Sometimes I think it might be better if I did my reviewing from home. When you see who has written a show, who stars in it, who directed it, you have a fairly good idea what it will be like. (Seldom have my expectations been disappointed.)
In the case of "André Heller's Wonderhouse" - knowing that Heller is a Viennese wunderkind, a prolific author, an intellectual, a man of the theater - I expected something on the order of a Fellini-esque circus - haunting, phantasmagoric.
Had I not actually seen it I might have written a wonderful review - poetic, slightly philosophical.
I might have waxed nostalgic about the waning of the variety artist, who played a peripheral but sometimes evocative role in European culture, like some exotic bird enriching an otherwise conventional pattern on an old carpet.
The actuality, alas, is very unpoetic. "Wonderhouse" is theoretically an entertainment given to celebrate the birthday of an elderly midget (Mme. Olga). Heller has assembled a group of acts of the sort I saw on TV circus shows in the '50s. All the artists are very capable, but often their arts seem extremely minor - high power whistling, bell ringing, paper cutting.
The most amusing are Marion & Robert Konyot, an aging dance team whose aspirations to be Fred and Ginger invariably end in pratfalls. Milo & Roger, magicians whose sartorial inspiration seems to be Ed Wynn, do some charming tricks. And Rao, an Indian shadow artist, creates an unusually graceful silhouette of a flying bird among many delightful shadow effects.
But the overall effect is, I'm afraid, small potatoes. Part of the problem, I think, is that the show was first done in Vienna, where there is a greater tradition of variety artists and where this sort of revue is standard fare. We are used to more high-powered entertainment.
Even a moment at the end, when Olga and Igor do a waltz, falls flat, partly because the dance itself is done without flair, partly because the waltz itself has so little resonance in either American or Broadway culture.
The set, designed in part by Erté, has the requisite faded elegance, but it too may be too understated, too European for our tastes.
The sensible critical response to any show - from Shakespeare to slapstick - is usually: "How was it?" But once in a while a show emerges, such as Andre Heller's "Wonderhouse," which opened at the Broadhurst Theater last night, where the salient critical question becomes: "What is it?"
You see, how it is proves almost irrelevant - incidentally, I thought it was simply marvelous - because of its oddity and the highly subjective reaction that oddity is bound to provoke. It is fantastically good of its kind, but its kind is unique and if it's not a kind you like, you won't like it.
Andre Heller's "Wonderhouse" is a Central European, Berlin-style variety show, with a whole cast of people doing things you didn't think people did nowadays.
It is quaint and bizarre, puzzling, funny and appealing, very slightly sinister, and it has an atmosphere you could carve with a knife if you have the right kind of carving knife and a steady hand.
The set-up. Igor (Billy Barty) is a midget impresario, all of 3 feet tall, now at the end of his distinguished career, and as birthday present to his almost equally tiny wife and partner, Olga (Patty Maloney), he has brought together all of their great acts in his supposedly fantastic career as a master showman.
The performance takes place in the old Wonderhouse Theater - a theater of miracles somewhere, one would guess, between Berlin and Istanbul. And the acts are superb but peculiar.
There are two teams of illusionists - a "black light" pair known as Omar Pasha, and down-at-heel Milo and Roger, who come from Ohio, have been performing together for 45 years, and like Omar Pasha, would even persuade Penn and Teller to disappear.
Then there is a man (Macao) who makes paper scultpures before your eyes; a huge and hearty woman (Baroness Jeannette Lips von Lipstrill), whistling Offenbach's Barcarolle until the birds come down from the trees; an august clown (Carlo Olds) who plays wine glasses and can give a version of Humoresque on a tiny concertina that could make Kreisler weep; a wizened little comic (Ezio Bedin) who blurts noises like a tape recorder with an attitude; and Rao, the Personal Shadow Player to the Mararajah of Jaipur, casting long shadows that are a sublime mixture of Disney and Daumier.
Then there is an attenuated and elegant stagehand (Gunilla Wingquist) who can, and does, dance a tango with herself, and, funniest of all, a divine adagio act combining deft ineptitude with geriatric verve, Marion and Robert Konyot, who have been doing their act for 50 years, and could never have been better - or worse.
But "Wonderhouse" is a great deal more than the sum of its parts - and that more must be Andre Heller. He has designed the show with a freakish good taste - vague japonaiserie and an Erte-designed front-cloth emblazoned with an oddly apt quotation from Jean Genet - its intermissionless timing beautifully paced and, yes, the whole weird entertainment suffused with its very special atmosphere, a blend of the gemutlich and the mildly sinister.
There is New Vaudeville and there is the old vaudeville, and then there's "Andre Heller's Wonderhouse," a variety show featuring some of the most ancient cliches and tired theatrics in show business. A clown plays a tune by ringing dozens of tiny bells; the "king of paper sculpture" turns out to be a man who makes paper dolls and trees, and a Wagnerian-sized woman purses her lips and whistles Offenbach. All that is missing from Mr. Heller's penny-ante arcade at the Broadhurst Theater is for someone to hold his hand in front of a spotlight and project a bunny rabbit shadow puppet on a screen. Just wait.
Almost any one of these eight acts might have been suitable as a warm-up routine for the Ed Sullivan show or as an entertainment for a 7-year- old's birthday party (probably the 7-year-olds would prefer Penn and Teller). All of the performers have a certain facility at their crafts, albeit of a very limited kind, but, taken together, they cancel one another out.
The show is supposed to be a surprise party for a 70-year-old vaudevillian (Patty Maloney). The surprise, arranged by her husband (Billy Barty), is a visit from her favorite entertainers from the past. With the statuesque Gunilla Wingquist acting as stagehand and with a small band playing, the performers give a reprise of the olden days of vaudeville.
Here come Ezio Bedin, who imitates the sounds of a traffic jam and of a cowboy movie, and Marion and Robert Konyot, an aging team of knockabout dancers, who reach for laughter by falling all over each other on stage. Then there is Baroness Jeanette Lips Von Lipstrill. She is the whistler, and "Glow Little Glowworm" glowers in her repertory. A restless member of the audience might well shout, "No encore!" But the whistling baroness will carry on regardless.
The troupe has an earnestness, but seeing "Andre Heller's Wonderhouse" after Le Cirque du Soleil, the Big Apple Circus and America's many virtuosic New Vaudevillians, it should cause disbelief. It is as if we have entered a time warp, trapped in variety past.
The fact that the shadow puppeteer, Rao, is agile with his hands and can form not only a bunny rabbit, but also dogs, an elephant and an army of undignified dignitaries, does not earn him his spot on a big Broadway stage. The cast also includes Omar Pasha, who makes things suddenly appear in black light, and an illusionist team that must have been doing its routine since the early days of burlesque. Those illusionists, Milo and Roger, at least have the nerve to let themselves be upstaged by a duck that disappears on cue.
Watching the show brought to mind "Broadway Danny Rose," in which Woody Allen played a hapless agent who books the oddest talent, the kind of act no one wants, like penguins, parrots and a woman who plays music on water glasses. Danny Rose might identify with "Andre Heller's Wonderhouse." For others, the only wonder is that the show managed to get to Broadway.