Want to go see Dog and Pony again at the Globe tonight? I’m up for it. Wouldn’t mind a bit spending more time with these passionate balls of energy.
But first, some obligatory reflections.
Writers are always alert for new material, vacuuming up random words, phrases and concept, not to mention the occasional gag, as fuel for the fires of creativity. Particularly in the collaborative arts like theatre and film, there’s often a need for something right away, something that works.
Rick Elice, who made a genuine story out of the Four Seasons’ pop playlist for Jersey Boys, and songwriter Michael Patrick Walker appear to have enjoyed working together so much that they made a new musical about, well, working together on writing a show.
There’s a grand tradition in the theatre of shows about shows: A Chorus Line, The Phantom of the Opera and Kiss Me, Kate spring instantly to mind and there are plenty of others. Why not, after all, write about what one knows?
Even the title of the Elice-Walker piece is inherited from vaudeville: A hard-working show struggling to distract viewers from its slightness. Although a dog and a pony do turn here up later.
The partners in this story are screenwriters, self-confessed work-spouses who spend more time with each other than with their respective private lives. Andy is slicker, older and more married, a self-confessed narcissist who needs a lot of care. Mags is younger, much prettier, unattached and in the habit of sacrifice. Together, they eventually turn out 11 hits in 13 years and are reunited for honors at a film festival in Idaho. It’s a useful framing device for bundle of flashbacks revolving around their break-through film, American Madhouse their breakthrough film.
During most of those creative years, Andy is married to somebody else and Mags is mooning over him. Wives and mothers wonder at her devotion. She joins Andy in insisting that business is business, especially on his terms. Their first scene is dancing cheek-to cheek in the Rainbow Room early one morning. They spend a month of Wednesdays in bed together at the Algonquin Hotel. Are they more than writing partners? That’s what the festival audience wants to know and so does the Globe audience. But, the partners agree, (both the characters and the creators, presumably), that would be telling.
It’s harmless fol-de-rol more than juicy enough for an evening’s light entertainment, especially given Elice’s ear for the telling phrase, from “a shot of Vitamin Me” to “Is it hot in here or is that just you?”
All partners have been brilliantly served by director Roger Rees and a thoroughly delicious cast. Rees, remembered fondly by a whole generation of theatregoers in the title role of Nicholas Nickleby, is a resourceful director with an eye and ear as quick as the authors’ for the bits and dabs of word and gesture that can suggest a whole life with a glance or a pause.
Walter’s songs are buoyant and cheerfully evocative. All five actors get a big number, often supported by the other four, so the total seems more than the sum of the parts.
As Andy, Jon Patrick Walker (no kin of the composer, they say) is too much the cad, polished or not, to seduce the Globe audience. But Nicole Parker makes Mags unforgettable one frigid Christmas Eve as she schleps upstate in an open car transporting a loud and odorous puppy for Andy’s daughter. “What the Hell Am I Doing?” indeed.
Heidi Blickenstaff has two of those potent turns, “One Less Pony,” sung with gritted teeth and gum boots as Andy’s suburban wife, and “Bonnie Doesn’t Get It,” from the second Andy girl, a truly antic kewpie who specializes in rough but apt spoonerisms: “Generated a lot of fuzz in the industry…” “Just country pumpkins.”
“I could listen to you for hours,” sneers Andy’s mother, etched in acid by Beth Leavel, who also plays Mags’ mom. Both simultaneously, in fact, for “Problem Solved,” a definitive closure for the modern mom stereotype.
Eric William Morris, impressively able to slip from nerd to pool boy to nice guy with just an adjustment of smolder in the glance, completes the cast and gets to do a lot of flexing in his torrid solo, “Jeff’s Resume.”
Minimal sets but excellent props by Kris Stone; defining costumes by Emily Pepper (tight little-black-dress for Mags, suit vest and Levi’s for Andy); and precise area lighting by Cory Pattak and Jeff Croiter. I never did figure how where they stuffed Adam Wachter and his four musicians but wherever they were, they did fine. And, for the bows, the cast gestured to Wachter’s grinning imagine on the TV monitor as he pumped away at the bow music.
It’s a show that’s really impossible to resist, even if it is more about process than result. I am reminded, somehow, of a rare and special comic notion from the immortal Firesign Theatre in the 1960s: The title of the mural in the school auditorium was, “The Heroic Struggle of the Little Guys to Finish the Mural.”