If the actor James Dean were miraculously restored to life, the last place he'd want to visit would be the Woolworth store pictured in last night's "Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" at the Martin Beck. You might say he wouldn't even have wanted to be caught dead there.
This utterly preposterous and strangely unpleasant play by Ed Gracyzk succeeds in holding up to ridicule a clutch of women comprising a James Dean fan club ("disciples," they call themselves) while trying to enlist our sympathy for them during a 20th-anniversary get-together.
The store, dominated by its lunch counter, is in a dull and sun-baked fictitious Texas town not far from where the location shots were made for the movie "Giant," Dean's last.
The most fervent disciple, Mona, played by Sandy Dennis, enjoys some eminence for having been chosen to appear in a crowd scene (somewhere behind Elizabeth Taylor's left ear). And on one occasion, Dean had an Orange Crush or something at this very counter. To fill you in much more would be to enter a welter of plot details, developments and fantasies as the action keeps shifting bewilderingly back and forth between 1955 and 1975.
If I inform you that Mona refers to her 19-year-old son, Joe, a perfectly normal garage mechanic (if you discount his parentage), as a retarded child and as "Jimmy Dean" - in the belief that he was sired by the actor in the local graveyard - I'm probably getting you in too deep already.
And if I add that the true father is a svelte redhead named Joanne (Karen Black) who, seemingly out of sheer mortification at being looked on as a sissy, went all the way by means of a transsexual operation around 1962, I know I'm going too far.
Mastectomies as well as pregnancies plague these chillingly observed women as the author keeps trotting out new revelations with all the skill of a Russian novelist assigned to a Hollywood sitcom.
And with the action continually shuttling back and forth in time, the dried-up counterwoman (Sudie Bond) precisely echoed my thoughts when she observed, "I don't understand anything that has gone on here today."
The acting, under the surprisingly clumsy hand of director Robert Altman, is mostly atrocious. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find the makings of an engaging light comedienne in Cher, a much-publicized TV star of the '60s I was, for some reason, viewing for the first time. Her performance as Sissy, the wisecracking nymphomaniac of the group, provides some honest, if obvious, amusement, at least until the author undercuts her both literally and figuratively. For a finish, Sissy, Mona, and Joanne recreate their imitation of the McGuire Sisters to the latter's recording of "Sincerely." But, by then, it's too late even for nostalgia to move us.
Others slipping on and off, from present to past and back, include Kathy Bates as a hearty Dallas housewife, Marta Heflin as a dim-witted mother-to-be, and some assorted background figures, among them Mark Patton, whose ghostly and real presences keep interchanging as Mona's mechanic son and graveyard lover, the latter sometimes performing in mirror-like unison (lighting cigarettes, lounging, gesticulating) with the reconditioned Joanne.
In attempting to carry out Graczyk's idiotic design, David Gropman has provided a puzzling set at once realistic and surrealistic with a mirrored rear wall (a metal sheet that billows slightly when struck) and an awkward-looking set of wings across the stage from the street entrance. The costumes are a mixture of the garish and dowdy, and the lighting mostly a matter of dimming for the 1955 scenes and coming up for the later ones.
What lies beneath the play's provocative title is both unfathomable and curiously distasteful.
There is a mixture of pompous simplicity and garbage-like symbolism about Ed Graczyk's play, Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, that is downright unappealing. it opened last night at the Martin Beck Theater boasting an unusual trio of stars, Sandy Dennis, Cher and Karen Black, and has been staged by one of America's leading movie directors, Robert Altman, here making his belated Broadway debut.
Pretentiousness fills this play about the reunion of a Jimmy Dean Fan Club, set deep in the heart of Texas, close to where they filmed Dean's last movie, Giant. The club is meeting 20 years after Dean's fatal accident - part of the play's action is set in 1955 and part at this commemorative reunion in 1975.
The dialogue is full of homespun humor - of the corn-on-the-cob Hollywood variety. Early on Miss Dennis opines: "The trouble with life is that there is too much now and not enough before."
For members of the audience who might find that kind of cuteness too intellectual, Graczyk can come up with such surefire comic gems as having the vinegar-minded Sudie Bond stalwartly declaim: "He is a sick boy who should be treated before he becomes a Communist." Hardhitting grassroots humor it isn't, but Graczyk is inexhaustibly full of it.
The Fan Club - and note this because it is significant - is called the Disciples of James Dean. They believe, or at least their President believes, that James Dean is God. She also believes - and informs the club thus - that she has been impregnated by Dean while she was an extra on Giant, and she has a retarded son, now nearly 20-years-old, as a solid souvenir of this mystical encounter.
All the members of the club are girls except for one - Joe (standing for Joseph - remember that, it too is significant). Joe is an effeminate youth; together with Miss Dennis and Miss Cher he is part of a singing trio the McCarthy Sisters, named lovingly after their own small town - and is given a hard, and eventually brutal, time by the town's rougher masculine elements. As someone observes: "Joe should have been born a girl," and hold onto that, it is crucial to the plot. But Joe (played by Mark Patton) loves Miss Dennis - even Miss Dennis could have noticed that.
Enter Miss Black - a mysterious stranger in a Porsche with a fancy cigarette case and an ambiguous past (Miss Black, not the Porsche) who claims to have been a member of the club. Her name is - guess what, you lynx-eared sleuths out there? - Joanne. Wow! Put those two and two together kiddo! Think of God, think of Christ (this Woolworth's boasts a picture of the Last Supper by Da Vinci over the soda fountain, and a Dean shrine in an alcove), think of Mary (Miss Dennis's name is Mona by the way - as in Lisa), think of Joseph - and the coincidence seems almost unbearable. It is. Cher, by the way, seems to be cast as Mary Magdalene.
Miss Black proceeds to strip the fan club of its lies and deceptions. This one was married to a drunk, that one lies about her double mastectomy, and the gal from Dallas may be country-club rich but she sure ain't happy. The play ends with a reunion of the singing sisters - a curtain I personally predicted about 10 minutes into the second act.
The interlocking of past and present is all done by mirrors. Altman has adroitly achieved his flashbacks - and this may be the playwright's idea - by having them literally take place in a cleverly simulated mirror at the back of the set. As characters can walk in and out of past and present, like so many Alices passing through looking glasses, the concept is not perfect, especially as the carefully contrived mirror image is sometimes willfully destroyed by events in the present, such as the hanging of window decorations. Also, despite its cleverness, David Gropman's scenery is the ugliest and most confusingly cluttered on Broadway.
In his movies Altman is a master of atmosphere - a perfect sense of time and place raised to high art by a genius for conceptual visualization - and leaves the acting to casting. He never requires an actor, so far as I can recall, to be anything but quintessentially himself.
In this dime-store James Dean any hope for visual metaphor is out, but his sense of casting remains infallible. To be sure Miss Dennis acts - like crazy and most effectively - but Miss Black, Cher and Miss Bond have to be nothing but themselves - no small task to be true, but one well within their range.
I was particularly taken by Cher, who gave her naughty but good-natured little tough girl act with total aplomb, but the more experienced Miss Black also seemed able to lose herself completely within her own person. On more conventional terms, Kathy Bates as a fat Dallas lady who drinks, and Marta Heflin as a 7½-time mother who needs to be called radiant, are excellent.
This is a sort of mystery genre play that will please admirers of the various ladies who want something that appears to be more demanding than the average TV fare. When the work was given its New York premiere a year or so ago by the Hudson Guild Theater, the then producers pleaded with critics not to see the play as it might spoil its Broadway future. Speaking only for myself, I can now see their point.
Forget about whether or not Mayor Koch is going to run for Governor. The truly momentous question of the month is: Can Cher act? The answer, alas, is not to be found at the Martin Beck, where America's most beloved one-name entertainer made her Broadway debut last night. In Ed Graczyk's ''Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,'' Cher does get to sling a few down-home epithets, to shake her torso and to drink a few Lone Star beers - all of which she does with game bonhomie. But act? Cher has but one speech of any duration, and the director, Robert Altman, demands that she deliver most of it with her back to the audience.
But let's count our blessings. Next to the rest of this dreary amateur night, Cher's cheery, ingratiating nonperformance is almost a tonic. ''Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean'' - a comedy whose title does not belie its length - could do with a lot more Cher and a lot less of some of its other stars. It would also benefit from a new script, a total restaging and a revamped set. The only thing it really can't do without is its amplification system, although even the miking doesn't succeed in making the cast audible at all times.
That's a blessing, too. Mr. Graczyk has written a memory play in which he isn't remembering life but half-remembering other plays, movies and books. Intentionally or not, ''Jimmy Dean'' is a crude pastiche of ''Vanities'' and ''The Last Picture Show,'' with bows to William Inge and Rona Jaffe. The crudity can be found in both the work's craft and substance. Stripped of its endless repetitions, ''Jimmy Dean'' would shrink from two hours-plus to roughly eight minutes. The author's thematic obsession seems to be his heroines' sexual organs, which he variously reveals to be disfigured, malfunctioning or misplaced by evening's end.
Those heroines are rural Texas women who belong to a James Dean fan club that meets at the local Woolworth's. The action unfolds alternately in their halcyon, high-school days of 1955, when Dean himself was shooting ''Giant'' nearby, and in 1975, when the now disbanded club members gather for a reunion. Predictably enough, each character has some dark secret or false illusion from the past that must be burst open in the present. The playwright withholds these bombshells for an eternity, but anyone with more brains than his characters - which is to say anyone - will beat him to the punch.
Neither the gimmicky plot nor its cliched participants are credible. Among other things, we must believe that the club's ringleader (Sandy Dennis) has successfully disguised the paternity of her illegitimate son, named after Jimmy Dean, for 20 years, and that Cher's character, the local good-time girl, has managed to hide the actual status of both her marriage and her health from her closest small-town pals. To buy other major plot twists, you must believe in a chance offstage meeting in Kansas City, the wonders of modern medicine and just possibly the Easter Bunny.
Mr. Graczyk pads out these shenanigans with bosom jokes and canned nostalgic elegies to trains, sunsets and old movie stars. Every line sounds familiar - from one heroine's cathartic ''I just wanted to be noticed'' to another's command that ''you must face the truth about yourself.'' At least two characters sob out the line ''I am so ashamed'' when they at last reveal their secrets to one and all. It's only the author, apparently, who is shameless.
By staging this play at the pace of a dripping faucet, Mr. Altman has almost gleefully let Mr. Graczyk hang himself. It's hard to fathom that this is the same director who made such a promising theatrical debut with ''Two by South'' off Broadway last fall. In ''Jimmy Dean,'' Mr. Altman rarely even bothers to separate the flashback scenes from the present-day ones. The characters don't change in age or appearance as they go back and forth between 1955 and 1975. Paul Gallo's lighting at first tries to indicate the time shifts, but finally lapses into incoherence when mere darkness would do.
The confusion is heightened further by the appearance of ill-defined extras and by David Gropman's very pretty, very wrongheaded set. This usually reliable designer has fastidiously recreated two Woolworth's - one in front for the present, one in the rear for the past. But when the actors retreat to the rear, they're cut off at midbreast by the lunch counter and their voices enter an echo chamber. The set's putative mirror imagery is further blurred by the unnecessary addition of actual mirrors, which throw the whole jumble into prismatic chaos.
Mr. Altman doesn't seem to have directed his actors at all until the end, at which point each major player comes forward to deliver an exceedingly long goodbye that begs for applause. For much of Act II, some of the women just stand along the sidelines in expressionless, frozen silence, even as their best friends have a cat fight center stage. Among the supporting cast, Sudie Bond and Kathy Bates acquit themselves with dignity, but Karen Black quickly descends into broadness. Marta Heflin, as the club dunce, doesn't seem to be among the living.
In the star spot, Miss Dennis creates a non-Texan character indistinguishable from those she recently played in ''The Supporting Cast'' and ''The Four Seasons.'' She either runs on her sentences incoherently or scrambles them with false starts, jerky internal word repetitions and teeth-baring snorts. Eventually she pauses long enough to explain that her peculiar behavior ''comes from some place deep down inside.'' The gizzard, perhaps?