So long, "So Long on Lonely Street." Your heart's in the right place, but your mind is as scattered as birdseed.
It's fitting that the hero of the Sandra Deer comedy that came to the Jack Lawrence last night should be a soap star, because the play itself unwinds like a soap opera, assuming daytime TV has long since exhausted permutations on the subjects of miscegenation and incest.
It is "late August at Honeysuckle Hill, a few miles outside a small Southern town," and a coffin in the living room of this run-down farmhouse on 25 barren acres contains the body of Aunt Pearl, the white half-sister of black Annabel Lee (Lizan Mitchell). As things stand in the will left by Grandpa Big Jack, the spread passes on to his and his dead wife Beulah's one remaining "natural" child, which would be Annabel.
But King Vaughnum (Stephen Root), a cousin of the twin brother and sister born of Big Jack's late daughter, is scheming to take over the place and turn it into a shopping mall for Christian enterprises. However, if either Raymond (Ray Dooley), the New York soap star, or his twin Ruth (Pat Nesbit), a local poet, should elect to move in with Annabel, the property will pass to Ray or Ruth on Annabel's demise.
But, oh hell, why on on? Some surprises are in store for all concerned, including the family lawyer Bobby Stack (Fritz Sperberg), and in the end true love finds its own funny way, and Annabel gets to stay on in Honeysuckle Hill, while the disgruntled King slopes off with his pregnant and silly wife, Clarice (Jane Murray).
This mushmouth play - actually, there are as many stabs at Southern drawl as there are players, except for New Yorker Ray - spends most of its time resembling a watered-down contemporary version of "The Little Foxes," in which the mean Hubbards are squeezed into the person of King, with a little left over for his bigoted wife.
I'm always wary of onstage coffins, and I'm afraid it's not great fun when Annabel, who hasn't dared allow an undertaker near Aunt Pearl in the few days since she's passed away, raises the corpse to dress it properly for the funeral.
Now most of the actors - in particular the hearty, roly-poly, conniving King and the patient but salty Mitchell - go about their business in this Deep South artifact acceptably. And the worn, cluttered interior-exterior set, the costumes and the lighting are as solidly professional and evocative as we have come to expect in most of today's theater. Kent Stephens' direction, a little obvious at times, is generally adequate. But one waits wearily for some genuine signs of life, even from the coffin, in this play with a name like a song title.
Have patience. This really is going to be about the new play So Long on Lonely Street, which opened last night at the Jack Lawrence Theater, but before proceeding let me clear my throat, and brush out my mind.
There are times when reviewing plays that I force myself to think of Lawrence Welk. Or rather, of Lawrence Welk's music.
This music you may recall never received any large measure of critical acclaim - indeed it would scarcely be going too far to suggest that it was something of a critical laughing stock. Yet it was popular. Very popular. Even loved.
Now just as Welk would have done better with the kindness of strangers rather than the ministrations of critics, it seems to me that some plays, or at least their box-office potential, are more likely to be hindered than helped by critical attention.
For various reasons - too complex to enter into here - quite often general critical opinion is at variance with general popular taste.
Just think how movie and TV critics differ from box-office returns and Nielsen ratings and ask yourself whether drama critics are likely to be any more in touch with popular appeal.
Back to So Long on Lonely Street. This is one of those Broadway plays - Precious Sons, admittedly a marginally better play, far more seriously intended, is really just such another - that audiences are probably going to like more than critics. If audiences ever get to see them.
I thought that So Long on Lonely Street as pure and preposterous hokum - Southern fried chicken without the chicken.
Imagine a satirical version of Lillian Hellman - not that poor Hellman would nowadays actually need a satirist - a family, an estate that has seen better days, a house that has known better nights, a death, a coffin, a will, a conniving cousin, a simpleminded black dependant, unexpected sins from a steamy Southern past, and a suggestion of new sins in an equally steamy Southern future.
Sandra Deer imagined just that, and acting on her imagination wrote a play about it. The play was first produced in Atlanta - Oh, Sherman where were you when we needed you! - and elsewhere, and now comes to New York.
And the charming matinee audience I saw it with - I suspect Lawrence Welk lovers to a man, or woman - really loved it.
They loved its predictability, its corniness, its little frissons of carefully controlled shock, its coy revelations and its cosy comeuppances.
They liked the scenery by Mark Norton (so did I, by the way), they likd the emphatic (some might say heavy-handed) direction of Kent Stephens, and most of all they liked the acting - which cheerfully varied between the sophomoric and the semaphoric.
Most of all they liked the frail black woman (actually a very nicely calculated performance) of Lizan Mitchell, they liked the villainous blowhard smoothiness of the villian, Stephen Root, and they liked the twins, Ray Dooley and Pat Nesbit, who, in a somewhat French, or even Inca, fashion, seem to confuse fraternity with liberty.
Who am I to say they were wrong? Although, for the record, I must say it. But I didn't like Lawrence Welk, did I? And I don't like Col. Sanders. Dammit - I don't even like Lillian Hellman. So watch out - preferably, watch out for yourself.
In Sandra Deer's ''So Long on Lonely Street,'' the new play at the Jack Lawrence Theater, an eccentric Southern family gathers at its faded homestead, Honeysuckle Hill, for the funeral of its spinster Aunt Pearl and the reading of her will. A lot is at stake. To some members of the extended Vaughnum family - especially Raymond, a New York soap-opera heartthrob who is described as ''the prodigal son returned'' - the old estate may be ''a heritage'' worth preserving. To others - especially King, the good ole boy who is described as ''greedy'' and ''conniving'' - the manor is prime real estate that might be cleared for a shopping mall. Still another putative heir - Ruth, a rebellious poet who is described as not having ''much use for her heritage'' - doesn't even care what happens to Honeysuckle Hill. Do you?
If so, perhaps you'll enjoy waiting two hours to hear the reading of the will - and then waiting a little longer for someone to retrieve a long-suppressed birth certificate that must also be recited before probate can really heat up. (The birth certificate, praise be, arrives by motorcycle.) Lest anyone be driven crazy by the suspense, Miss Deer makes sure that there are other revelations to distract us while we wait to hear Pearl's every last codicil. Various Vaughnums, we're told, have committed a drunken murder or suicide, been killed by a tractor or at war. Indeed, about the only skeleton not to fall out of this family's closet is Pearl's itself - it, at least, is securely entombed in a casket stage left.
''So Long on Lonely Street'' comes to New York by way of the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, and it's a professional, sincere attempt to merge the vulgarized Chekhovian theme-mongering of a Lillian Hellman melodrama with the off-center Southern humor of a Eudora Welty or Beth Henley. But, like that other recent Atlanta export, new Coke, this play is not the real thing. Much as Miss Deer gratuitously tells us exactly which stereotype each of her characters is meant to be, so most of her lines and plot twists are laborious replications of theatrical cliches rather than, as intended, loving representations of real life.
It's unusual to encounter a Southern writer with little discernible literary voice, but such, sadly, is the case here. Take away the actors' accents and the Dixie parlor setting, and Honeysuckle Hill could almost be situated in Keokuk. Miss Deer repetitively makes her plot points in prosaic dialogue such as ''All my plans depend on getting this property free and clear by Sept. 1'' or (spoken incredulously) ''That's what you want the land for - a shopping center?'' To pinpoint the message, the characters solemnly ask ''What happened to the hopes we had then?'' or declare that ''We haven't exactly fulfilled our youthful promise.'' Even Raymond's network soap opera has the thematically utilitarian title of ''All My Yesterdays.''
The force-fed literary allusions (mainly to Poe) can't dress up the obvious, and the theatrical flourishes, including an outbreak of unconvincing labor contractions to bring down the Act I curtain, are as predictable as they are creaky. About the only real surprise (and entertainment) occurs when two family members consider indulging in a form of heterosexual love that dare not speak its name but nonetheless beats around the bush for a good 20 minutes in Act II. Miss Deer's one freshly observed character is the household's beloved and aged black retainer - a woman who recognizes the distinction between being treated ''like'' a member of the family and actually being a member of a white family. In the acting of Lizan Mitchell, who plays the role, one can see the ruins of what must have been a touching performance before an indulgent director let it slide unchecked into bathos.
That director is Kent Stephens, who scrupulously insures that either his actors or the lighting cues tell us exactly when we're meant to laugh or sigh. The one outstanding member of his company is Pat Nesbit, who originated the part of Ruth, the family's cigarette-smoking, vodka-swilling renegade, in Atlanta a year ago. Ruth is what one might call the Elizabeth Ashley role, and, amazingly enough, Miss Nesbit uncannily shares the young Ashley's presence, stage personality and voice. She also seems to share some of Miss Ashley's talent, though just how much cannot be determined until she's found the worthwhile role that will allow her to bid ''Lonely Street'' so long.