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August 17, 2006

Stage Matters

Caesar Salad at the NCRT and the Rep


photo of cast of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"The North Coast Sid Caesar Show Alumni Festival is well underway, but if you haven't heard much about it, don't worry. I just made it up. Still, two of our local theatres have just opened plays by writers who got their start creating comic sketches for Sid Caesar's classic 1950s TV show (and if you count Woody Allen's new movie playing locally, it's three.) Larry Gelbart's A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum is at Ferndale Rep, and Neil Simon's Broadway Bound is at North Coast Rep.

Right: Evan Needham, Minderella Willens, Bob Service, James Read and Steve Carter in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. Photo by Dan Tubbs.

Broadway Bound is about two brothers trying to break into TV as sketch comedy writers. It's set in 1949, just a year or so before Simon began writing for Sid Caesar along with his brother, Garfunkel, (or if you prefer his real name, Danny). By the 1980s, playwright Neil Simon was integrating the comedy that brought him Broadway success with the character drama he admired in Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. Eugene, his young alter ego in this play, is just discovering that his repressed anger in response to family tensions is a source of his comedy. As this play's author, Simon goes beyond unconscious reaction to careful and eloquent examination of the individuals in the family as they prepare to go their separate ways.

This is the third (and, according to Simon, the most autobiographical) of the "Eugene" trilogy that began with Brighton Beach Memoir and continued at Army boot camp toward the end of World War II in Biloxi Blues. Eugene and his brother are working on a sketch for CBS, hoping it will be the ticket to their own apartment in Manhattan. Their socialist grandfather is resisting the pleas of their Aunt Blanche to join his wife in a move to Florida. Their parents are coming to the end of their marriage.

On the writing team, Eugene is the funny one and his brother Stan is in charge of structure. Stan says that even a comedy sketch requires conflict, which begins when somebody wants something. In this play, the characters become very clear about what they want, and their thoughts about that and about each other become the play's structure. Though that shape is lopsided for a well-made play, the individual scenes and provocative moments are likely to stay in your head for a long time, rearranging themselves in new webs of meaning.

Henry Kraemer is engaging as Eugene in the current NCRT production, making the all-important connection with the audience as the play's eyes and ears. Eugene is still pretty callow for a 24-year-old Army veteran, but Kraemer's ease wins the audience's confidence while his energy propels Gene Cole's fast-paced direction. With his measured deadpan delivery, Ellsworth Pence is the perfect counterpoint as the grandfather, especially at the start.

The second act belongs to Gloria Montgomery as Kate, Eugene's mother, and not only for the central scene of the play — the justifiably famous recounting of the night she danced with future movie star George Raft. Montgomery creates a memorable and individual Kate with great economy, honesty and emotional power. Jerry Nusbaum, Dmitry Tokarsky and Adina Lawson bring lucidity and feeling to their roles and especially their most vital moments. I felt the production lacked enough variation in the rhythm to separate moods and highlight particular moments, but the most important function is presenting the moments with clarity, and it accomplishes this with conviction.

Along with Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen, Sid Caesar was a comic innovator in exploring the particular opportunities of the television medium, but sketch comedy goes back through radio, burlesque and vaudeville to Rome, where most of the comedies were variations on the plot of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Larry Gelbart wrote the book, with Bert Shevelove. Gelbart wrote for the TV M*A*S*H, and also authored the kind of political satire that Eugene's grandfather would like, like the teleplay about media barons, Weapons of Mass Distraction. Forum was Stephen Sondheim's first Broadway show writing music and lyrics.

The story is an extended Sid Caesar sketch within classical comedy with increasingly frenetic farce — characters with names like Hysterium and Erronius running around in togas — punctuated by frequent songs. Except for the too-few melodies by the extraordinary Minderella Willens, the pleasing voice of Evan Needham and a rollicking number featuring comic stars James Read, Steve Carter, Bob Wells and Lonnie Blankenchip, the songs are largely a distraction (but then, I'm not a Sondheim fan anyway.) But most of the cast is gloriously comic and energetic (including Carol Martinez, Evan Needham and Rob Service in crucial supporting roles), and the production is well served by all its other elements: lighting, costumes, set and Dianne Zuleger's fast-paced direction. Among the fetching dancing courtesans, Kim Hodel in particular uses the spacious Ferndale stage to sinuous advantage. It's naughty, it's nice, it's a sprightly evening (or afternoon) of summer fun. So let us bury our troubles and praise the Alumni — and all hail Sid Caesar, the mightiest Roman of them all!


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