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Joe Egg (03/27/1985 - 06/23/1985)


 

New York Daily News: "A rotten 'Egg'"

This production opened at the Roundabout Theatre, January 6, 1985, as "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg." It moved to the Longacre, as "Joe Egg," March 27, 1985. Gary Waldhorn was replaced by John Tillinger.

Why should "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg," which seemed so moving in its American premiere 17 years ago, seem only flickeringly so in the Roundabout revival which opened last night at the Haft for a three-week stand? Time may have dulled the initial impact a bit, but I think the fault lies partly with the direction, which is too studied and sluggish at times, and more particularly with the stars, Jim Dale and Stockard Channing, especially Dale.

This was the play that introduced the British author to America, and it was the first in a series of plays he wrote, originally inspired by Joan Littlewood's "Oh What a Lovely War," in which serious and painful situations were relieved by vaudeville-like turns. In this case, the parents of a hopelessly retarded, spastic daughter, a "vegetable" (a 10-year-old, here advanced to 12 since the gangly Tenney Walsh could scarcely pass for any younger), indulge in little comic turns about the child's (and their) affliction, never at the expense of the child, whom they love, but to retain their sanity and, more important, to keep their marriage from breaking apart.

It is a heart-rending story, told with many direct speeches to the audience. And for some reason, this shifting back and forth between reality, make-believe and audience asides develops a sing-song effect. The trouble is chiefly that Dale, who is a gifted comedian, gives a performance that is only slightly heightened during his jokey behavior with the result that we're disinclined to take this charming, nimble performer seriously much of the time. In the role of Bri, he's "on" throughout, and even his leavetaking, especially without the finality of a slamming door, appears rather casual. It is a nifty performance, but too nifty.

As Sheila, Bri's wife, Stockard Channing plays straight woman in most of the comic numbers, joining in only during the "doctor-patient" vignettes. And given the chance, especially in Sheila's soliloquy about the child's efforts to topple a tower of bricks until a relapse destroys even this impulse, Channing is quite effective, though the sluttish costumes created for her, and the makeup to go with them, don't help the characterization in the least.

While the first act is given over entirely to these three, closing with an image of the daughter dancing wildly about the suddenly brightened stage, the second brings on another married couple, Pam (Joanna Gleason) and Freddie (Gary Waldhorn), and Bri's suffocatingly possessive mother Grace (Margaret Hilton). And they help, even though their scenes are somewhat artificial. Waldhorn is particularly good as a thriving industrialist who devoutly believes in socialism and who, as Bri's friend and onetime school chum, wants desperately to help only to have all his constructive suggestions brushed aside.

Arvin Brown has staged it (perhaps the broad, deep Haft stage is too large for this intimate work and for the actors to traverse properly), and Marjorie Bradley Kellogg has designed a good, solid, lifeless living-room set with a frame of Christmas lights toward the back.

As I say, Nichols' play seems less novel and striking than it did in 1968, but it has more potential than is realized in this revival.


New York Daily News
01/07/1985

New York Post: "'Joe Egg' awakens B'way"

There are good plays on Broadway this season, but they have to be searched for. That search has been made a little easier by the wondrously welcome arrival of Peter Nichols' Joe Egg, starring the spectacular duo of Jim Dale and Stockard Channing, at the Longacre Theater last night.

This is fundamentally the same splendid production that the Roundabout Theater staged Off-Broadway at the beginning of the year, although there has been one quite important cast change.

A serious British comedy, Joe Egg adds real luster to the season, and it is a delight to see it again in this extended and amplified life.

It is 18 years since the play was originally on Broadway, with Albert Finney making a rare New York stage foray as the hero, Bri, and although it did succeed then, the present dramatic climate, more liberal perhaps, could make Joe Egg even more warmly received this second time around.

By now most people will know that the play is about parents trying to cope with a spastic, paraplegic girl, a child who is, in effect, a living vegetable.

Although Nichols has made a bitter but funny comedy out of the situation - the ambiguous ending, by the way, is anything but comic - he has not shirked a single issue, either dramatic or moral.

It is an oddly heart-warming play, but never for an instant sentimental, and its savage, mocking humors, while making us laugh, also shock us into thought.

Joe Egg has an almost dangerous immediacy. Drawing on the British vaudeville convention of addressing the audience directly and ignoring the stage's fourth wall, Nichols involves that audience with the plight of Bri, Sheila, and their kid Joe, almost from the curtain rise.

Issues are being thrown at us as well as jokes, and as the play unfolds - and we are catching these lives at their actual crest - we glimpse the true characters. Just as intriguingly, we gather the why and the wherefore of the way they cope with their problem.

Arvin Brown first directed the play a few seasons back at his own Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, where it starred Miss Channing along with Richard Dreyfuss. By now Brown knows the mood and pace of the play by second nature: its irony, its pain, and its strength.

He is helped here very much by Dale's Bri. I have seen many people play this role, from Joe Melia, who originated it in London, onwards, but no one has quite encompassed its range, from rage to impotence, from mockery to despair, like Dale.

He is matched at every point by the wonderfully loving Miss Channing, an earth mother bereft of earth, her sensuousness caged, her love entrapped. You won't see better performances than these two this season.

And the supporting cast is worthy of them. The newcomer John Tillinger makes a bumbling figure of decency out of Bri's rich and interfering old school friend, Joanna Gleason is all frozen snobbery as the wife, Margaret Hilton provides the epitome of awful motherhood as Bri's mother, and Tenney Walsh seems unaffectedly pathetic as the damaged child.

Do see this play. Yes, it is funny. But much more, it is that old dramatic thing - uplifting. It sends you out thinking. It sends you out feeling. And during this Broadway season that has been all too rare.


New York Post
03/28/1985

New York Times: "Dale and Channing in Nichols's 'Joe Egg'"

This production opened at the Roundabout Theatre, January 6, 1985, as "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg." It moved to the Longacre, as "Joe Egg," March 27, 1985. Gary Waldhorn was replaced by John Tillinger.

Theatergoers are not likely to think about Jim Dale and Stockard Channing in quite the same way ever again after ''A Day in the Death of Joe Egg,'' the Peter Nichols play that has brought them into perfect harmony at the Haft Theater.

Mr. Dale is best known in New York for his high-flying acrobatics in the entertainments ''Scapino'' and ''Barnum.'' Miss Channing, whose talents were submerged in three flop plays last year, is most widely remembered for her ditsy appearances in trivial movies and television series. We can forget about all that now. In this Roundabout Theater Company revival directed by Arvin Brown, Miss Channing and Mr. Dale may make us laugh, but the humor is a form of protective coloring. ''Joe Egg'' tells of the most painful kind of marital breakup - one that even love can't prevent - and the stars tear through it with a naked intimacy that is as compelling as any acting we've seen this season.

The subject of ''Joe Egg'' is often thought to be infirmity, not marriage - which may explain why this disturbing, funny play, the breakthrough work by the author of ''Privates on Parade'' and ''Passion,'' lingered only a few months in its original West End and Broadway productions of 1967 and '68. The confusion is understandable: Mr. Nichols' title refers not to Bri and Sheila, the middle-class English couple at center stage, but to their 12-year-old child Josephine, eponymously nicknamed Joe Egg.

The daughter is an incurably brain-damaged spastic who spends much of the evening in a wheelchair, lolling about in the blind, wordless, incontinent state she has always known. Yet even so, ''Joe Egg'' is not a precursor of the many sentimental whose-life-is-it-anyway plays that have followed it. Mr. Nichols puts Joe Egg (Tenney Walsh) on stage simply as a fact of life - only one of the many horrifying, inexplicable facts of life in a world supposedly governed by a divine plan. Given such unalterable facts, the playwright then asks, how do we go on?

Sheila and Bri don't sit around crying; they usually tell jokes. Nor do they debate any possible ''solutions'' to Joe Egg's plight; they've long ago decided against institutionalization and euthansia, in favor of keeping the girl at home. Sometimes they pick through the past: Sheila guiltily wonders if her pre-marital promiscuity somehow produced Joe Egg, and both parents wonder if their child was maimed by incompetent doctors. But mostly, Bri and Sheila just cling tightly to their own respective ways of coping with the present.

Those methods are antithetical. Bri, a schoolteacher who once dreamed of being an artist, makes endless wisecracks about the ''vegetable'' whose diapers he constantly changes. He has stopped looking for parables and explanations that might rationalize Joe Egg's suffering; he'd rather believe in nothing than ''a lot of lies.'' Sheila still has faith. As Bri explains - with awe, not cynicism - his wife is a ''truly integrated person'' who ''embraces every living thing.''

Contrary as the couple's philosophies may be, they are also complementary. Mr. Nichols has written Act I of ''Joe Egg,'' as he has some of his subsequent plays, as a quasi-Brechtian music-hall routine: Bri and Sheila chattily confide in us from the downstage edge of their living room, as if they were a Midlands George Burns and Gracie Allen exchanging well-practiced shtick on their front porch. As Mr. Dale recalls the nightmare of the child's birth, he does jolly burlesque impersonations, firm in accents and postures, of a German pediatrician and a hip, patronizingly supportive clergyman. Miss Channing responds with a straight man's knowing, encouraging smiles and, occasionally, a bit of her own: To explain how Joe Egg's brain malfunctions, she mimics a harassed telephone switchboard operator at a company appropriately named Universal Shafting.

These two actors have never worked together before, but they seem lifelong partners. The strong bond between them, both of sympathy and sexuality, suggests that Sheila and Bri have the ideal marriage, if not the ideal family. The couple's disagreements are loving conflicts which neither spouse tries to win; if Sheila can't stop enjoying even Bri's sickest, Thalidomide-tinged gags, Bri can't stop adoring Sheila's simple candor and utter lack of self-pity.

No wonder it's devastating when the relationship starts to fall apart. What makes our sorrow even greater is Mr. Nichols' refusal to pin the couple's rupture directly on Joe Egg. ''Everyone is damaged in some way,'' Bri tells us - and it is the husband's infirmity, not his daughter's, that wrecks the fabric of a marriage. Like his child, the boyishly middle-aged Bri can never grow up: He wants to be the only ''spoiled, coddled baby'' in the household, and he's jealous of Joe's claims on Sheila's affections.

''Our marriage might have worked as well as most if Joe hadn't happened,'' Bri says. We're not so sure. If the marriage in ''Joe Egg'' is put to the cruelest imaginable test, Mr. Nichols is asking tough questions about the nature of emotional responsibility, of giving and loving, of faith and defeat, that challenge and trouble us no matter what kind of children we may or may not have at home.

Mr. Brown has directed many Nichols plays at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater and in New York, but this one is the first, in my experience, that he's gotten exactly right. His production is different from, but no less valid than, Michael Blakemore's Broadway staging, which starred Albert Finney and Zena Walker. The on-stage band, which punctuated the jokes, has been removed; the tone is more reflective than harsh. The sporadic Act II lulls are bolstered by the amusing yet human performances of Gary Waldhorn and Joanna Gleason as posh, hypocritical neighbors who try to appropriate Joe Egg as a cause.

As Mr. Brown has knit his stars into a team, so he has also elicited powerful solo turns in which Bri and Sheila give full vent to the two differing visions of existence that make and break their marriage. Mr. Dale's big moment is a harrowing fantasy of infanticide - a ghoulish practical joke that only a master comic actor could prevent from curdling. When it's over, the actor has done what Bri intends - forced us to feel the relief that might arrive were Joe Egg to disappear.

Miss Channing makes us feel something else. At the end of Act I, she sits alone in fading winter light to tell us of the one, long-ago time when Joe Egg showed a short-lived sign of improvement. As she pours maternal joy into a description of how her child seemed to master the simple task of moving an arm, the actress makes us share Sheila's belief in miracles as fully as we do Bri's bleak realism. And though Joe's miracle ended almost as soon as it began, the mother won't give up. Speaking in sweet, working-class intonations and looking completely defenseless, Miss Channing goes on to deliver Sheila's cliched declaration of faith as if it were a revelation: ''I believe, where there's life, there's hope,'' she says. Then the actress takes a long pause, looks directly at us with brimming, begging eyes, and, in a whisper, asks, ''Do you?''


New York Times
01/07/1985

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