Live Bait Theater

Around Christmas, a lot of theaters–you know who you are–whip up something cute and confectionary in order to sponge up their share of disposable holiday income. I’ve often wished for some sort of poetic justice to be visited upon these mercenaries, but could never figure out what that might be. With Candyland, a prospect for revenge has arrived. Never, in my experience, has such a saccharine, exhaustively camp, consistently cloying production been mounted. All that remains is for the offending artistic directors to be rounded up and subjected to an evening of Candyland.

But for the rest of you, to be forewarned is to have the opportunity to change your plans.

First, a few real-life facts. Helen Brach, the 65-year-old widow and heiress to the Brach’s Candy fortune, mysteriously disappeared in 1977. Her body was never found. Brach’s houseman, Jack Matlick, came under suspicion but was never indicted. With no corpse, or substantial evidence of murder, it’s hard to indict anyone. Nor can Brach’s will be expedited until she’s declared legally dead. Anyway, the bulk of her estate, estimated at above $30 million, is willed to the Helen Brach Foundation, a charitable trust for the aid of animals. A widow but never a mother, Helen Brach was a pet freak.

Now, it seems that you could take the Brach mystery in any number of intriguing directions, but the last way I would have guessed is as a play titled Candyland: The Saga of Helen Brach and Her Pet Poodle Sugar. Yes, a poodle (played by Catherine Evans) is a main character in this play. She has lines too, delivered mostly as asides to the audience. And it’s this talking poodle, I think, that establishes the tone of the play. Which is to say that you can forget about Helen Brach, since Candyland uses the known facts about her life only as exposition and a point of departure. Even the mystery of Brach’s disappearance is summarily resolved when Sugar, the poodle, identifies the houseman as the culprit. Only the houseman’s name is Pete, not Jack, since the very real Jack Matlin is still around and capable, I suppose, of slapping a defamation suit on playwright Sharon Evans.

But enough of legal issues, or reality. Let’s talk saccharine. Because Candyland isn’t genuinely sweet; it’s a sugar substitute. For a play to be sweet, you have to buy into the characters in a sympathetic way, and everything about Candyland prevents that. Helen Brach is a lonely old gold digger with a pet fetish, and that’s all. The late Frank Brach–who knows why he’s even in the play?–is an addled codger with too many recipes in his head. And the poodle is . . . Look, a real poodle can be cute, but an actor playing a poodle is about as cute as an obnoxious child pretending she’s a poodle. So Candyland hits the palate with that saccharine, overwhelmingly metallic taste.

This play is also, as I’ve noted, exhaustively camp. One look at David Csicsko’s pink-chiffon, scarlet-velvet, lavender and turquoise highlighted, candy-sprinkled set is enough to establish that. Too bad you have to look at it more than once, as it becomes progressively nauseating. And to further drive the point home, Helen and Sugar wear identical white, poofy wigs. The wigs, I imagine, are meant to underscore the absurdly symbiotic bond between Brach and her poodle. But this point is made elsewhere, time and again, as the two share conversations, psychic experiences, dreams, and tidbits from the candy bowl. Yet in Candyland, enough is never enough.

The result is, as I also mentioned, consistently cloying. How long can you watch an actor play a poodle? Two hours? That doesn’t include intermission, mind you. And even then, you’ll have to listen to intolerable, theme-oriented hits from the 50s like “Daniel, the Cocker Spaniel” and “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” Then, when you return from intermission–if you return–there’s that set in your face again. And the first scene in the second act involves a visit from the dog groomer, a gossipy confidante named Zelda. Are you up to that? And, if you’re really lucky, like I was, you’ll be seated next to someone wearing a perfume that would choke a wharf rat.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against such a thoroughgoing, interdisciplinary approach to theater. It is an amalgamated art form, after all. But it should amount to something more than a stampede of lemmings. And Candyland–other than as a punishment for heinous artistic directors–doesn’t pass the “What’s the point?” test. Once the rather obvious satire begins to fall apart, the play simply drags on into a semimystical treatment of the master/pet relationship. There’s a big emphasis on the issue of whether or not Helen and Sugar will reunite in the afterlife. Sugar’s curtain line is “I just know I’ll see [Helen’s] face again.” Now, if you want to argue that this is a logical extension of the theme, fine, but I’m calling a cab.

The acting, like the characters in this play, would work better in a one-act format. As is, it wears thin and finally threadbare. Jack Kandel seems uncomfortable in the role of Pete, the murderous houseman. Maripat Donovan is at least forceful in a couple walk-ons (one the dog groomer), but these are pat roles, easily played. Shelly Carlson portrays Helen Brach exactly as the rags-to-riches cutout doll that Sharon Evans’s script (and direction) indicates. The odd thing about Carlson, though, is her striking resemblance to Leona Helmsley. It’s amazing, and the parallels between Brach and Helmsley are uncanny, although probably not intentional. Stranger yet is Catherine Evans’s performance as Sugar, which nagged at me with an untouchable familiarity until, by God, I realized she’s a female Pee-wee Herman. Every gesture, every facial expression had that over-the-top style of mugging that’s Pee-wee’s trademark.

But then, the drama of Leona Helmsley and her faithful pet, Pee-wee Herman, is another story. As for Candyland, I don’t know what it is. Some motif blown out of proportion, I guess. The program notes that it’s neither an expose nor a biography, but rather an “exploration of contemporary social values.” Aw come on, don’t be leaving that stuff on my lawn.