After the Night and the Music
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 2, 2005
Manhattan Theatre Club's press release for Elaine May's new show After the Night and the Music says that it's about "life in the new millennium." This claim might have been accurate a thousand years ago or so, but I'm afraid it amounts to false advertising for a program of short plays trading in such cutting-edge topics as wife-swapping and middle-aged divorced women overeating while waiting for a man to call them. May, once thought to be a pretty bright star in some quarters, has managed here to create a script even more humorless and uninteresting than her previous Broadway outing, the catastrophic Taller Than a Dwarf; she's also somehow figured out a way to be more offensive than she was in her 2002 porn star comedy Adult Entertainment, inserting homophobic and misogynistic (!) jokes gratuitously throughout the evening. I for one will not be racing to her next play, should there be one.
The evening starts with a curtain-raiser called, wittily, "Curtain Raiser." In it, Eddie Korbich—the only actor who survives the evening with dignity intact—plays a former chorus boy and dance teacher who longs to dance with someone tonight here at the "dance hall." Alas, he's a very homely guy and no woman will go near him (and he remarks that if he were gay, the situation would be worse, because men are even pickier—ha ha!). J. Smith-Cameron, badly miscast as the presumably/stereotypically butch half of a lesbian couple (e.g., she's wearing a pants suit and sits with her legs spread apart), is the only person in sight, so Korbich's character, Keith, asks her to dance. She refuses; then demurs, saying she only knows how to lead; then finally agrees. What follows is a lovely display of virtuosic following AND leading by Korbich, who, as a teacher, is comfortable taking either role. He executes the steps gracefully and with great showmanship and earns the only heartfelt hand of the evening when he's done. If May had intended some kind of lesson here, however—say, about not judging people by their appearance or not pegging them into categories based on their sexual orientation or other predilections—she undermines it by indulging in precisely these behaviors throughout this very short little play.
And she's just winding up: The second piece, "Giving Up Smoking," is a four-person mostly-monologue play featuring a middle-aged harpy named Joanne who divorced her husband and now waits foolishly by her phone for a man she hardly knows to call her and ask her out, all the while indulging in a variety of progressively dangerous addictive behaviors and prattling on to herself like a madwoman. She's played by Jeannie Berlin, May's daughter, a very talented comic actress who gets the rhythms exactly right but still can't wring any laughs out of the material because the character is such a zero. Brian Kerwin plays Mel, the man Joanne is hoping will call her; he's also recently divorced and just as self-centered and deluded as Berlin's character. May has actually supplied Mel with a characteristic that makes him vaguely human: he misses his children. Otherwise, he's no one to root for, either.
Jere Burns plays a very over-the-hill-looking gay man named Sherman, who is Joanne's best friend. He, rather improbably, is waiting for a "stud" named Gavin to call him (why Gavin would want to is never explained; and p.s., he never does). So Sherman, after having a hissy fit because Joanne won't talk to him on the phone when he calls her every five minutes, does what any self-respecting middle-aged gay man would do, i.e., he makes a big bowl of popcorn and sits down to watch a DVD of The Wizard of Oz. When last seen, he's weeping openly over Dorothy's imminent departure with the Wizard in the balloon.
The fourth character, played by Smith-Cameron, is Sherman's mother, a little old lady who lives alone in Florida where she is having experimental treatments for cancer of the everything. May, wishing to make a point about serenity or something, has of course characterized this woman as the only truly content, peaceful person in the play—as if we were going to start emulating the behavior of losers like Joanne, Mel, and Sherman. "Giving Up Smoking," which does contain the occasional funny line, is finally pretty much a waste of time.
But after intermission, things really fall apart. "Swing Time" features Burns and Smith-Cameron as Darryl and Mitzi, a middle-aged couple who have inexplicably agreed to have sex with their best friends Ron and Gail (Kerwin and Berlin). Things progress as far as having these four actors, all of whom have done respectable work elsewhere, strip down to their underwear (happily, they are silhouetted in dim light by this time), and pretend to grope and make out with one another. May's obsessions (see Adult Entertainment) have apparently gotten the better of her. Coitus is interrupted by a phone call that sets off a ridiculous argument that, thankfully, ends this foolish play.
When I Love My Wife came out in 1977, critics carped that "swinging" was already out-of-date; what are May and MTC thinking?
The show curtain, which I guess should be credited to set designer John Lee Beatty, depicts an elegant Manhattan skyline at night. It's the only glimmer of sophistication in an evening of theatre that may well represent a new low for the Broadway stage.