Monday, May 22, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: A Moon for the Misbegotten

I rented June Moon for one reason. Thank heavens it turned out to be the right one. Because anything else would have been wrong wrong wrong.

Something called the Broadway Theater Archive has been putting out DVDs of old plays that were videotaped sometime in the 1960s and 70s. If you've ever seen old videotapes from the early 1970s, you know that we're not talking about the height of video production technique. Lighting is poor, editing is awkward, sound is muddy. Think of soap operas, only without the commitment to quality.

Compounding the matter is that we're talking about entire plays, pieces that are intended for a stage, with the inherent thrills of a live audience and the potential for utter disaster looming at every turn. And we're transferring this experience to a TV soundstage, with no audience and only the best production values of public television at our disposal. In short, that dog don't hunt.

Part of the real value of the series is seeing young actors before they really hit it big, performing in plays that provide maybe a glimmer of their potential talent. Here's Dustin Hoffman playing opposite future Facts of Life legend Charlotte Rae in Journey of the Fifth Horse. There's the Beastmaster himself, Marc Singer, essaying Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. And if you ever longed to see Andy Griffith acting alongside John Houseman, then this version of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author represents your best chance. And stars galore: Meryl Streep, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, George Takei...they're all here. And there's lots more where that came from.

Susan Sarandon is the big name in June Moon, batting a pair of gigantic eyelashes as a shrewish gold-digger in this 1920s comedy about a naive songwriter who comes to New York to make his name. People who like to browse the IMDb might also recognize Jack Cassidy (father of David and Shaun), Estelle Parsons, or Hall of Fame That Guy Kevin McCarthy. It's an impressive cast. And they are in service of an atrocious script.

The play does not loom large in the legends of the two acclaimed writers who churned it out, Ring Lardner & George S. Kaufman. With a tedious romantic plot about to simple-minded kids being pushed around by the big city, a couple of additional relationships that aren't explored and aren't especially interesting, and several mediocre songs to stop the action, June Moon is the very definition of a hoary chestnut. It plods along, resting heavily on the performance of Tom Fitzsimmons as the songwriter. Fitzsimmons goes way beyond being merely inexperienced, and pushes the character well into the realm of stupid, and possibly even mentally challenged.

As far as I can tell, the only reason to revive June Moon is because of the pedigree of the authors. There are some decent lines, especially the zingers thrown out by a professional piano player named Maxie. But the story is awkwardly developed, with a boring prologue that introduces our main couple without benefit of chemistry, followed by a first act that doesn't seem to have anything to do with the prologue for at least 15 minutes. A streamlined version of the play might run half-an-hour, meaning the Lardner & Kaufman lack the dramatic skill to be found in any given episode of Two and a Half Men. Clearly, they had nowhere to go but up. June Moon is 90 minutes that drag on for an eternity.

So why did I watch this? Because I am overzealous when pursuing my interests. You see, in the role of Maxie, director Burt Shevelove cast someone he had worked with before. One of his collaborators, a fellow with who he co-wrote the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and a version of Aristophanes' The Frogs. Yes, the musical theater aficionados among you will have figured out that June Moon stars none other than Stephen Sondheim, the legendary composer, lyricist, and puzzle maker who occupies a privileged space in Shane's Pantheon of Greats. (Other enshrinees include Jim Henson, Roberto Clemente, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Dinner at the Pantheon is interesting, to say the least.) You might see Sondheim's role listed as a cameo. Don't believe it. Maxie is a huge part, and ends up machinating the reunion of our two heroes. He's essentially the only sane character in the play, which is why he gets all the good lines.

As an actor, Sondheim is an outstanding composer. But in a way, his understated, uncertain performance makes a nice counterpoint to the tremendous overacting of his co-stars. In particular, a long scene where he is forced into conversation with the dim Fitzsimmons is quite entertaining, and hints at the kind of writing for which Kaufman would later earn acclaim. Sondheim isn't good enough to redeem June Moon which is a wreck. But he certainly validated my rental. In particular, one line of dialogue made the whole endeavor worthwhile. When an announcement is made that George Gershwin is in the next room, most of the cast rushes out to catch a glimpse. Maxie, however, ambles across the stage, disinterested. A character asks if he isn't going to go see Gershwin himself. Maxie replies, "He can come to me."

Knowing the chaos he was wreaking on Broadway musicals, you can honestly believe that Sondheim means it.