Badlands Theatre Company

Though we usually think of the 1950s as an era of placid innocence, that image was born mostly of desperation. Coming on the heels of the squalor of the Depression and the adrenaline frenzy of World War II, the giddy euphoria of the 50s was a stubborn attempt to deny the fear that all this seeming happiness was too good to be true. Which it was. Woven through the postwar homecoming was the cold-war specter of the Bomb, the end to all tomorrows. Many of us recall childhoods marred by air-raid drills and composition exercises in which we were to decide who we would eject from the fallout shelter to suffer a horrible and lingering death.

Out of this anxiety-riddled determination to pretend that all was right with the world–our world, anyway–came a brand of humor that defied the complacent party line and sought to expose it for the hypocrisy it was. Slyly hinting at the emperor’s nakedness and jeering those who refused to acknowledge it, Lenny Bruce established the identity of the humorist as hip prophet that continues to this day. Jules Feiffer’s talky intellectual cartoons are more compassionate in their ridicule, but they too expose the absurdity of a populace smothering in peace and prosperity while wondering why it is scared and unhappy. Feiffer is still at work, but his descriptions of grace under tension have a distinctly 50s point of view. Whatever his subject and whenever his deadline, his world has remained populated by the disenfranchised faces in the crowd who strive for conformity but are nagged by doubts that are only intensified by the efforts of the powerful to ease them.

All of which made Hold Me, a comedy revue based on Feiffer’s creations, rather quaint in 1977 when it opened in New York at the Subplot Cafe space at the American Place Theatre as part of its series featuring American humorists. Feiffer’s button-down, whisky-swilling organization men and zipped-up, pill-popping housebound women seemed unnecessarily repressed and self-conscious to a generation that had thrown open the doors of skeleton-crammed closets a decade earlier. A husband and wife who attribute the stability of their marriage to mutual indifference were a flagrant example of the status-quo-at-all-costs mentality that led to Watergate. A Little League player who engages his father in a lengthy staring contest was a gross illustration of oedipal conflicts. And the husband who accuses his wife of making trouble when she refuses to be anyone but herself was a distasteful reminder of the days before women’s liberation. To audiences of the 70s these characters were grotesque memories, pathetic but vaguely obscene pictures of all that they had rebelled against.

This in no way means that Feiffer cannot be played today. Hold Me, after all, was conceived as a retrospective–a cross section of the artist’s work, an overview. Played in strict period dress that provides a comfortable distance, it could allow us to safely note how some things change while others remain the same. Unfortunately, the newly formed Badlands Theatre Company–none of whose members looks to be old enough to have been a doodle in their mother’s algebra notebook in the 50s–has opted to separate the artist from his time–and transpose his familiar characters and topical satire to the nebulous universe of the bare stage and acting-workshop attire. While the attitudes and neuroses of the 50s may still be present in our culture (in less enlightened circles, anyway), they have become not only outdated but also recognized as such even by those who hold them. (The person who tells a racist joke in 1991 knows it’s a racist joke and will be neither surprised, hurt, nor at a loss for an answer when challenged to explain his motives.) As a consequence, Feiffer’s period archetypes are acceptable only in the context of their time. Played in the context of 1991, they become incomprehensible anachronisms no longer deserving of sympathy or understanding.

The five young actors who make up the cast of Hold Me have obviously done all their acting exercises, and they zip through the script’s 72 short monologues, skits, and blackouts with abundant charm and unflagging energy. But they fail to communicate any of the angst that is an integral part of Feiffer’s satire. The exception is Jim O’Heir, who manages to bring a trace of humanity and personality to his various portraits. By far the most experienced of the five performers (the advantage to being a big, fat young actor is that one gets many opportunities to play character roles), he alone has the self-confidence to take his time in delivery and allow us to see the wheels turning in his characters’ heads (listen to the changes in his voice during the “Pulitzer Prize” monologue–this man knows exactly what he’s doing). The others frequently gallop through their speeches so swiftly that not only do we not catch the joke, but we must also question whether the performer understands it. Courtney Lewis/Oliver is almost unrecognizable as that most familiar of Feiffer’s characters, the interpretive dancer, here clad in baggy sweat clothes instead of the trademark leotard that served to accentuate the frustrated aesthete’s vulnerability. Elizabeth Steele, while funny enough in a Teri Garr sort of way, too often falls back on a sitcom-mommy, bland-blond shtick. Jack Sullivan is cute and cuddly enough to have stuffed toys made in his likeness but impossible to accept as an adult character, and Sandy Spatz seems to be there only to bridge the gaps between the others’ appearances. The overall result is a show that looks as if it had been based less on the work of Jules Feiffer than that of Charles Schulz.

A cartoon of Feiffer’s not included in the show has a couple recalling the circumstances of their first meeting: the man compares it to a scene in a movie featuring Peter Lawford and June Allyson–two popular actors of the 50s. When his date compares their meeting to a movie starring Melvyn Douglas and Constance Bennett, he asks suspiciously, “Say, how old are you anyway?” I suppose there’s no crime in actors being unable to remember the 50s, any more than there is in my having clear recollections of them. Hold Me was just an ill-judged choice for this enthusiastic company’s debut production.