American Century Theater Come Blow Your HornBy Bob Ashby • Sep 19th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
American Century Theater: (Info) (Web)
Gunston Arts Center, Arlington, VA
Through October 12th
2:05, with two intermissions
$35-$40/$32-$37 Seniors, Students, Military
Reviewed September 14th, 2013
There are sound historical reasons to mount a production of Come Blow Your Horn. Opening on Broadway in 1961, it was the first play in the lengthy, prolific, and extraordinarily successful career of Neil Simon. It contains seeds of Simon’s approach to comedy that sprouted more fully as his career developed: semi-autobiographical elements, family conflicts, recognizable but foible-ridden characters with whom audiences are invited to empathize, witty dialogue, and well-crafted set-piece sketches within the play. And it fits squarely within the chosen, and very valuable, niche of The American Century Theater (TACT), the presentation of 20th Century American plays that are now infrequently produced.
The harder question is whether, historical interest aside, there is a strong theatrical case to be made for Come Blow Your Horn. Based on the current TACT production, the verdict is mixed. Comic energy abounds. The funny set-pieces are there, notably the futile search by the Mrs. Baker (Allison Turkel) for a pencil as one phone call after another comes in for her older son, Alan (Elliot Kashner); and the mini-template for The Odd Couple between Alan and his younger brother Buddy (Alex Alferov) in Act 3. So are the witty lines, like the brothers’ wax fruit manufacturer father (Mick Tinder) responding to Buddy’s interest in being a TV writer by declaring “Television you turn off. Wax fruit lays in a bowl till you’re a hundred.”
The difficulty arrives with the writing and portrayal of the main characters. Through the first two acts, Alan is charming, handsome, and as shallow a commitment-phobic cad as one can imagine. (Alan might be thought of as a spiritual cousin to the more interesting and complex Bobby in Company, which opened nine years after Come Blow Your Horn. Simon and Sondheim may have been observing some of the same cultural phenomena.) This character type feels dated: the ability to lie cleverly and manipulate foolish girls just isn’t as cute and amusing now as it might have seemed in the 60s. Then, with little in the way of preparatory character development, Alan emerges in Act 3 as a responsible, sober, hard-working, partial replica of his father, disapproving in Buddy the same traits Alan himself earlier displayed. While Kashner, a polished actor, skillfully plays the cards that Simon has dealt him, the abruptness of the transition is jarring, undermining the credibility of the characterization.
Alferov’s Buddy, jumping up and down and stamping his feet, often projects an emotional age nearer three than 21. Taking a character Simon already wrote as callow, insecure, and nervous, Alferov’s and director Rip Classen’s choices push the characterization farther over the top than necessary, resulting in a Buddy who is distractingly frenetic. Even when, in Act 3, Buddy begins to assume some of his brother’s playboy persona, he is an extremely hyper playboy wannabe. Given that Buddy is the semi-autobiographical Simon character in the play, with whom audiences would likely want to empathize, this excess becomes a problem for the production.
Mrs. Baker is written as a stereotypical Jewish Mother, complete with guilt-tripping, a cleanliness fetish, and a periodic loss of emotional control. Turkel hits her marks securely and with feeling, highlighted by her pencil scene meltdown. Reviews of several other productions of the show have described their Mr. Bakers as overly loud and hectoring. Tinder neatly avoids this pitfall, successfully underplaying the character in many scenes, substituting a sardonic sense of humor for bombast, and creating an understandable character in the process. Mr. and Mrs. Baker are given thick New York accents, a trait evidently not inherited by their sons.
The play was, of course, written and set in the early 60s, and its attitude toward women distinguishes between good girls (the sort one respects and ultimately marries) and sexy party girls (the sort one sleeps with and discards). As party girl Peggy, Lizzi Albert is not only sexy but delightfully dim, ditzy, and geographically challenged. Peggy is a stock role to be sure, but Albert is able to make her a great deal of fun every time she appears. By contrast, Connie (Heather Benjamin) is warm, intelligent, emotionally nuanced, and aware of and in charge of her own feelings, a three-dimensional, believable woman who Simon rather improbably inserts into this nest of sitcom-like types. “Good girl” characters can sometimes be bland; Benjamin goes far to make Connie genuinely interesting as well as the most sympathetic character in the play. The only question one might ask Connie is what, beyond charm and good looks, she sees in Alan.
Director Classen keeps the pace fast, the timing precise, and the physical comedy rollicking, while maintaining good ensemble playing among his cast. He also keeps the decibel level of the actors’ line delivery exceedingly high at times, especially in the Act 3 sequence in which all four Bakers shout constantly at one another, almost obscuring a key emotional moment between Alan and Connie. Louder does not necessarily equal funnier.
Trena Weiss-Null’s set design is a large, open 60s apartment, furnished nicely but not crowded, providing ample playing space and including a window with a view of the Queensboro Bridge; not bad, even in the 60s, for someone working part-time in the wax fruit business. The sound design (Ed Moser) is strong on a multitude of doorbells and phone rings, all well-timed. The pre-show and intermission music emphasizes light jazz and standards. Notwithstanding Bill Haley and Elvis, rock had evidently not penetrated the Bakers’ world by 1961.
Patricia Tinder’s costumes fit the period and aid the characterization. Peggy and Alan enter at the top of the show in a sweater girl outfit and a ski sweater, respectively, that are perfect for people returning from a non-skiing ski holiday. Peggy gets a fetching, and figure-flattering, yellow dress later on. Connie’s outfits, appropriately for her character, are more subdued though equally attractive. As Buddy makes his rake’s progress, he starts in a charcoal suit, swaps his suit coat for a satiny multi-colored smoking jacket, and winds up in an open-neck ruffled orange shirt that might have been snatched from Austin Powers’ closet. Alan begins suave/casual, but for his Act 3 incarnation wears a sensible professional suit that would probably pass muster at IBM. Mr. Baker is rumpled as can be in a suit that apparently has not seen the inside of a dry cleaner’s shop for some time. My only qualm concerns Mrs. Baker’s dowdy black and white polka dot outfit, which seems more vaudevillian than necessary.
The director’s and artistic director’s notes, as well as the artistic director’s longer article in the “Audience Guide” provided in the press kit, strongly advocate the proposition that Simon is not only a popular and successful playwright but a great playwright. It is good to contend against the facile assumption that an artist cannot be both popular and good (Andrew Wyeth is another notable 20th century sufferer from this assumption). But great playwrights do not need briefs for the defense; their work speaks for itself. If Simon is properly regarded as a great playwright based on his lifetime output, that greatness is potential in the somewhat uneven Come Blow Your Horn rather than fully manifest. Even at this early stage of his career, however, Simon could write material that greatly pleased viewers, and the TACT production elicited strong, favorable reactions from the Saturday night audience.
Why Neil Simon? I use Neil Simon in my comedy classes, and there is a reason: He is master of the form. But when you make an art form look effortless and easy, you risk being called a hack by some and a panderer to popular tastes by others. Comedy, the toughest of all performing art forms, especially cultivates this reaction, bordering on contempt. To work, it has to seem natural, and if it looks too natural, everyone thinks it’s cheap.
I think Simon’s problem may be that he writes too well. His slick dialogue, honed through years of toiling for TV comedy geniuses like Sid Caesar, tempts directors and performers to let the scripts carry his plays, when there lies, beneath the surface, both enduring dramatic truths and the opportunity for classic stage comedy routines…and they are there by the playwright’s design.
The family dynamic, swinging wildly between love and dysfunction; the sexual revolution; divorce (as in the Odd Couple); stalking (Star Spangled Girl); aging (The Sunshine Boys)…Simon provides wisdom, perception, and laughs, often simultaneously, on these and other serious dilemmas of modern American life. The best Neil Simon plays, and Come Blow Your Horn is one of them, are like classic sports cars: Not only are they pretty on the outside, there is great stuff under the hood, and the ride is fantastic.
That’s why Neil Simon.
Photos by Johannes Markus
- Alan Baker: Elliot Kashner
- Peggy Evans: Lizzi Albert
- Buddy Baker: Alex Alferov
- Mr. Baker: Mick Tinder
- Connie: Heather Benjamin
- Mrs. Baker: Allison Turkel
- Visitor: Special Guest
- Director: Rip Classen
- Production Manager: Ed Moser
- Stage Manager: Charles Lasky
- Scenic Design/Master Carpenter: Trena Weiss-Null
- Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows
- Sound Design: Ed Moser
- Costume Design: Patricia Tinder
- Properties Design: Kevin Laughon
- Assistant Stage Manager: Lindsey E. Moore
- Board Operator/Wardrobe Assistant Garrett Wood
- Carpenter: Alexander Kellogg
- Publicist: Emily Morrison
- Photography: Johannes Markus
- Program Design: Michale Sherman
- House Manager: Joli Provost
Disclaimer: American Century Theater provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9753.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.