Sunday, May 06, 2018

From the Archives - A Rare Treat for Theatergoers: 'Lady in the Dark' (1998)

This review appeared in The Metro Herald in May 1998, twenty years ago this month.

A Rare Treat for Theatergoers: Lady in the Dark
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Idiosyncrasy saves us from boredom and blandness. In a world of popular culture driven by focus groups, polls, and plagiarism, it's no wonder that television and the theatre seem infected by a sameness virus. Luckily, individual human choices are able to transcend this groupthink. And the American Century Theater (TACT) in Arlington shows us how the idiosyncratic choices of a few individuals can slash through the morass of predictability and yawns we have grown to expect from so many cultural institutions.

theatre two gunston middle school American Century Theater Arlington
Last season's Orson Welles' Moby Dick Rehearsed, for instance, was a triumph of physicality and illusion. The show had to be extended several times -- yet it was a play that hardly anyone had ever heard about before the TACT production.

Artistic director Jack Marshall has done it again with Lady in the Dark. Except, in this case, TACT is presenting a play that almost all literate theatergoers have heard about, but hardly anyone under the age of 80 has seen.

Lady in the Dark, with a libretto by Moss Hart, music by Kurt Weill, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, frequently appears on lists of the "greatest American musicals." Yet it is not part of the basic musical theatre repertoire. Some plays become classics because of repetition -- what community theatre company has not already performed Guys and Dolls or The Fantasticks three or four times? Some become classics because of a special cult status. Anyone Can Whistle achieved this when it closed after nine performances, but its producers were canny enough to record an original cast album.

Lady in the Dark cast albumLady in the Dark is of a different breed. It closed after less then a year when leading lady Gertrude Lawrence left the show. It had no original cast album (the concept had not yet emerged in 1941). According to research by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, fewer than 20 productions of Lady in the Dark have been mounted since 1942. This production by the American Century Theater is the first since 1965. Its reputation grew through the Hot Stove League of musical theater aficionados. It's discussed with the same distant admiration as baseball fans banter about a one-season pitching phenomenon of the 1930s. Textbooks explore it at length. Anthologies include it. But no one has seen it.

Except for three songs in the second act -- "Tchaichowsky," "The Saga of Jenny," and "My Ship" -- hardly a soul has heard any of the score. Yet Lady in the Dark is legendary. Why?

In January 1941, Lady in the Dark set records for expenditure. The production cost a then-unimaginable $150,000. (At the time, top ticket prices for Broadway plays were $4.40.) It had four interlocking turntables, extravagant sets and costumes, and a cast of 50 that included Danny Kaye, Victor Mature, MacDonald Carey, and Natalie Schafer (later Mrs. Thurston Howell on Gilligan's Island). Weill scored the show for a full symphony orchestra.

Theater lore has it that later producers found the show entirely too daunting. Jack Marshall, however, is dauntless.

It is said that theatre requires nothing more than actors, a performing space, and lighting. Everything else is gravy -- bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors. TACT proves that it is possible to mount a complicated, literate musical play without the special effects that so frightened other producers. In the small black-box theatre at Gunston Arts Center, set designer Hal Crawford and lighting designer David Walden have created a workable space that does all that is necessary to convey what Hart and his colleagues intended.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Lady in the Dark is basically a non-musical play with extended musical sequences. The musical sequences -- little one-act operas -- exist only in the dreams of troubled magazine editor Liza Elliott (Maureen Kerrigan). The non-musical scenes are played out in the drab offices of Elliott and her psychoanalyst, Dr. Brooks (Bernard Engel). Significantly, these scenes are played at the most distant edges of the stage, as far from the audience as possible. This allows the musical scenes to take up the fullest extent of the performing space, literally blossoming before our eyes with the colorful costumes of designer Edu. Bernardino.

Liza, a driven career woman, has suddenly begun to have panic attacks and fits of depression. For these, she seeks the help of Dr. Brooks. In what may be the play's most unsatisfactory facet, she resolves her problems in barely a week. Within that week, however, we are able to observe the inner workings of Liza's mind -- the "lady" in the "dark."

Lady in the Dark cast album Gertrude LawrenceGiven the structure of the play, with dream sequences being as disjointed as dreams are, the commercial temptation for Weill and Gershwin would have been to write a collection of potential hit songs -- something in the revue tradition of the Ziegfeld Follies or Garrick Gaieties. Instead, they wrote integrated, operatic playlets in which discrete songs are difficult to discern at all. Ironically, the play itself does not nearly approach the full integration that Rodgers and Hammerstein achieved with Oklahoma! two years later, setting the standard for American musical theatre for the next quarter century.

The play does, however, give opportunities for both dramatic and musical virtuoso performances. Standout Jason Gilbert is manic as photographer Russell Paxton. Buzz Mauro is pleasingly sleazy as advertising director, Charley Johnson, a perfect foil for "boss lady" Liza. Timothy Hayes Lynch is appropriately, WASPishly staid as Liza's longtime live-in lover, Kendall Nesbitt. In a small but important role as high-school student Ben Butler, Kerry DeMatteis is sweetly but unintentionally inconsiderate (and well-cast for age -- DeMatteis seems not to have aged a day since his Washington area debut in a Georgetown University production of Gemini almost 14 years ago). Somewhat off the mark, however, is Tom Manger as Randy Curtis, who simply fails to come across convincingly as a Hollywood matinee idol.

Aside from Liza, the female roles in Lady in the Dark are underwritten, but Mary McGowan is a finely-tuned Maggie Grant, Liza's right hand, and Brenda Wesner gets a few comic turns as Allison DuBois.

There is a reason, unfortunately, to feel sorry for all these talented cast members. They will now put Lady in the Dark on their resumes -- but no one will believe them. No one, that is, except for those who hear about the American Century Theater's bold decision to mount a play that scares off richer and more powerful producers.

Lady in the Dark has been extended through May 30 at the Gunston Arts Center, Theatre II, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, Virginia. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., with 2:30 matinees on May 16, 17, and 23. Tickets are $20 and $17 (students/seniors). For information and reservations, call 703-553-8782.

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