Bowen Park Theatre Company
at Jack Benny Center for the Arts
Originally broadcast in 1953 on the Goodyear TV Playhouse, and later adapted as a movie, Paddy Chayefsky's Marty won four Oscars (for best picture, best screenplay, best direction, and best actor--Ernest Borgnine).
Unfortunately Mark Heller, directing this production for Waukegan's Bowen Park Theatre Company, never seems to have taken into account the differences, both technical and aesthetic, between television and theater. One of the great beauties of the 1953 TV version of the story, about a goodhearted bachelor butcher who discovers he is worthy of love, is the way the camera noses in close to Marty (played superbly by a young Rod Steiger), allowing us to see what is all but invisible on the stage: the fleeting expressions that cross his fleshy face, those momentary flashes of resignation, hope, fear, pain, and disappointment that reveal so much more about him than Chayefsky's intentionally prosaic and repetitious dialogue.
As Chayefsky points out in his introduction to the published version of Marty, television is a more intimate medium than theater, ideally suited to "mundane, ordinary" stories like Marty in which "the main characters are typical, rather than exceptional . . . the relationships are as common as people." In writing for the stage, however, "it is necessary to contrive exciting moments of theater. You may write about ordinary people, but the audience sees them in unordinary and untypical circumstances."
Chayefsky never intended Marty to be performed onstage, and in fact went to great lengths to avoid the usual playwright's tricks--dramatic monologues, heightened, unrealistic dialogue, extraordinary plot twists. These add texture and depth to a stage play but seem redundant, even comically overblown, on the screen. Chayefsky's teleplay is full of scenes so mundane--Marty cutting a piece of meat, Marty and his buddy hanging out at a local bar--that they looked "as if a camera had been focused upon the unsuspecting characters and had caught them in an untouched moment of life."
When you take Chayefsky's script and toss it onto the stage, as Heller has done, you get a production that lacks the power of either theater or television. Never for a moment do we get close enough to Marty to feel his pain.
This may explain why the night I saw Bowen Park Theatre's Marty the audience took it to be a comedy, laughing out loud at any line that sounded even remotely funny. And every aspect of this production--the colorful set, very bright lighting, and outrageously bad Italian accents--encouraged that kind of misreading.
It doesn't help that Marc Muehleip, who has a strong chin, boundless energy, and a tendency to beam, plays Marty not as a depressive, all-but-defeated working stiff (Steiger's take on him) or as a sad but likable schlemiel (Borgnine's) but as a happy-go-lucky fellow. His Marty is the kind of instinctive optimist who takes everything the world dishes out with a shrug and a silly smile--we never doubt that things are going to work out for the unsinkable Marty Pilletti. And the relatively handsome Muehleip is nowhere less believable than when he's delivering such painfully self-pitying lines as "I'm a little, short, fat guy, girls don't go for me."
Much of the acting is only a step or two above the standards of community theater. Barbara Elam, for example, cannot keep her accent in place--at times she sounds vaguely Italian, at other times as if she were auditioning for a Pepperidge Farm commercial. And Estel Walker and Jay C. Somers, as a pair of wisecrackers in the bar, slur their lines so convincingly that they obscure the only intentionally funny bits in the play.
Of the 20 actors involved in the production, only Muehleip, Bernice Stepanich (as Marty's mother), and Jane Courant (as Marty's girlfriend) seem completely at ease onstage. There are in fact so many muffed performances and bad accents that with only a little more work, director Heller could easily have turned this into a campy sendup a la Annoyance Theatre's Real Live Brady Bunch. Certainly an intentional parody would have been preferable to this accidental subversion.