Harry in Love: A Manic Vaudeville
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 2, 2008
Harry in Love is the Richard Foreman play that is not like any other Richard Foreman play. It has, for starters, a completely identifiable narrative, one that unfolds in (of all places, for a work by the master of the avant-garde) an entirely naturalistic middle-class living room. Director and Foreman aficionado-par-excellence Ian W. Hill says the piece is like a Murray Schisgal play; for me Harry in Love felt like Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue on hard drugs: the crackerjack one-liners are there along with the creeping sense that the world is cockeyed and maybe even absurd; so too are the underlying misogyny and angst that push dark comedy right onto that thin line between the very funny and the very tragic.
The story line is simple enough. Harry believes (correctly, as it turns out) that his wife Hilda is having an affair with a lawyer named Karl Wasselman. Though his own relationship with Hilda has not been especially warm of late, Harry is madly jealous and decides to prevent the affair by keeping Hilda perpetually drugged (and, essentially, imprisoned in their bedroom). Hilda's brother, Paul Toothstein, (who is almost always called "Hilda's Brother" by the other characters) tries at first to get Harry to be affectionate with Hilda and then, as the situation escalates, simply to look out for her best interests, whatever they may be. The lawyer, a doctor, and a total stranger (whose reason for arriving in the apartment is certainly the play's grandest surprise) all eventually become embroiled in the conflict between Hilda and Harry.
The style of the thing is supposed to be raucously fast and furious and hilarious (as a Schisgal or Simon urban comedy of manners would unfold), but Foreman's singular approach to the material and the genre adds a layer of Beckettian inertia that plays savagely with our assumptions about this kind of show (and, by extension, about the kind of lifestyle such a show holds a mirror up against). The men swarming around Hilda are full of wind but find, over and over again, that they cannot do anything. Under Hill's well-thought-out direction, the piece becomes an explosion of talk at the expense of action or even intention—an extended metaphor for society's ills (and, cannily, for society's ills today, not 40 years ago, when the play was written).
It also evolves, as its point of view comes into focus, from a hilarious stylized comedy (as when Hill, as Harry, makes his first appearance in exaggerated fashion) to something almost resolutely anti-funny, in the final scenes when Josephine Cashman's unexpectedly strong-minded Hilda comes into her own. She and we are a little horrified at what's been playing out around her (and supposedly on her behalf).
In addition to Cashman and Hill, the cast includes Tom Reid as Dr. Meyers, Ken Simon as Wasselman, Walter Brandes as Hilda's Brother, and Darius Stone as the stranger, Max Gelb. All are quite wonderful, balancing the dexterous wordplay that pervades every moment of the piece (it's a Foreman play!) and the rapid-fire (and often dangerous-seeming) physicality that characterizes Hill's realization of the play (the slapstick is just another manifestation of the comedy/tragedy dichotomy that Harry in Love constantly treads). I particularly enjoyed Stone's early moments when his character is at cross-purposes with everyone else (but he doesn't know it). And Brandes, as poor, hapless Paul, almost becomes the moral center of the piece, our guide into a world where everything is not just out of control but beyond our capability of ever bringing into control. The emptiness of what we can do—i.e., talk—is never clearer than when Paul makes a phone call to Wasselman for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
Harry in Love is a comedy that brings us up short and, though we laugh at it, we understand that nothing funny is going on in it. In that regard, it's finally a little tough to watch. But in terms of skill and command, Hill and his company are in peak form here. I'm not sure that you'll ever see a Foreman play so successfully and accessibly mounted outside the Ontological Theatre.