Shubert Theatre

For predictable, contrived mush with hardly a musical phrase worth remembering or a gag that rises above the average sitcom, The Goodbye Girl isn’t half bad. Of course it’s nowhere near the standards its authors have set elsewhere: there’s not a song in Marvin Hamlisch’s score that comes close to the freshness and intelligence of A Chorus Line, nor is there one moment in Neil Simon’s script remotely as believable or touching as the ones that fill Lost in Yonkers or Broadway Bound. It’s a good 20 minutes too long, though that will change as the show shakes down–in front of a paying audience during its Chicago tryout. And the essential intimacy of the story means director Gene Saks and choreographer Graciela Daniele have been forced to cook up a series of uninspired, hyperactive production numbers to make the show seem big enough to justify the $55 ticket price.

On the brighter side, The Goodbye Girl is a big improvement over the 1977 movie it’s based on; it offers Chicago audiences a rare chance to see Bernadette Peters, who has a hell of a voice even though she seems to be walking her way through the show; and it features a genuinely graceful performance by Martin Short, who both capitalizes on and transcends his TV and movie mannerisms while drawing on his musical-comedy roots. Whatever warmth, feeling, and spontaneity The Goodbye Girl has come almost solely from his performance, which recalls such past masters of the form as Eddie Cantor and Danny Kaye.

The Goodbye Girl has the potential to be much more than it is. Its subject matter–single motherhood and the development of nontraditional family structures–seems timelier than ever. But instead of trying to break new ground, Simon’s stage script hews pretty closely to his screenplay until the end. Paula (Peters) is a semiretired dancer who’s just been abandoned by her actor boyfriend; not only has the louse dumped her and her ten-year-old daughter, Lucy (the likable but bland Tammy Minoff), he’s sublet the apartment they shared to another actor, Elliot (Short). Trying to make the best of a bad situation Elliot and Paula decide to become roommates, and soon enough their bickering relationship turns romantic–after all, she’s a woman, he’s a man, and there are seats to be sold.

The couple’s coupling is postponed by a few complications: Elliot’s New York debut, a disastrous off-Broadway production of Richard III in which he must play the evil king as a flaming queen; a street-corner mugging that leaves Paula penniless; Paula’s struggle to whip herself back into shape as a dancer; and Lucy’s hostility to Elliot and Paula’s relationship (the girl likes Elliot, but her mom’s past experiences make her suspicious of him).

These problems are resolved without much trouble–or credibility. Allegedly set in Manhattan, The Goodbye Girl’s real location is Fantasyland, where conflicts fade at the snap of a playwright’s fingers. (Emphasizing the make-believe quality is Santo Loquasto’s set, a whimsical, cartoonish doll’s house of an apartment framed by a string of pretty pastel rectangles to suggest high-rise windows.) It only takes a quick boat ride for Elliot to win Lucy’s support (with the one decent song in the show, the anthemic “I Can Play This Part,” in which Elliot psychs himself up to be a stepdad); Paula easily makes the jump from has-been dancer to overnight TV star on a Richard Simmons-type exercise show; and though Elliot receives terrible reviews for playing Richard III as a hunchbacked homo (giving Simon an excuse to trot out a seemingly endless string of faggot jokes), he soon lands a job in an improv troupe. After all, he is from Chicago–where he claims to have had a three-month run as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Drury Lane Theatre. Fat chance.

Meanwhile, though Paula and Elliot often refer to their straitened circumstances, they live pretty damn well for struggling performers. The maintenance of Paula’s hair alone–a towering, stylishly messy mass of red braids and cornrows–would be a week’s rent to most actors, and that’s not to mention the brightly colored, beautifully tailored outfits Loquasto has designed for little Lucy.

As Paula, Peters responds to all this unreality with an attitude of scrunchy-faced skepticism, a perpetually quizzical air that allows her to bridge the script’s lapses of logic with aplomb. It makes for a far more appealing Paula than Marsha Mason’s earnest but bitter performance in the film, and Peters is abetted by the script’s one major rewrite, which transforms Paula from dependent nester to independent seeker of self-esteem. This Girl is a woman.

Short meanwhile makes every scene he’s in lively, if not lifelike. Short is a consummate charmer, far less abrasive than Richard Dreyfuss in the movie. His rooftop wooing of Paula with an “improvised” love song really feels like he’s making it up as he goes along. (David Zippel’s lyrics for this number are notably cleverer than the rest–maybe Short is making it up as he goes along.)

Among the supporting cast, the standout is Carol Woods as Paula’s landlady, Mrs. Crosby. Unfortunately she’s a standout in more ways than one: she’s not only a gifted singer but the show’s token black–another case of a talented African American being relegated to the background of a nearly all-white show, hauled out for a hearty joke here and a soul song there to give the show just a hint of hipness. (Her solo, a reprise of a number called “Too Good to Be Bad,” is called “2 Good 2 B Bad” when Woods sings it.)

Perhaps Woods’s role will be beefed up from novelty act to real character by the time the show hits Broadway. For now, she epitomizes the strong performing and weak material that jointly characterize The Goodbye Girl–a disappointingly unimaginative effort by artists who should know, and have done, much better than this.

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