Goose Island Theatre

at the Avenue Theatre


at Ruggles Cabaret

It’s a jungle out there, all right. Wall Street, 1986, the high-stress world of stockbrokers: the men talk business and spectator sports, brag about their incomes and alma maters, complain about their wives and ex-wives, and drink, drink, drink. The women fret about the warranties on their biological clocks, the ontologies of their careers, and the eternal imperfections of their physiques.

In the midst of it all is Emily Brown, who describes herself as “not a bad person if you can overlook my insecurity, my immaturity, and my deceitfulness, for which there is a good, though not altogether believable, explanation.” She has her priorities in order, and the lowest on her list is the urge to merge and foal. Emily has learned her lessons well–her mother and father divorced when she was three. Her mother still refers to her father as “the bastard” and tells her daughter frankly “I was never meant to be a mother. . . . Thank God for boarding schools.” Emily’s father has big plans for his little girl–he intends to buy her a brokerage firm, and drills her arduously in the skills she’ll need to command it. Emily is in perfect agreement with the males around her that romance is disastrous to careers and personal morale. “Some people get married and continue to work,” a friend points out to her. “Men people,” counters the savvy Emily. “Women people get pregnant.” She has devised a foolproof method for ridding herself of used boyfriends–she proposes marriage, which usually sends them scurrying. So naturally, when this thoroughly charming female cad, sort of an Alfie in drag, meets a handsome midwestern actor/waiter innocent enough to call her bluff, her universe is understandably unsettled.

By all rights, these should be very shallow, unpleasant people; but playwright Stephen Metcalfe is acutely aware that little in life is simple. He’s created his characters with a surprisingly compassionate maturity and sensitivity. Although Emily’s broker buddies are as obnoxious a pack of dead-end kids as any female has ever been forced to fraternize with, they loyally proffer advice and assistance to the lady when she’s in distress, though it’s along the lines of: “Tell him the truth. You’ll lose him sooner that way.” Her friend Hallie, though obsessed with her own imminent reproductive obsolescence, observes wisely, “We’re all so damn busy proving how wonderful we are, we don’t leave ourselves time to think or doubt.” Even Emily’s penthouse-dwelling, champagne-swilling mother has some good insights, reminding her that marriage and children are no insurance against unhappiness: “I see the ones who hung on, raised the children, gave the dinner parties, cleaned up the dog shit–dumped, divorced. Left for smoother skin and higher bosoms. Left with large houses and a membership at the club . . . I’ll still be dissatisfied, but I’ll count my blessings . . . and answer to no one but myself.”

So what’s a modern heroine to do? Does she remain a bachelorette? Does she chuck it all for true–or at least plausible–love with a boy from a sisters-cousins-aunts family in Minnesota? Does she decide that commitment is truly the key to happily-ever-after land, though that kingdom, according to her father, resembles a corporate exchange? Does she resign herself to a lonely spinsterhood with only a six-figure income for comfort? At a time when more and more women in our society are making their own decisions regarding the course of their lives (with the tide seemingly turning back these days toward Kinder, Kirche, Kuche), Metcalfe offers an astonishingly unprejudiced catalog of options, all eminently viable. Though Emily’s fate is still uncertain at the end of the play, we are left with a character we respect as much as, if not more than, when we first met her. Her actions may not always be honorable, she may make mistakes, her ideologies and opinions may not be the same as our own, but she retains her dignity as an independent human being throughout. How many female characters have we seen lately who can make that claim?

Emily is a fable for our times, and like most such tales, it’s populated by broadly drawn archetypes. Since archetypes can easily degenerate into stereotypes, and familiar wisdom into soap-opera cliche, the entire cast is to be commended for giving their characters such conviction and depth as to make us consider their sentiments as if we were hearing them for the first time. “You can’t count on love, but you know where you stand with money” is no less valid for being spoken by a drunken boor in Brooks Brothers. And the statement that “when I wanted to marry you, I wasn’t saying I was going to love you the rest of my life. I was saying that I choose to try. . . . Maybe we fail, but what else is there?” isn’t any less true for coming from the mouth of a 20th-century noble savage.

In the central role of Emily Brown, the philanderer who may or may not be reformed by the love of a good man, Debra Rich has a roguish grin and a voice that seems always on the brink of bubbling over into good-humored laughter. Both help to rescue a character who could easily seem bitchy and mean-spirited, but who instead emerges as completely likable and engaging. Brooks Palmer is a suitably ingenuous sex object, though his oddly accented speech obscures much of his part of the dialogue. Veteran actor Ray Wild and veteran fashion commentator Cathi Watson lend a confident gravity and sure professionalism to the roles of Emily’s father and mother. All other actors double and triple as various denizens of Manhattan, with particularly outstanding performances from Linda Van Etten as the wholesome and gynecentric Hallie and from Christopher Kulovitz, Kenny Williams, Steve Savage, and Dennis O’Brien as the four lovable Dow-Jones knuckle draggers.

Possibly because he’s been writing screenplays lately, Metcalfe has chosen to structure Emily in a series of five- to ten- minute snippets. Director David Whitaker has deftly solved the accompanying technical problem of establishing settings with vaudeville-style placards: “Caramba!” indicates a Mexican restaurant, and “Drownin’ Your Sorrows in the Blues” suggests a country-and-western bar. He’s also devised varied and humorous ways to shift scenery, the most memorable of which involves two joggers. They run through the “Central Park” scene, notice the desk and chairs left onstage from the office scene previous, shrug, put the chairs atop the desk, and jog off, pushing the lot before them. The minimal set, also by Whitaker, makes maximum use of the Avenue Theatre’s limited space, and Mary Kay Blashke’s costumes keep the many characters distinct and individual.

For theatergoers who prefer their comedy a little simpler, a little more old-fashioned, there’s the nouveau vaudeville team of Will Clinger and Jim Fitzgerald. Assisted by piano man Dave Whitehouse, the two are back for a limited engagement at Ruggles Cabaret at the Royal George Theatre, in a revue called Hello, We Must Be Closing.

There aren’t many people left who remember vaudeville–or its British counterpart, the music-hall concert. The numerous variety shows that had toured the United States since the 1880s by 1930 were almost completely eclipsed by radio and motion pictures, though many of the performers went on to become stars in these new forums. (In fact, The Ed Sullivan Show might be called the last of the vaudevilles, and it played until mid-1971.) If you remember anything of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby–or in the British wing, Stanley Holloway and Harry Secombe down through Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and even Monty Python–then you have an idea of what vaudeville was and is. “Something for the whole family” was the motto of this popular entertainment in its heyday, the first three decades of this century. It was made up of a variety of acts, primarily comedic, frequently satirical, and often included songs and dances, possibly card tricks or trained animals, and maybe some “serious culture” in the form of an aria or a poem or two.

Clinger and Fitzgerald have done their homework. Although both look to be 30 at the outside, they manage to capture the razzle-dazzle and the good-humored satire that are the hallmarks of the American vaudeville tradition. Hello, We Must Be Closing even includes the vintage 1800s “Hippopotamus’s Serenade.” Most of the show consists of original material, however, with subjects that are quite contemporary. In one number, to the tune of the song from The Wizard of Oz, Clinger sings: “If you’re acting kinda scary / Then I’d be a Dirty Harry / If I only had a gun.” There’s a song-and-dance narrative dealing with a young man who runs off to sea, another in which a literary scholar fondly recalls physical abuse received at the hands of some of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, and a parody of Frank and Malachy McCourt’s “A Couple of Blaguards,” called here “A Couple of Blowhards.” That’s followed by Randy Newman’s gentle and delicate “Would You Like to Come to Tea?” sung with nary a wisecrack or giggle by an earnest Fitzgerald.

Hello, We Must Be Closing is not without its bawdier moments, however–one sketch involves a Mr. Woodcock and his girlfriend Mona Loud, and another, a parody of Noel Coward’s songs, goes: “Is it really quite so gauche to fart in public? / Would you badger me if I should pop a zit?” The difference between this brand of humor and what is known among comedians as “working blue” is that, unlike the angry young stand-ups out to excoriate us for not being as hip as they, Clinger and Fitzgerald obviously want us to enjoy ourselves and are obviously enjoying themselves. The result, as my father said of Mae West, is good, clean adult fun–ribald without ever being repugnant, pointed without ever being poisonous, and a jolly good time all around.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce F. Brown.