"The Flowering Peach," which was first produced in 1954 and is being revived by Tony Randall's National Actors Theater with seemingly many members of the Original Broadway Audience in attendance, is a play about survival.
Clifford Odets' retelling of the biblical story of Noah raises several interesting questions. Noah himself sometimes wonders why God has chosen him and his family to survive the flood. His wisest son, Japheth, at first refuses to board the Ark: He does not want to abandon the achievements of Man.
The woman who loves Japheth utters perhaps the most telling line in the play, "There is idealism now in just survival," which must have had enormous impact 40 years ago, when Odets and his friends were "naming" one another to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Without Japheth's practical skills, the Ark might have foundered and its precious cargo might have disappeared: Japheth insists on making a rudder when his father wants to leave the course entirely to God. Ultimately, he accedes to Japheth's understanding that the world is a cooperative venture - God uses Man's knowledge.
As their epochal journey nears its end, Noah muses: "Maybe God saved us for the animals, not ourselves."
"Flowering Peach" may not be a profound play, but it is a sweet one, full of old-fashioned humor, including some jibes at Noah's capitalistic son, Shem. (If Odets had not been Jewish, his jokes about the hoarding tendencies of the first Semite might be construed as anti-Semitic.)
The play has a homey feeling, which the NAT production, directed by Martin Charnin, captures well.
Eli Wallach strikes the right note of humility, irritability and indomitability as Noah, a man who knows how to nudge God. As his wife, who knows how to nudge Noah, Anne Jackson is wonderfully endearing.
There is solid work by David Aaron Baker as Japheth, Joanna Going as the woman who loves him, and Lorraine Serabian as Shem's pushy wife.
Ray Recht's simple set is effective, but his animal drawings on the scrim are characterless. So is the rainbow at the play's end. Its lack of definition symbolizes the production's tendency toward rudderless drift.
It was better with a band! When Clifford Odets' 1954 biblical fable "The Flowering Peach" last ventured on Broadway in 1970, it has been transmogrified into a musical, "Two by Two," and it had two things going for it.
It had a score by Richard Rodgers, admittedly so-so but, remember, so-so Rodgers was never so-what? And it had a gala-star performance as Noah by Danny Kaye, outrageous in virtually every way, not least being outrageously good.
Now at the Lyceum Theater, Tony Randall's admirable venture, the National Actors Theater, mounted the original play - without Rodgers, without Kaye and without hope.
The play, a dated, one-joke fable that takes itself too seriously, was quite enthusiastically received 40 years ago.
Brooks Atkinson even thought it Odets' best, calling it "enough to delight and move any theatergoer," but then Atkinson, a patsy for the bible, thought Archibald MacLeish's turgid "J.B." was "one of the memorable works of the century."
The joke is to notice that Noah was Jewish, and to decide that the retelling of this biblical saga of the Flood ("40 days and 40 nights," etc.) would be enhanced by the use of Jewish/American vernacular speech for Noah's family gathering, giving God's thunderbolts a sense of "Awake and Zing!"
Noah spends a decent part of his time addressing God in the comic manner of Tevye the Milkman, while all the family squabbles are scarcely less predictable than the ending. We know about the ark, the storm, and the dove; we even know about the rainbow - the only question is: How soon, oh Lord, how soon?
If, as sometimes suggested, Odets was alerting us to the horrors of nuclear war, what then was the message? Build big shelters? What emerges is a crassly manipulative comedy. Andre Obey's play "Noah," written some two decades earlier, was a far more winning and subtle retelling of the fable.
This was a poor choice of play for the National Actors Theater - which surely intends to produce classics, not revivals - and it has not been given a particularly interesting staging by Martin Charnin, who, incidentally, was the lyricist for Rodgers' "Two by Two."
Eli Wallach and his wife Anne Jackson do their celebrity duo turn quite nicely as Noah and his wife Esther, but are no more surprising or illuminating than that final rainbow.
The other roles - including the excellent Josh Mostel as the pushing, grabbing elder brother - are adequately enough taken, with the dashing David Aaron Baker and the delicate Joanna Going having the best of it as the illicit young lovers.
The costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge seemed happily biblical, but Ray Recht's settings looked as if they had been done on the cheap (at least one hopes they actually were) and Richard Nelson's lighting hardly took every chance to shine.
Oh well...a poor choice of play indifferently staged...but at least they didn't pick "J.B."
To the classic list of brain teasers -- Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Does a tree falling in the forest make a noise if there's no one there to hear it? -- a lesser, but equally puzzling question may now be added: Why would the National Actors Theater willingly choose to revive "The Flowering Peach"?
Time has not been gentle to Clifford Odets's 1954 play, his last, which turns the story of Noah and the Flood into a Jewish family sitcom. Noah tipples, calls Esther, his wife, "girlie" and says things like "What am I, a loaf of bread? Don't butter me," whenever someone tries to flatter him. Esther kvetches, weeps and kvetches some more. Sibling rivalries continue to divide their grown sons: Shem, the wheeler-dealer; Ham, the rake, and Japheth, the misfit and mother's favorite, affectionately known as "Jafey."
Then, there's this whole mad business of having to build an ark just because Noah hears divine orders in rolling thunderclaps.
Despite the seriousness with which it was once regarded, "The Flowering Peach" seems little more than heightened sketch-writing today. The fantasy is thin, the significance thinner and the jokes thinnest of all. The final production of the National Actors Theater this season, it opened last night at the Lyceum Theater. Audiences can expect to be plunged yet again into the numbing torpor that has characterized far too much of the company's output during its three-year existence.
Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson star as Noah and his wife, and while they would never walk through a performance, pros that they are, they do resort to a fair number of the tics that they anthologized last fall in their two-person career retrospective, "In Persons." When flustered or angry, he still has an amazing ability to squinch up his features so that they all threaten to meet in the very center of his face, while the high-pitched rasp that is his voice climbs a few notches higher. Whatever her ladylike manner and honey-coated smile may imply, she has never been afraid to let her displeasure be sharply known. If she digs in her heels, frankly, a tank couldn't budge her. Although "The Flowering Peach" allows the veteran performers to do what they do best -- squabble, glower at each other and then make up -- they've done it better elsewhere.
The first act unfolds on dry ground and ends with the coming of the rains, here a decidedly paltry special effect. The second act takes place on board the ark, a decidedly paltry set, and concludes with the chastened family putting foot back down on soggy ground. God's unfathomable will has been done. "Now," Noah says, summing up the play's cautionary message in the closing speech, "it's in man's hands to make or destroy the world."
If the director, Martin Charnin, had a bold take on the play or the designers' imaginations had run wild, perhaps the evening wouldn't seem so unnecessary. But Mr. Charnin, who wrote the lyrics for "Two by Two," the ill-fated 1970 musical version of the play, hasn't done much beyond cutting a few minor characters and accentuating what is cartoonish about the rest.
Ray Recht's sets, Richard Nelson's lighting and Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes make both land and sea surprisingly dreary places. Nor is any help forthcoming from the supporting performers, who include Josh Mostel as Shem, David Aaron Baker as Japheth and Molly Scott as Goldie.
Goldie? Well, she returns from the market one day with Japheth, whom, we're told, she has just saved from a drunken mob. Her garb and demeanor would indicate that she is touring the region as an extra in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."
History records that the jurors nominated "The Flowering Peach" for the 1955 Pulitzer Prize in drama, but the advisory board, thinking better of it, gave the award instead to Tennessee Williams for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." If anyone believes Odets was gypped, the National Actors Theater at least offers reassurance aplenty that no injustice was done.
In his last play, Clifford Odets recast the story of Noah and the flood as Jewish domestic comedy, Genesis by way of "The Goldbergs": Noah was an ancient tippler, his wife Esther a loving scold; eldest son Shem was a standard bearer for primogeniture, middle son Ham a layabout, youngest son Japheth a near-simpleton with a belligerent streak.
The play opened late in December 1954 and had its moments of passion, insight and not a little regret.
Some saw it as an allegory about nuclear annihilation, but there was another shadow over it as well.
The play came two years after Odets, having already removed himself from New York to Hollywood, named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was shocked to find himself shunned by former friends.
Some speculated that "The Flowering Peach" was a response to that experience, both apologia and defense -- as when, with the great storm building furiously, Esther calls out, "The truth isn't the truth right now, it's a luxury."
Whatever the case, the public didn't buy it then (the play closed after just five months) and they probably won't buy it now, though there is a real sweetness in Martin Charnin's revival, headlined by veterans Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, for the National Actors Theater.
This is material with which Charnin is intimately familiar; he wrote the lyrics for "Two by Two," a 1970 musical based on the play, with music by an ailing Richard Rodgers and book by Peter Stone.
With his head framed by flowing white wig and beard, Wallach looks every day of the 600 years old the Bible says Noah is when God tells him to begin preparing for the flood.
Noah's family suspects him of having lost his senses until God (actually, composer Keith Levenson) allows His presence to be known to all of them.
Wallach moves gracefully and sometimes movingly between shtick and sentimentality. Wallach and Jackson seem relaxed in these roles, one small step removed from Yiddish-theater comedy.
Less convincing are Josh Mostel (too much of a buffoon to be taken seriously as a striving businessman) and Steve Hofvendahl (too much the lout and too little the rake to go over as a lothario).
Lorraine Serabian has an apt sense of entitlement as Shem's wife Leah, and Molly Scott is brassy as Goldie, the ark's woman with a past (and she gets Theoni V. Aldredge's funniest costume of the evening).
Best, however, in a pair of equally touching performances, are David Aaron Baker and Joanna Going, he as the headstrong Japheth, and she as Rachel, Ham's misused wife and the object of Japheth's affection.
Ray Recht's settings are tacky, though that impression owes in part to several clunky changes; Richard Nelson's lighting is fine. The overall effect is modest, and how could it be otherwise, with such modest material?
Nevertheless, there's something to be said for a rep company investigating works such as this, and for a loving couple of the theater to play a loving couple in the theater.