I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE
National Jewish Theater
You would definitely count the spoons after dining with Harry Bogen. A loathsome weasel who sells out everybody but his mother, Harry is the overachieving antihero of Jerome Weidman's 1937 novel I Can Get It for You Wholesale. In 1962, Harold Rome added music and lyrics to Weidman's adaptation to create what must have seemed then an uncompromising portrait of a selfish SOB on a greedy rampage.
But as they say, that was then and this is now. Given Ivan Boesky, Carl Icahn, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, and Henry Kravis, Harry looks like a pretty puny shark in a big cesspool. And even if you manage to forget all the chiselers who have fleeced folks over the last quarter century, Harry even 26 years ago couldn't have been much. Weidman depicts him as a sort of white-collar gangster with a mother fixation, a $35-a-week shipping clerk in a Bronx dress factory who, as his boss Mr. Pulvermacher dryly says, has "too much energy"--all of it negative. Harry, it seems, believes that life is a "cold cash proposition"--that you're either a catcher or a pitcher, the dinner or the diner. He shouts, "Being poor killed my father, but it sure ain't gonna kill me!" (Harry is the garment district's answer to Scarlett O'Hara.)
Pursuing his evil destiny, Harry manages to trigger a deliverers' strike so that he can break it by forming his own Needle Trade Delivery Service. From then on, the sewer's the limit as this opportunistic Seventh Avenue shyster moves from delivering clothes to producing them, persuades a crack designer and salesman to quit Pulvermacher and invest in Harry's Apex Modes, steals from the firm to lavish jewelry on a gold-digging show girl, and then tries to flimflam his creditors into thinking a too-trusting partner stole the funds.
Inevitably Harry's undercapitalized and overexpanding empire collapses into bankruptcy. By the end, this "hungry punk going wild in a bakery" is back where he started--under Pulvermacher's thumb. And yet, though the boss chews Harry out for trying to make his poverty an excuse for a cutthroat credo, the Harry we see hasn't changed: infected with galloping greed, he is still lusting for one more big kill. (In fact Weidman wrote a sequel, the subtly named What's in It for Me?)
Weidman's portrait of a risky and ruthless industry is richly detailed, but the problem with this blatant tale and the charming schmuck who provides its life force is that we never believe Harry could be anything but a four-star louse. We might expect his love for his mother to redeem him, but Harry almost oedipally adores her, and she encourages his daily treasons. The nice Jewish girl who loves him hasn't got a chance against the shiksa show girl who exploits him. The Harry we see is as ripe for corruption as the next Republican cabinet, all of which makes it damn hard to care what happens to him, any more than we'd care what happened to any other rapacious self-made yuppie. Moreover, unlike Ebenezer Scrooge (the goy version of Harry), Harry never learns a thing--except, next time, don't get caught. Inevitably you leave nursing a great big "so what?"
Rome's less than memorable jazzy-ethnic score and his relentlessly obvious lyrics can't distract us from Weidman's deja vu plot. William Payne's dutiful National Jewish Theater staging struggles mightily to freshen the familiar, but it ends having little more urgency than the dated matter that drags it down. Even an energetically rotten Ross Lehman trying his best to be his worst can't get inside this character, who has no inside. And the harder the sinister, slouching Lehman tries to make Harry real, the more the dialogue brands him a cardboard nasty.
But even a moot musical can provide some work to savor. When Sharon Carlson sings "Eat a Little Something," you see why a crook's best friend may be his mother. Mary Jo Licata as the girl Harry should have married suggests without smugness her character's relative integrity (if you overlook the fact that she tries to force Harry to marry her, dangling the possibility of a $20,000 loan he badly needs). Playing Harry's squabbling partners, Jim Ortlieb is a sad-faced, conscientious designer and Dennis Cockrum a smoothly predatory salesman; both actors are smart enough not to succumb to their stereotypes. As the harried, undervalued secretary, Miss Marmelstein (the role that gave Barbra Streisand her big break on Broadway), Kathryn Jaeck agonizes impressively. And at the cost of a few harsh notes, Tracy Payne vamps it up as Harry's venal mistress. In the play's funniest role, Bernard Beck is delightful as the dyspeptic Mr. Pulvermacher.
Michael Sokoloff's perfunctory choreography and James Dardenne's too abstract set fail to dazzle, but Jessica Hahn's sumptuously silly 50s costumes look as rich as even a Harry Bogen could desire.