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|A CurtainUp Review
The Beauty Part
S.J. Perelman is hardly a household word these days. Yet there remains a coterie of Perelmaniacs who treasure his curmudgeonly wit and wisdom which was published for many years in the New Yorker and collected into numerous humor anthologies.
His big hit as a playwright was a 1943 collaboration with Ogden Nash (Perelman wrote the book; Nash the lyrics) for One Touch of Venus. It helped make Mary Martin a stage and screen star. His other less well known Broadway plays were collaborations with his wife Laura. The Beauty Part, his first solo venture, arrived on Broadway in 1962 along with an 11-week long newspaper strike that buried favorable reviews of the comedy's zany skewering of New York society, Bohemian life and Hollywood. Two heavy snowstorms after the strike was settled put the final nail into the show's coffin.
Now the Pecadillo Theater Company, which is dedicated to dusting the mothballs off forgotten plays, has resuscitated Perelman's short-lived comedy at it's new home in the far West Village. I'm afraid, even without strike or storms, this second coming doesn't have the legs to extend beyond its limited run. While the Perelman wit still resonates, the play is overwhelmed by devices that don't work very well.
Director Dan Wackerman has stuck to the Candide-like story of young Lance Weatherwax (Jeff Patterson) who falls in love with "BoHo" girl April Monkhood (Nicole Ravenna) and sets out on an odyssey that will lead to wedding bells and a life of creative self-fullment. Patterson as the innocent abroad and Ravenna as the decidedly un-monklike and pragmatic April are the only members of the cast who play single roles. The other eleven actors play from two to five parts, with Dale Carman gamely and ably even taking on the role of a regal lady editor (her crown being the hat that was de rigueur for 50s fashion and opinion makers). After scenes in his parents' Park Avenue triplex and April's Greenwich Village apartment, Lance sails forth to try his creative fortunes -- in the New York Magazine World, as a potential assistant to a principled artist who also proves himself seduceable by the old "bitch goddess." Act two takes our hero to Hollywood and further losses of innocence. This being a comedy, all ends well and even the audience gets its share of some of the ever popular green stuff (alas, it's bogus!).
So far so good. The multiple-role playing actually adds to the fun. That is it would if all the actors were up to the challenge of the subtlety that makes the difference between perfectly timed and nuanced farce and humor delivered so uniformly over the top that it threatens to topple, and often does.
The most intriguing new wrinkle Mr. Wackerman has introduced is the paring down of the play's many scenes to fit the small venue and the company's limited budget. The recent Off-Off-Broadway revival of J. B. Priestley's Dangerous Corners did manage to squeeze an elegant Broadway-worthy set onto an unimposing stage, but this was a single set. The Beauty Part has eleven scenes with nine different settings. The director thus can't be blamed for completely eliminating the scenic complications rather than to try to recreate an ersatz version of the original Broadway production. His bare bones alternative is to use eight dancers to act as human props by virtue of strap-on objects designed architects Mark Verzosa and Will Sharp to create these human set pieces (chairs, a bar, a table).
It's all quite ingenious and the dancers maintain their difficult poses with great virtuosity. As each scene ends, the "props" take over the stage with brief interludes of dancing to cool jazz numbers of the period; for example: Jimmy Smith's "You've Come A Long Way from St. Louis" and "G'won Train", Charles Mingus' "Boogie Stop Shuffle", and Miles Davis' "Pfrancing." Trouble is, instead of supporting the play, the dancers and the music outshine it.