Elvis and Juliet
nytheatre.com review by Matt Schicker
June 7, 2006
If the notion that a Yale college student is embarrassed by his Elvis-impersonating father sends you into fits of laughter, than Elvis and Juliet is the show for you. If not… you might rather be somewhere else.
The play isn't deep and, luckily, doesn't pretend to be. So while the Abingdon's production and the play itself aren't polished, it hardly matters when the material is so unashamedly silly; a slick production couldn't possibly add a thing to this very lightweight evening.
The play centers on the clash of the extremely different families of two college kids in love. Juliet Jones's New Haven family is brainy and cultured. An evening's fun at home consists of pater, mater, and progeny in a battle of wits involving Latin phrases and quotes by Tennyson and Tennessee Williams. Elvis Lesley's family, on the other hand, is tacky, crass, loud, and they wear a lot of be-sequined spandex.
In the opening scene, Elvis is wary of bringing Juliet to the Lesley family home in Las Vegas. He has good reason! The Lesley living room features blue suede furniture and a large portrait of '50s rocker Elvis Presley. Elvis Lesley (Lesley-Presley, get it?), who aspires to be an economist, is the black sheep of a family of Elvis-worshipers. Dad is an impersonator of "The King" so famous he apparently can book a gig at Las Vegas' Desert Inn. Mom spends a lot of time dusting framed gold records of "Hound Dog" and "Suspicious Minds" hanging on the walls.
When Elvis and Juliet become engaged, the families meet, and, à la the Capulets and Montagues, the feud begins. In the end, though, love trumps pride and stubbornness, and everyone gets what they want.
Playwright Mary Willard's husband, comic actor Fred Willard, plays Art Lesley, the patriarch of the Elvis-loving clan. Based on his daffy, jolly performances in films like Waiting for Guffman and Best In Show, I expected him to appear to be having a better time than it seemed the night I saw the show. Instead he seemed a little at sea, spending a lot of time sitting on a central couch looking down, although his second act entrance was very funny. The sight of Willard in full Elvis regalia is hilarious, but it's funny because he looks awkward. This is problematic because we don't believe that this supposedly successful Elvis impersonator could actually impersonate Elvis. Aside from a few very brief instances where Willard mumbles a line or two of a song, we never hear his impersonation, and it seems unlikely that he can dance well. So much is made of his vocation, and what plot there is hinges on his performance engagement at the Desert Inn, it seems odd that we aren't given any indication of his talent as an impersonator.
As the two mothers, Pamela Paul as Becky Lesley and Carole Monferdini as Nancy Clancy Jones appropriately contrast each other, and Monferdini especially adds a bit of dignity to the proceedings. As the Jones family patriarch, Warren Kelley makes his character, a professor-like super-bookworm, believable by fully investing in the ridiculous situations, and Justin Schultz is charismatic as Roberto, the Jones son who performs a wacky rap version of Poe's "The Raven," which is a highlight of the evening.
Haskell King injects as much human reality as possible into the mousy Elvis Lesley, but as a result, he gets a little lost amongst the broad characterizations surrounding him. As Juliet Jones, Elvis's Rhodes scholar fiancée, Lori Gardner is appropriately serious, almost to the point of coming off humorless and a bit unlikable. Christy McIntosh hams it up as the directionless, wildly trashy Lesley daughter Lisa Marie.
The really winning performances in Elvis and Juliet are by 10-year-old Bridget Clark as Clancy Jones and David Rasche as Joey Francis Lesley. Clark charms as a precocious pigtailed brainiac who quotes Monty Python. She's very fun to watch, and with such great comic skills at such a young age, it will be fun to watch her in future roles. David Rasche, however, steals the entire show as Art Lesley's brother who is so immersed in the world of the "Rat Pack" that he has adopted all the mannerisms and "ring-a-ding-ding" catchphrases of Dean Martin. Rasche nails every opportunity to get a laugh while fully realizing Uncle Joey's sage-like position as the sole voice of reason in the Lesley family. Rasche's expert timing and physical comedy made the evening for me.
Ray Recht's simple set emphasizes the fact that the Joneses and the Lesleys essentially are the same, just switch out the objects of their obsession. The costumes, by Ingrid Maurer, emphasize the familiar types, and add to the comedy, especially in the case of the skin-tight get-ups for the Lesley mother and daughter. David Castaneda's lighting design includes some ultra-tacky light shows on the grand drape which unfortunately wear out their welcome pretty quickly.
As for the play itself, which is built on clichés, it's essentially an overblown Saturday Night Live sketch. We recognize the stereotypes and the Romeo and Juliet plot immediately, and it becomes very predictable that the wacky families will meet and battle for their respective values. It's hard to make this interesting for two hours, but director Yvonne Conybeare does an admirable job of taking this flimsy script seriously by surrendering to its silliness. There are sections where the energy and forward motion lag, but that's because the premise has been stretched beyond a sustainable length.
So I say again, if the very thought of an Elvis impersonator with a kid in college makes you snort with comic glee, then get yourself to Elvis and Juliet.