but despite certain talent for hayseed repartee, he brings very little home.
The director, J Ranelli, who put it on first for the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut last season, is adroit at bringing out the quirkiness of actors. But this is not sufficient even though transparently loyal to the script.
There is nothing to the play that evolves in the pattern of a life, and this must be accorded a curious hardship. The actors faced with this cold comfort farm, must perforce to their best. And their best happens to work out very gratifyingly.
Maureen Anderman - who happened to be the great favorite of my famous predecessor at this paper, Richard Watts Jr., who could never envisage her being less than perfect in any role - is the mysterious stranger with her mysteriously collapsing car. I'm happy to continue the Post tradition - Miss Anderman could do a tap dance while reading a telephone directory and I would still adore her with something approaching passion.
She's one of the most charming actresses around, and she is matched here by Peter Strauss, another charmer who has at present made his most significant mark in television. He has one of the most engaging grins I've ever met, and he acts with a laid-back grace that could entice the mice out of the woodwork.
The other actors have all given much more conventional cameo roles but they play them well. But what is the point of playing, staging, or even producing, a play that whatever its promise, leaves those promises as undelivered as lost mail.
Forget about Einstein. Forget about the polar bear. Forget, too, about Silas Marner, Vladimir and Estragon, Alexander Pope, D. H. Lawrence, Cervantes, Aeschylus and all the other weighty baggage that's been shoveled on top of the play that opened at the Cort last night. Stripped of its unstoppable name-dropping and other pretensions, Tom Griffin's ''Einstein and the Polar Bear'' is nothing more - and sometimes less - than a typically contrived romantic comedy about two lonely strangers who meet and go bump in the night. By wrapping a frivolous play in so much pseudo-literary gauze, Mr. Griffin reminds one of a high-school student who slips a ''War and Peace'' dust jacket over the trashy novel he's reading in study hall.
The star-crossed lovers of ''Einstein'' are Diane (Maureen Anderman), a New York advertising artist, and Bill (Peter Strauss), a world-famous novelist who has retired from both writing and civilization to a secluded New England town. The two meet when Diane's car breaks down on a snowy night and she invades Bill's home looking for help. You can guess the rest. Act I is a flirtatious, confessional waltz that leads to the upstairs bedroom. Act II opens with morning-after recriminations before going on to a full-fledged spat that sends one of the leads out the door in a huff. True to form, the injured party soon returns - and the curtain comes down as the hero and heroine reconcile by repeating the coy lines they spoke when they first met.
This sort of play has been entertaining before and perhaps could be again - but not as written by Mr. Griffin. His problems begin with his hero, a Gloomy Gus who sounds like no publishable novelist on earth. Bill's first sally to Diane - a typical sampling of his wit - has it that ''a beautiful bibliophile in a blizzard is ultimately better off than a dour dietitian in the desert.'' From then on, he speaks entirely in polysyllabic words (why use ''name'' when you can say ''moniker''?), Bartlett's quotations and non sequiturs. We hear of ''an insatiable garbage can,'' ''disproportionately pedestaled novelists'' and a ''mirrored restaurant reeking of hormones.'' If this man is J. D. Salinger, Jimmy Durante is Dante.
One thing is for sure - Bill isn't a character. We hear repeatedly that the emptiness of literary fame and his wife's gruesome suicide have turned him against art and life, but we never learn what kind of novels he wrote or why his wife blew her brains out. Like his highfalutin language, Bill's grave cynicism and despair seem grafted on to an otherwise conventional light-comedy hero. No wonder Mr. Strauss is lost. An intelligent, handsome television actor who's obviously at ease on the stage, he is here locked into monotonous, schoolmarmish vocal mannerisms and bitter, introspective scowls aimed at the floor.
If it's impossible to believe a word the hero says, we do at least believe in his lust for Diane. Miss Anderman is always sexy and self-possessed in the role; one loves her just for the way she drops her jaw to express surprise at Mr. Strauss's first unexpected kiss. Yet the heroine, too, is fatally compromised by the playwright. In a last-minute plot surprise, Diane is suddenly revealed to be a real creep - and the audience feels had for having liked her for two hours. Worse still, this trick is as dishonest as it is off-putting: Though Mr. Griffin paints Diane black to show us that his hero was right, after all, to renounce the world, the playwright then moves right on to his optimistic, ''Chapter Two''-style ending, which says the exact reverse. You can't have it both ways.
But all the writing in the play is fake, starting with the title images - neither of which have anything to do with the price of bananafish. Einstein is dragged in by the hero's aged, live-in father (very well done by John Wardwell), a failing stroke victim who periodically rouses himself to tell the half-remembered story of ''the greatest day'' in his life, when he once saw Albert Einstein in a luncheonette. The only point of this recurrent business is to allow Mr. Griffin some cheap, ready-made pathos. As for the unseen polar bear, it has run away from a local zoo - or a John Irving novel - to escape civilization, as Bill has. A redundant symbol, the bear soon wears out its welcome by refusing to go to its death as quickly and quietly as Chekhov's sea gull.
We also meet a handful of loquacious townsfolk, who contribute only an irrelevant subplot and a lot of cute, overdone Yankee yammering. J Ranelli, the director, has cast these roles well, but his staging accentuates the play's artificiality: the actors often address the audience from front and center or exchange meaningful glances as subtle as laser beams. While Arden Fingerhut's winter lighting - soft for the snowy night, harsh for morning - is superb, Fred Voelpel's set is a failure. The designer hasn't solved the esthetic problem of giving Bill's busily decorated, book-laden cottage a visual focus. What we get instead is a blizzard of literary clutter that, like the fatuous writing, vainly tries to snow the audience into believing that this ''Einstein'' has a brain.