nytheatre.com review by George Hunka
November 4, 2005
The first thing that strikes you as you enter the Medicine Show Theater Ensemble’s space for their production of the Arnold Weinstein-John Gruen musical Undercover Lover is the set: apparently an apartment. The double-doors to the bathroom (really? The bathroom?) don’t quite match, one doorknob is different from the other; one of the twin beds seems a normal length, the other extends only three feet or so; and the whole is set miles upstage. Something is off. But something is off about the whole production.
It’s an odd bird, this Undercover Lover. Written by East Village regulars Arnold Weinstein (book and lyrics) and John Gruen (music) in 1959-1961, the show was their shot at that traditional Broadway genre, the musical comedy. Weinstein and Gruen ran with a crowd—Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler are the names of three downtown poets mentioned in the program of the show—not usually associated with the Broadway theatre. Also in the program for the show, poet Frank O’Hara is said to have “collaborated” on the lyrics, and American art song composer William Bolcom is credited with the original arrangements (like O’Hara’s credit, in the same font size and type as Weinstein and Gruen).
If Weinstein and Gruen’s names won’t get people in the door, certainly O’Hara and Bolcom’s names will. And in this lies the curiosity value of the piece. Certainly, I was drawn to the show by the participation of O’Hara and Bolcom in its composition, and I was anxious to see what they would have brought to a Broadway musical. The unfortunate answer: Not much. Undercover Lover might have been worthy of a concert staging over one or two nights, just as a sop to that curiosity. Medicine Show might even have done better to offer just such a concert staging as a fundraiser. But a full-blown production? This is putting the cart before the horse, or at the very least the money before the value.
For all these names associated with the avant-garde movement, the show is curiously of its time, maybe even a little behind it. The story (which I’ll get to in a minute) is reminiscent of nothing so much as the old Rock Hudson-Doris Day marital comedies, maybe run through Billy Wilder’s typewriter around the time of The Apartment, except without the wit and panache. The first few scenes, set in a married couple’s apartment and the apartment of the husband’s mistress, flirt with explaining the boredom of the marriage and the frustration of the mistress without really showing it, and the jokes never really surprise. The titles of the songs—“I’ll Never Be the Same Until You’re Different,” “Her or Me,” “I’m Going to Leave You”—indicate the general unambitious level of the lyrics (sorry, O’Hara fans, but there’s nothing for you to see here), and the music is generally tuneless and about as memorable.
Unfortunately the production values don’t help the show along. The set is a fairly shabby affair, pieces like chairs and sofas skipping unpredictably across the stage (poor Beth Griffith, as the wife, nearly took a header off one chair during the performance I saw), and includes a most unconvincing fold-out chair-bed that looks put together from old fruit crates. This, and the uninspired lighting design that floods the stage, similarly unpredictably, serve to detract from the book, lyrics, and music.
The brave cast—the aforementioned Beth Griffith and Sarah Engelke as the mistress are stand-outs, and I’d love to see more of them—struggles mightily to find some fun in the proceedings, but they’re crippled by Weinstein and Gruen’s tedious book and score, as well as a story in which they can’t seem to find any dramatic purchase.
Oh yes, that story: Leslie and Hy Halifax are celebrating (if that’s the word) the fifth anniversary of a loveless, sexless marriage; for all of her seductive charms, she can’t draw Hy away from his darts game. Fleeing the apartment, Hy visits his mistress Myra, who presents him with an ultimatum: leave Leslie for her, or the whole affair is off. Hy returns to his apartment to find that his old shipmate buddy Boats (Boats?) has dropped into town for a visit. But Boats has other reasons to be in town: now a pacifist, he’s going to lead a protest at an air raid drill downtown the next day. (Maybe people did protest air-raid drills in the early 1960s. But I don’t believe it.) Enchanted by his political activism, Leslie falls head-over-heels for Boats (something else I didn’t believe), granting Hy his request for a divorce. The next day the protest, in front of City Hall, occurs at the same time as Hy’s visit to the divorce court to file papers; Boats is at the protest, and Leslie has joined him, but Boats spurns Leslie’s advances, leaving her alone and bereft. Hy, having had second thoughts, does not file for the divorce. Myra, awaiting Hy, receives a telegram from him explaining that he couldn’t go through with the separation.
And that’s Act I, nearly an hour-and-a-half long: at the end, for all that apparent movement, the characters are no further along than at the beginning, and neither are we. I looked at the program, figured that there was another hour to go at the very least, and decided that, if true love did triumph, it would have to do so without me. I left at intermission.