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A CurtainUp Review
December Fools

Hating me has been your real career, hasn't it? The painting is just your hobby. A pasttime. Well, I hope all that hating has given you some pleasure, otherwise it was just wasted pain. --- Gloria Temple to the daughter who has nurtured hate and resentment all her life.

Mikel Sarah Lambert in December Fools
Mikel Sarah Lambert
(Photo: Kim T. Sharp)
One of the funnest anti-smoking messages I've heard on or off stage is delivered half-way through Sherman Yellen's world-premiering December Fools by a one scene character who also happens to steal the show. But I digress. This is not a drama about the harmfulness of tobacco and the anti-smoking comment is just one of many sprightly lines that make Mikel Sara Lambert's brief appearance the sort of show stopper common to musicals.

The play's main characters are an ailing mother and her estranged middle-aged daughter. Their struggle with the ties that bind and often divide comes with a good deal of automatic audience identification. But while universality can be a plus it also puts a playwright on notice to bring something new to the table to avoid a "no not again" reaction. For Sherman Yellen (if the name sounds familiar, his credentials include The Rothschilds) that something new is to surround his mother and daughter with the trappings of fame and fortune and to examine the special tensions they entail. And so, mother is Gloria Temple (Elizabeth Shepherd), the still beautiful and elegant widow of a legendary musical composer. Daughter is plain, middle-aged artist, Marcie Temple Sklar (Arleigh Richards), who's been living in New Mexico. As the play opens, it's December in the early 1980s and Marcie has heeded her mother's urgent request to come to her posh Sherry Netherlands Hotel apartment on Fifth Avenue.

Yellen's fictional legend is intended to bring to mind such real counterparts as Moss Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, as Gloria is meant to evoke women like Kitty Carlisle Hart and Dorothy Hammerstein. In fact, as Yellen admits in his program notes, his characters are invented but he did use the "elegant manners and style" of people like Hart and Hammerstein's widows as role models. The character of Marcie is also modeled on a real person -- a movie mogul's daughter he met in New Mexico many years ago who was similarly conflicted about freeing herself from the world in which she grew up and who struck him as "a prototype of many children of the rich and famous."

The play, forged from the playwright's first-hand acquaintance with show business celebrities from the Hart and Hammerstein era begins with Marcie's arrival at the hotel apartment, just as her mother is being interviewed by a Smithsonian curator (Eric Michael Gilett playing this as well as all male parts). This is one in a series of interviews that are part of Gloria's mission as head of the Alexander Temple Foundation to tend to her husband's legend. When the interviewer leaves and Marcie comments that Gloria shouldn't be taxing her severely diminished lung power, the older woman declares that "nobody dies from wonderful memories." She also clearly enjoys feeding the interviewer's greed, joking that she can spot "the shoplifter's glint" whenever she shows him some of Alex Temple's handwritten scores, private letters and other memorabilia.

That first meeting between mother and daughter is cordial enough and the very fact that Marcie has responded to her mother's urgent request to come to New York points to a genuine concern about her mother's deteriorating health (she needs oxygen at her side, and a wheelchair for visits to her physician). Since Gloria has a devoted and capable nurse companion in Mrs. Hogan (Celia Howard), what she wants from Marcie is not hands-on physical care but a commitment to take over the Temple Foundation.

The play's time frame and the arc that goes back many more years are likely to make the allusions to various stage and screen personalities most meaningful to the older audience that dominated the Sunday matinee I attended. Elizabeth Shepherd and Arleigh Richards are the key characters, but not the only ones. Their interchanges are interspersed with scenes involving the people conjured up by the revelations of family secrets and lies: the death of a family member, the betrayal of Marcie by her adopted sister Vivian (Carole Monferdini and of Gloria by her oldest friend Mildred (the already mentioned Ms. Lambert) -- as well as Gloria's long ago sessions with a therapist, and more recent session with the doctor (the multiple role playing Mr.Gillett) treating her diseased lungs.

The dramatic device for calling up the past is to have Marcie discover a bundle of her mother's unsent letters. As Marcie reads the letters, the events to which they refer are recreated. And what Marcie does with those letters results in some unanticipated messages, phone calls and, in the second act, the already mentioned show-stopping visit by Mikel Sarah Lambert as Gloria's oldest friend Mildred. Marcie's mischief (yes, what she does is designed to make trouble) even manages to infuriate the loyal Mrs. Hogan.

Despite Mr. Yellen's crisp dialogue the play can't shed an old-fashioned B-movie aura. The characters somehow seem cobbled together from the real and more interesting people that inspired their creation. With Gloria a dabbler and not an actress, Elizabeth Shepherd seems too actressy. Arleigh Richards doesn't give enough colors to Marcie.

The problem of good dialogue failing to make the story catch fire is borne out by the energy that permeates the stage and the audience the minute the flamboyant and outspoken Mildred arrives at the top of the second act. Smartly outfitted in a flaming red suit by Susan Scherer, Mildred is undaunted when faced with having her dalliance with Gloria's husband exposed. What's more, she proudly claims to be ahead of her time, that her being what once was called an "easy girl" was not just a plain girl's way of making herself popular but because, unlike the more ladylike Gloria, she liked sex.

Mildred's hilarious confrontation with her old friend ends with that priceless warning against the evils of tobacco I mentioned in my opening:

"I was avant-garde. A little ahead of my time. . . I liked the good feelings of sex. So I fucked while you stayed pure and smoked your gold tipped Dunhills. And I was a scandal and you were the Lady Gloria. Only I still get around by myself {ed. note: though she too has her infirmities as evidenced by a cane and a broken wrist} while you lie there hooked up to hideous plastic tubes, struggling for every breath through that nasal thingaamajig. Proves that fucking beats smoking any day of the week."

No wonder the audience applauds when Mildred exits. Too bad that this entertaining scene also underscores the shortcomings of what precedes and follows it.

Director Donald Brenner does his best to pace the forward and backward scenes. The production values are quite nice, perhaps not on a par with what a company like the Roundabout would do with this setting, but they evoke the feeling of elegance even without a lot of details. A series of photo projections setting the scene for the Temple family saga is a nice opening touch.

The press release about the show made quite a fuss about the fact that late Wally Harper, who was Barbara Cook's accompanyist, wrote the original background music for December Fools. I can't say that this adds anything more than incidental music is apt to do. It certainly doesn't evoke the era of the big showy musicals with which Alex Temple would have worked on.

Will the unpacking of all the secrets and grudges release Marcie from the long shadow growing up the plain Jane in a glamorous family cast over her life? With Gloria so gravely ill, both mother and daughter would indeed be fools not to use this last December together to reach a truce or "a hiatus between storms."
Playwright: Sherman Yellen
Directed by Donald Brenner
Cast: Eric Michael Gillett, Celia Howard, Mikel Sarah Lambert, Carol Monferdini, Arleigh Richards and Elizabeth Shepherd
Set Design: James F. Wolk
Costume Design: Susan Scherer
Lighting Design: Matthew McCarthy
Original Music : Wally Harper, arranged by William Cox
Running time: 2 hours plus 10 minute intermission
June Havoc Theatre at Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, 312 West 36th Street,(8/9 Avenues)SmartTix 212-868-4444
From 1/29/06 to 2/26/09; opening 2/01/06.
Tues to Sat at 7:30pm, Sat at 2pm and Sun at 3pm
Tickets: $35

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on January 29th press performance
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