note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi
Paula Kinglsley … Alice Ripley
Laurence Brooks … Steve Hendrickson
Stage Manager … Rob Morrison
John Carleton … Paul Robinson
Morris Giegelman … Ryan Garbayo
David Chuntington … Christopher Reed
Gregory P. Jacobs-Roseman
Sarah Augusta Reich
All theatre persons in Boston, professional or amateur, local or passing through, should be allowed into the newly-restored Majestic Theatre whenever they need to meditate or to simply perk up their spirits. For the price of admission --- say, a quote from a favorite play --- they could pass through the lobby, with its red marble walls and pillars, its gilt cupids and mirrors, and into its truly majestic auditorium with its pinks and golds, its side balconies like slipped stacks of checkers, its oak leaves and tassels, its smiling masks amidst the roses, its rings of cornucopias overhead, where they could sit in silence as if in the holiest of shrines and reflect on what is mortal and what is imperishable about the theatre --- maybe even hobnob with a ghost or two; should they reflect on why they got into show biz in the first place, the Majestic will give them an enobling reply, “Because you wanted to bring beauty into the world.” Yes, the Majestic is a temple but guarded by Cerberus’ pups --- ushers and security guards --- so said reflections must take place while attending a performance, as I did on the closing day of Kaufman & Hart’s THE FABULOUS INVALID, revised by Jeffrey Hatcher to celebrate the Majestic’s centennial.
THE FABULOUS INVALID is Kaufman & Hart’s 1938 valentine based on the birth and decline of New York’s legendary New Amsterdam Theatre, home of the Ziegfeld Follies --- in 1937, the theatre became a movie house and later deteriorated along with the rest of 42nd Street; in the ‘90s, Disney on Broadway restored the New Amsterdam to its former glory and reopened it as a legitimate theatre again (Nicholas Van Hoogstraten’s beautiful but saddening book, LOST BROADWAY THEATRES, lists the passing of less fortunate sites). In THE FABULOUS INVALID, the New Amsterdam becomes the Alexandria Theatre and runs the gamut from 1903 to 1938; the play is a one-dimensional pageant of Broadway’s history seen through the Alexandria’s eyes --- its only claim to fame is its title which has been passed on to the Great White Way itself, always in decline and always bouncing back. Jeffrey Hatcher has taken his own wrecking ball to the Kaufman & Hart script: he has retained the plot thread --- a theatre couple, husband and wife, die in the Alexandria on its first opening night and are allowed to linger there as ghosts, guided and advised by a celestial Stage Manager --- and has brought the decade-hopping up to 2003, changing the New York Alexandra to the (Boston?) Majestic (I doubt Beantown was ever the center of creativity that Mr. Hatcher now chronicles). In the original, the husband and wife “darling” each other to death --- and mean it; Mr. Hatcher recasts them as the traditional sparring couple, alternately bitchy and charming (no prizes should you guess which characteristic wins out). There are a few glaring anachronisms --- the Negro butler in “Au Revoir, Maude”, the much-recycled melodrama-within-the-play, would have been played by a white actor in blackface in 1903 (sorry, folks, but let’s be truthful, here); the 1890s Stage Manager mocks his own parents in hell for rejecting him because he was gay (a nasty little moment, though many men in the audience chose to laugh) --- and enough campiness creeps in so that the play should really be entitled THE FAAAAAABULOUS INVALID. On the plus side, Mr. Hatcher clearly loves the theatre and has done some research: his “Maude” melodrama is agreeably corny and later returns as a hilarious Playhouse 90 Drama complete with Method mumblings, and the ghost husband does a Lypsinka-like montage of key moments from the past to scare off a realtor who plans to turn the Majestic into a shopping mall.
Alice Ripley and Steve Hendrickson, two professional actors, were good as husband and wife though Ms. Ripley was directed/encouraged to become, over the decades, quite the broad despite her Gibson Girl appearance; while watching a 1970s porn flick (unseen by the audience), Ms. Ripley’s face gyrated in Lucy-sitcom fashion --- she would have been far more amusing had she grown more and more rigid in Edwardian decorum as the film played out). Ms. Ripley and Mr. Hendrickson were most generous in supporting, as well as being supported by, the large student ensemble (a great way for young actors to learn their craft, you know --- working with pros); among them, Paul Robinson as the Majestic’s owner/producer and Ryan Garbayo as his accent-heavy successor stood out --- future character actors in the making. Would a professional ensemble and a more lavish budget make this INVALID walk? Show folk, of course, would love it as would those who attend enough theatre to “get” the in-house jokes --- but it would need a theatre on the scale of the Majestic to have it all make sense (this is not one for the Boston Center for the Arts). Should someone decide to remount the recent FOLLIES IN CONCERT as, simply, FOLLIES, here’s the haunted house for it.
Speaking of Boston’s theatrical past, it’s heartening to walk by the Opera House on Washington Street and peek inside as construction workers rebuild the interior for next summer’s LION KING; next door, the Modern Theatre (Boston’s first movie house, I was told) has been encased in scaffolding for some time --- better that than wearing a “Condemned” sign. Several years ago, I charmed a realtor into letting me inside the Modern: it was a FOLLIES experience all right --- the balcony still seemed sturdy enough but the rest of the interior needs to be completely rebuilt from the ground up and even then there would be no fly or wing space for stage productions. On the Opera’s left is the rejuvenated Paramount Movie House --- it’s not open yet, but the neon and lights are back in place; I was fortunate to be on Washington Street the afternoon the marquee was tested out, and the light show was breathtaking. Should you be strolling down Washington into Chinatown, stop and look up at the two corroded faces flanking the old Gaiety Theatre marquee (the one on the left is drenched in rusted chains); on the side of the building you can still see the legends “Vaudeville”, “Twice Daily” and other hieroglyphics in faded yellow paint (the Gaiety is deserted inside; will it, too, make a comeback?). Finally, at 9-15 Beach Street in the heart of Chinatown, you can encounter Shakespeare himself in a bas relief embedded in a brownstone. The tip of Will’s nose is gone and he is repeatedly christened by pigeons but that’s him, all right --- how in the world did he get there, and why? There’s the beginning of a walking tour through Boston Theatre, for you….