Northlight Theatre

Anyone setting out to adapt the work of cartoonist Jules Feiffer to a live theatrical format faces several problems right off the bat. First, there’s the obvious fact that no live actor could ever capture the unique visual vitality of Feiffer’s inimitable drawings; even cartoon animation would fall short. The strength of Feiffer’s caricatures–whether of real public personages or of his own characters, such as nerdy little Bernard Mergendeiler or the unnamed dancer with her choreographic odes to the seasons–lie in the way Feiffer takes living movement and freezes it into a still picture; such impressionistic perfection is impossible to duplicate in another medium.

Then there’s the question of overfamiliarity. The blackout-sketch style of Feiffer’s cartoon strips has led many theater groups on the high school, college, community, and professional levels to fashion Feiffer revues (the first major one, apparently, was done here, when Paul Sills adapted Feiffer’s book of cartoons The Explainers for a 1961 production at the old Second City). So the question might validly be asked: can the world use another Feiffer show?

The answer, in the case of Northlight Theatre’s delightful Feiffer’s America, is decidedly yes. Feiffer’s America is, above all else, a useful show–and the nature of its usefulness provides the key to how Russell Vandenbroucke, Northlight’s artistic director and the adapter and director of this production has for the most part avoided the pitfalls outlined above.

Rather than providing yet another anthology of Feiffer gags, Vandenbroucke (with Feiffer’s involvement) has put together a sort of tour guide of American sociopolitical history in the last 30-odd–very odd–years, as charted in Feiffer’s work; and he has traced the links between that work and the artist’s life, drawing not only on the cartoons but on essays, lectures, autobiographical reminiscences, film and stage scripts, even an unproduced public-television special. The world of Feiffer’s America is the United States, 1956-1988, as seen through the eyes of one of its most distinctive observers.

With actor Fredric Stone, who has the wry warmth of a young Judd Hirsch, standing in as Feiffer, the play–not a revue, but almost a pageant–recounts Feiffer’s upbringing as a Depression-era Jew (“The secret of the ‘melting pot’ was to melt into a goyish prince”); his infatuation with movies in Hollywood’s golden age (a motif often used in the cartoons); his early manhood in the military, back in the days when America was always right and wars were always winnable; his first forays into the bohemia of mid-1950s Greenwich Village; and his underpaid beginnings as a Village Voice cartoonist (from which base he has expanded into national syndication, in addition to writing books, plays, and movies).

Paralleling these personal developments are Feiffer’s observations about the world around him in those years: years of enormous social changes and yet, one might say in a cynical or despairing moment, of no real change at all. It is this sense of historical perspective that makes Feiffer’s America both entertaining and enlightening, a rare enough combination in the theater. While inevitably putting a lot of emphasis on the present political scene–including some surprisingly recent material about Jesse Jackson’s upstaging of the “inevitable” Mike Dukakis–and paying special attention to the Reagan years, the script puts the present in a clear and instructive context through Feiffer’s cartoons about Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. (“My problem with Ronald Reagan isn’t that he has undermined our faith in the presidency,” says Stone-Feiffer at one point. “Who hasn’t in the past 25 years?”) There are also visits from Henry Kissinger, Nelson Rockefeller, and Jerry Falwell, as well as various media celebrities. The absurdities of these public figures are, in turn, viewed in relation to the average citizen–“the radical middle,” as Feiffer puts it–confronting anxieties timely and timeless: Sputnik and the Cuban missile crisis; The cold war and conformism; Vietnam and Watergate, Iran-contrascam and the Middle East situation (including American Jews’ embarrassment over Israeli excesses); the “colored problem” and the civil rights movement (“I never mix my home life with my politics,” says one white liberal, explaining why he can’t invite a black man to dinner); and, though given less prominence here than it is in Feiffer’s oeuvre, male-female relationships. “Men do not hate women,” observes one woman. “Men need women. Men hate needing.”

Running through all this is a theme of disillusioned idealism, which continues to tug at our emotions even when the issues addressed are no longer immediate. Feiffer’s humor is rarely profound or startling, and occasionally it falls flat, sunk by its own inadequacy in the face of such painful topics as homelessness and nuclear terror. But what Feiffer’s America captures quite effectively is the individuality of Feiffer’s comic style and the distinctiveness of his vision–ironic but also sentimental, sometimes a little smug but always inquisitive and piquant.

Joining Fredric Stone in the five-person cast are T.C. Carson, a talented dancer-actor who excels at translating Feiffer’s jerky cartoon style into three-dimensional physicality; Victoria Zielinski (best known from her work with the Practical Theatre), a compact package of fierce mental energy; Elizabeth DeBruler, who unfortunately fails to etch a distinctive personality to complement the others’ (she’s not helped at all by Lynda Martha’s graceless choreography for her scenes as the dancer); and the gifted mimic Richard Henzel, who adds an extra quality of continuity by impersonating all the presidents. His Reagan is exceptionally strong (as he proved when he starred in Garry Trudeau’s Rap Master Ronnie at the Theatre Building); so, in terms of bringing Feiffer’s vision to life, are his herky-jerky, patently crooked Nixon and his obnoxiously clownish Johnson (our other “cowboy” president of recent vintage). But the vagueness of his Carter routine–and the script’s insubstantial treatment of the Carter years–fails to help us comprehend the country’s psycho-political shift to Reaganite conservatism. While one might argue that the more recent material contains more bite now because it’s current, it is, ironically, the older segments, the ones viewed from a more fully rounded perspective, that are the strongest in Feiffer’s America. The last half of the show, with its insistent preoccupation with Ronald Reagan’s “Movie-America”–represented visually in Jeff Bauer’s simple, boldly colored set, with its gaudy, pop-art red, white, and blue stars and green dollar signs–loses momentum and focus. This is the result, perhaps, of Vandenbroucke’s efforts to keep the show “up-to-date” by including brand-new material (a bit in which Jesse Jackson compares Al Gore and Mike Dukakis to Sammy Davis Jr. appeared just two weeks ago in the New City, Feiffer’s local syndication outlet). Feiffer’s America was conceived by Vandenbroucke as election-season entertainment; but where the production is most successful is in demonstrating that Jules Feiffer is a humorist for all seasons, not just the present one.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Avery.