Is there life in the theater after June 1? Can "The Guys in the Truck," which opened last night at the New Apollo with the name of its departed star (Elliott Gould) still in the preview program I received, make it? I hope so. Howard Reifsnyder's comedy may be somewhat slapdash, but it's spirited and fun. I'm rooting for it.
Having shown both its merits and shortcomings - but mainly the former - Off Off Broadway last fall, it has arrived on Broadway with many of the key players in their original roles, David Black again in charge of the staging, and with some script changes, not all of them to the good.
The guys in the truck are the technicians in charge of telecasting a football game - this one is between New York and Cleveland - from a mobile unit somewhere out of sight behind the Cleveland stands. The complex operation is masterminded by a director who, monitoring several TV screens, cues cameramen stationed about the field, as well as a pair of sportscasters visible in their box, and alerts New York for commercial breaks.
The plot is elementary but workable. The director, a compulsive gambler in debt and facing possible bone damage by a collector, has been fooling around with a local stripper, an old friend, and may be on the verge of losing his job. All this while he runs the show from all angles.
It's the seeming authenticity of the crew's behavior (the author put in many years as a CBS sports producer) that lends the farcical elements their verisimilitude. That and the playwright's knack, only occasionally shaky, for breezy, funny dialogue. As the morning setting-up scene passes into a lunch break, then to game-time, and to a dramatic goal-line finish that brings an otherwise utterly boring match to an exciting end, you get caught up.
Repeating his role of the director, Al Klein, Harris Laskawy may lack something of the comic flair and lunatic drive the part calls for, but he is a good actor and an engaging one, and he wins you over as he unscrambles both technical and personal difficulties.
Two other players lend particularly strong support: Mike Starr as a goofy, garrulous slob of a co-announcer, a former pro player doing the color stuff; and James Gleason as a spare, priggish producer, the bossy son of a station exec. The others are of varying quality, though Geoffrey C. Ewing is winning and assured as the assistant director, and Bobbi Jo Lathan has the requisite assets as the stripper, who we see both in the truck and in the stands, where she's joined by the mob enforcer, a poorly cast, poorly written, poorly directed, and poorly acted part.
Robert Trumbull is amusing as the game announcer, worried about his hairpiece and always at odds with his hulking sidekick, and there is adequate work by Lawrence Guardino as a complaining technician always threatening to go to the union grievance committee.
John Falabella's unit set (truck with a section of wall removed, announcers' box, and section of the stands) is first-rate, and his costumes are suitably garish or severe, as called for. John Gleason's lighting brightens the occasion.
One could wish that Reifsnyder had been able to pull his play together a bit more tightly in the intervening months, retaining the character of the director's wife while keeping the mobster's antics to a minimum (a drunk scene doesn't work at all). But the guys in the truck are good company for a June night...or a July or August one for that matter. I wish them luck.
Broadway never ceases to amuse, amaze and occasionally baffle me. Bafflement seemed in order when Howard Reifsnyder's The Guys in the Truck opened at the New Apollo Theater last night.
The comedy concerns a hectic and potentially disastrous day in the life of a beleagured TV sports director, Al Klein, working in a remote control van parked during the live broadcast of a football game between the New York Panthers and the Cleveland Cougars.
All in all this is not one of Al's finest hours. His wife is threatening to leave him, he has become re-involved with a stripper called Pussy Willow, his unsuccessful gambling has led him to a loan shark and his muscle man, his job is apparently in considerable jeopardy, and he is thinking of going to direct game shows in California.
The guys is in trouble. And so is the play, the first of the new 1983/1984 season. It was originally produced last season Off-Broadway at the American Theater of Actors, where it was on the whole kindly if not ecstatically received. The economic decision to take it to Broadway was presumably predicated on the prospect of getting a fairly big star to play the moderately flashy leading role of Al. Elliott Gould was duly acquired, making his first Broadway appearance in more than 10 years.
Then, during the extended preview period, five days before the already postponed opening, Gould was unceremoniously fired, and replaced by his understudy Harris Laskawy. Gould's name and picture are still in the program - indeed he is present in a publicity still outside the theater, and only an understandably hurried biographical slip announced Laskawy's presence.
Ironically, Laskawy originated the role Off-Broadway, and the management's belated confidence in him would have been more touching had it come sooner - or before Gould was hired, for instance. However, Laskawy is not yet a Broadway star, and the move can hardly have helped the play's economic prospects.
But the rapid coming and going of Gould - although highly publicized - is not the only baffling misfortune to overtake The Guys in the Truck.
When a play transfers from Off-Broadway to Broadway it usually moves over intact. Sometimes, though, the opportunity is taken for a certain amount of rewriting and fixing.
The Guys in the Truck has undergone extensive rewriting - the character of Al's wife, for example, has been completely omitted, but the play is not better. Indeed, it is worse. Not only all that glitters is not Gould, but there is precious glitter from anything.
The first act has perhaps been tightened somewhat - but the vital second act has been seriously weakened. Yet the few laughs are not totally without merit - far from it.
Reifsnyder was, for many years, a Sports Producer for CBS, and undoubtedly there is a decently exaggerated authenticity about the occasional mores and occasional morons of sportscasting, as well as in insight to that directorial baby-miracle, the actual improvising the orchestration of the cameras to give the spectator a special view of the game.
Laskawy - very corn on wry - has an indomitable helpless hopefulness as the TV director, faced with a kid producer who wants to fire him, two ego-battling sportscasters, to say nothing of his stripper and the hood-enforcer. Other neat performances come from Mike Starr and Robert Trumbull as the feuding sportscasters offering the play by play from the stand, and Geoffrey C. Ewing as a sympathetically amused technician.
But the play is not as well organized or as well orchestrated - for this the director David Black must take some blame - as an actual sportscast. Nor is it so exciting. This play by play is not the thing.
When Howard Reifsnyder's "Guys in the Truck" was presented Off Off Broadway last fall, it was a good-natured look behind the scenes, and behind some of the clichés, of sports broadcasting. In its Broadway production, which opened last night at the New Apollo Theater, it seems to have lost most of its rambunctious flavor. The show is like a football player flattened in a goal-line pileup. The effort and the strain of the production are evident on stage.
The irony is that David Black, the original director of the play, restaged it on Broadway, and the cast, headed by Harris Laskawy, is almost identical to that of the original. At least in Mr. Laskawy's case, it was a long way coming around to the starting position. Before the show went into production for Broadway, he was replaced by Elliott Gould and was enlisted as the movie star's understudy. Then when Mr. Gould was dismissed, Mr. Laskawy has rushed back into the role that he had created.
How demoralizing it must be for Mr. Laskawy, an actor of proved, though under-recognized achievement, to walk under the marquee, and to see the outline of Mr. Gould's name peeping through the paint above the title, and to see his successor-predecessor's likeness on the cover of the program. Mr. Gould's ghostlike presence in this production also says something about a producer's lack of confidence in a show, a lack that is justified.
One would be happy to report that Mr. Black and his team have managed to score a tie-breaking touchdown in the last seconds of the game. Such is not the case, although Mr. Laskawy does deserve some kind of trophy for theatrical valor.
The play traces the heroic efforts of a television director (Mr. Laskaway) to give a home audience an exciting play-by-play of a boring football game, without interference from his boyish, blundering producer. The director is presented as a man of principle who victimizes himself with his independent air and his penchant for gambling. Complicating the situation-comedy plot is a hit man who shows up to force the character to honor a heavy debt. The comedy was always borderline: vulgar but breezy, with stereotypes given a certain spontaneity in performance.
In its move to a larger theater, the play was somewhat rewritten (to its detriment). The author eliminated the character of the director's wife, and in so doing left several plot strands dangling. The show was not truly reconceived for Broadway; it was simply made larger. The new set by John Falabella is like the old set with a case of elephantiasis.
The television truck parked under the football stadium looks as big as a freight train, and seems twice as jumbled. Much of the dialogue is an exchange between the director in the truck and his two broadcasters in the booth. Off Off Broadway one could look at all three characters at the same time. On Broadway, one has to keep glancing from the stage level to a lofty second story where the broadcasters are niched in a cubbyhole as high as "K2."
Those announcers, Robert Trumbull as a statistics-quoting expert and Mike Starr as a sloppy former football star, still provide a considerable part of the evening's amusement, but the characterizations have been broadened. In common with many other things on stage, their repartee wears thin. In addition, especially in the first act, the energy level is low.
The subsidiary characters are one-joke caricatures: a block-headed athlete, who speaks in four-letter monosyllables; a brassy stripper, who spices us the game by doing her act on the field (unfortunately unseen by the theater audience), and the petulant boy producer, who got his job by marrying the boss's daughter. The new version of the play expands the role of the hit man, offering Lloyd Battista an opportunity to win a laugh with a drunk routine in the grandstand.
The only character with any dimension is the director, with Mr. Laskawy trying hard to apply life-saving techniques to a mostly moribund evening. As an individualist in a business that is totally subservient to ratings, he remains a dedicated fan with a keen eye for translating the game into television. In the play's climax, when Mr. Laskawy sits at his table commanding cameras into action, he seems to conduct the coverage as if it were a symphony. For a brief time, we have a picture of the events on the field and we understand how broadcasting can turn chaos into order.