LEND ME A TENOR
at the Royal George Theatre Center
at Candlelight's Forum Theatre
"Something you have to understand about Italians," says hot-blooded Angie Graziano to lukewarm Terry O'Keefe in Tom Dulack's play Breaking Legs. "It's always very dramatic."
Indeed, that fabled Italian tempestuousness has always been a reliable source of amusement, particularly in contrast to the allegedly cooler temperament of northern European neighbors.
This formula fuels two commercial comedies currently running in town. In Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor and Dulack's Breaking Legs, a pair of well-meaning wimps learn lessons in sexual and professional confidence from robust Italian stallions. The plays share another common theme as well--the theater, its alluring glamour and its maddening seediness.
Max (note the Germanic monicker), the hero of Lend Me a Tenor, is a shy, insecure assistant to the director of a provincial opera company in 1930s Cleveland. The company hopes to attract publicity and funds by importing a legendary tenor, internationally known as Il Stupendo, to star in its new production. But when Tito the tenor arrives, he proves to be somewhat troublesome, prone to womanizing, overeating, and fighting with his high-strung shrew of a wife. All three problems are related, actually: Tito's tendency to gorge on fruit is a sublimation of his breast fetish, and his taste for extramarital encounters is primarily a way to keep the temperature of his marriage hot. But things boil over when Tito accidentally munches on a few too many wax peaches; taken ill, he's inadvertently given too many sleeping pills, and when it's time for Max to take him to the theater he seems to be dead. So Max--who has already been given a few passing lessons in singing and sexiness by the tenor--is enlisted to impersonate the apparently dead star. Since the opera is Verdi's Otello, the impersonation is fairly simple: one white singer in Moorish blackface looks pretty much like another, and as for the singing, well, the culture vultures who've paid for the performance are more interested in seeing Il Stupendo than in how he sounds.
By the time the performances are over--the one onstage and the one Max must give to Tito's fans after the show--Max has undergone a drastic personal change.
This is not a deep play we're talking about here. But it is a funny one. The 1930s setting is the playwright's excuse to brandish most every gimmick in the trunk of Depression-era Hollywood screwball humor: manic physical slapstick and slow double takes, class-conscious caricatures of dizzy dowagers and brassy bellhops, ridiculous cases of mistaken identity, and groaner puns and naughty double entendres (one of the best is a drawn-out routine in which Tito thinks the soprano is a prostitute and so mistakes her comments about how she always wanted to be in the same business as her mother and father). And of course, there are those Italian stereotypes: there's plenty of sobbing, shrieking, and hand waving.
The setting of Breaking Legs is also straight out of the movies: in this case, the Godfather cycle's serene-seeming family dining rooms. In the private parlor of an Italian restaurant in a small town outside of New York City the Graziano clan spoons pasta and plots murders. But they're looking for something legit--like maybe a Broadway show to invest in. Along comes Terry O'Keefe, a gentle-mannered college teacher with a few unknown plays to his credit and a new script for which he needs backers. Since Lou Graziano's daughter Angie has, in Lou's demure phrase, "a hard-on" for Terry, Lou decides to sink some dough into Terry's play; he's not only buying a playwright, he thinks, he's buying a son. Angie's not getting any younger, Lou thinks, and a man needs grandchildren: "I wanna take 'em to the racetrack, teach 'em to shoot craps."
Terry is pleased to accept Lou's money, and he's not uninterested in Angie either. Of course he's already got a wife, but that marriage has been dead for years. What bothers Terry isn't getting married to Angie--it's getting married to the mob. During an extraordinarily funny scene in which he massages Angie's feet, taking her to orgasmic heights, he also watches in horror as Lou and his relatives take an indebted gambler off for a very long ride.
But Terry is destined for transformation: after all, he's an Irish wimp surrounded by Italians, and this is formula comedy. Instead of a man, though, Terry's teacher is Angie, who like Tito's wife is the real power in her family. In a sort of shrewing of the tame, Terry learns how to take charge of Lou and his partners Mike and Tino--especially when they start trying to intrude on his turf, the art and business of theater.
As in Lend Me a Tenor, no one in Breaking Legs is so rich or so experienced that they don't reveal themselves to be idiots when it comes to show business. Lou dreams of arriving at the opening in a stretch limo to be interviewed by Connie Chung, while Mike and Tino try to get Terry to make changes in the play they've financed. (Can't there be a part for Mike's niece? She plays the accordion . . . )
Where Lend Me a Tenor emulates farce and screwball comedy, Breaking Legs aspires to a more naturalistic style, eschewing the former's manic physicality in favor of a more relaxed, verbal humor. Though Tenor is the better play, it needs much more stylization and fire than director Michael Leavitt has given it here; the actors go through their paces engagingly, but most of them lack the borderline-insanity level of energy that the script requires. The best performances come from John Herrera and Paula Scrofano as the tenor and his wife; their clowning is vigorous, passionate, and obsessive, as well as impeccably timed. As Max, Gene Weygandt is all wrong; though he's a marvelously precise actor, Weygandt's Church Lady cum Pee-wee Herman mannerisms are much too fey, and you never believe he wants the girl (or that he'd know what to do with her if he got her). David Sabin, as the impresario Saunders, is burly and bearish in a role that calls for droll elegance; and in one of the play's funniest bits, when Saunders tries to strangle the seemingly dead body of the tenor, Sabin misses the humor completely: we're watching Sabin wishing for laughs, not Saunders wishing he could kill a man who's already dead. Among the rest of the cast, only Mary Seibel as an insistent socialite has the right nutty flair.
William Pullinsi's direction of Breaking Legs, in contrast, perfectly suits the play's sly, low-key style. This play's at its best when it's still; the scenes of the extended family sitting down to dinner, dousing their pasta with hot peppers while discussing such matters as marriage and murder, are thoroughly enjoyable as played with just a hint of exaggeration by Vince Viverito as tough-guy Mike, Bill Visteen as sourpuss Tino, Frank Loverde as curmudgeonly Lou, and Paula Flanagan as fiery Angie. Though he seems too young for the 40-ish academic he's playing, William Brown brings a nicely diffident delicacy to Terry; and in what is essentially a cameo, Guy Barile is unforgettably funny as the nervous doomed gambler.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.