ARCHY AND MEHITABEL
“The action of our play takes place on the seamy side of the Big Town,” says the authors’ introduction to Archy and Mehitabel. “The time is now, or any time.” Certainly the time is now for this clever, neglected chamber musical; a flop in its 1957 Broadway premiere under the title Shinbone Alley, the show is filled with flashes of dark, hip humor that probably defied the expectations of its day. Now, when many a better-known product of the same era seems dated and cloying, this wry little fable has a flip freshness that fits right in–especially in the bittersweet, raffishly charming production it’s receiving at Center Theater.
Call it “Cats Meets Kafka,” or “Aesop Eats the Big Apple”: Archy and Mehitabel is a study of human nature at its most fallible and fragile depicted through the antics of anthropomorphized animals. Its heroine, Mehitabel, has–let’s be frank–the morals of an alley cat. But that’s OK; she is an alley cat. Her pal Archy, who adores her from afar, is a cockroach who dreams of being blond and six feet tall so he can win Mehitabel’s affections away from the tough toms who come pussyfooting along. If it seems unlikely that a cockroach would fall in love with a cat–well, that’s no less ludicrous than some of the human misalliances you see every day.
So poor bighearted, bug-sized Archy pines after his free-footed feline friend, who wants nothing more from life than a fish head now and then and freedom all the time. “Toujours gai” is her motto–but anxious Archy thinks she’s a little too toujours gai. It’s not just that he wants her for himself: a human at heart (he claims to be a reincarnated free-verse poet), he’s preoccupied with repressing his and everyone else’s animal instincts, no matter how unlikely his success. When Archy tries to reform Mehitabel by getting her a position as an upper-class house cat, the scheme goes sour: the life of the idle rich just isn’t her saucer of cream. When Mehitabel runs off with Big Bill, the brutish, battle-scarred tomcat who wins her heart for a couple of weeks, a despairing Archy tries to commit suicide–and finds out what every human already knows: the damn insects are virtually indestructible. (He needs a cockroach Kevorkian.)
Written by composer George Kleinsinger (best known for “Tubby the Tuba”), songwriter Joe Darion (later coauthor of Man of La Mancha), and a young Mel Brooks, fresh from the ranks of Sid Caesar’s writing staff, Archy and Mehitabel is based on a once-popular but today little-known book by the same name, collected from the New York Sun columns of satirist Don Marquis. These humorous World War I-era pieces were allegedly written by Archy, who jumped on one typewriter key at a time to produce his bits of philosophy (though he lacked the strength to operate the shift key):
well boss did it
ever strike you that a
hen regrets it just as
much when they wring her
neck as an oriole but
nobody has any
sympathy for a hen because
she is not beautiful
while every one gets
sentimental over the
Critics in 1957 found that the musical lacked the book’s elusive whimsy. Perhaps the general unfamiliarity with Marquis today works to the musical’s advantage; certainly the script is a different animal from its literary source, and the essential absurdity of animal relationships (brilliantly portrayed in the book’s illustrations by “Krazy Kat” artist George Herriman) is inevitably lost when actors play the parts as human, as they do here, with only an accessory here or there–an ear, a feeler, a tail–to suggest their animal characteristics.
But these trifling drawbacks are more than balanced by the dry, quirky humor with which the musical pursues its episodic story. Mehitabel’s escapades, most of them to Archy’s chagrin, involve some surprisingly serious themes–among them alcoholism, homelessness, death, and out-of-wedlock parenthood. The casually satiric starkness with which they’re treated is no less pointed for being funny. When lovelorn Archy goes on a self-destructive binge, he drinks DDT in a dig at the toxicity of alcohol; saddled with a litter of kittens after her dalliance with Big Bill, Mehitabel has to be forced to save her brood from drowning in a rainstorm. And when Archy lectures a moth about the foolishness of flying into an open fire, the moth rapturously responds: have you ever looked into the heart of a flame?
Director Dale Calandra gives the show a wonderfully ragtag feel, aided by David Puszh’s tough-edged choreography (in one sequence tap dancers wear trash-can lids for shoes), Lynn Sandberg’s crazy-quilt costume designs, and set designer Rob Hamilton’s densely detailed Shinbone Alley slum. Mark Elliott capably leads a four-piece band (highlighted by trumpeter George Goetschel) through Kleinsinger’s bluesy, sometimes jagged, sometimes vaudevillian jazz score. The strong cast includes Shane Taylor as a forceful if insufficiently feline Mehitabel, Paul Oakley Stovall as Big Bill, and RJ Coleman as Tyrone T. Tattersall, the hammy theater cat who briefly tries to teach Mehitabel the art of acting. (She has the claws for it, he opines, but all her talent’s in her tail.)
Most important is Dan LaMorte’s delicious Archy, a classic philosopher fool. Playing the role with a poignant pathos that recalls Red Skelton and Jack Gilford, LaMorte conveys every ache of Archy’s emotions yet never shies away from the ridiculousness of his deluded attempts to rehabilitate his floozy. He’s the cockroach as everyman, skittering through a miserable life collecting crumbs and pursuing a dream that can never come true.