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Woollcott Died for You!


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at Weeds

It is a well-known fact that every adult in America either has written a play or is seriously thinking about doing so. This should not be surprising. A play seems to be such a democratic art form: it consists of dialogue, and everyone knows how to talk. This self-evident equation does not hold, however, as any script reader at any theater will tell you. But that doesn't seem to discourage all the would-be playwrights who continue to hammer out what they believe to be drama.

Bill Thomas is one of them. Worse still, he is a would-be actor too, and he has combined these two avocations into a painfully inept one-man show called Woollcott Died for You! Thomas tries to deflect criticism of his effort by printing "a work in progress" on the playbill, but "in progress" is too ambitious, too optimistic to describe what I witnessed opening night. Even calling it a "work" requires audacity.

Thomas was ill prepared and awkward. He followed an outline scribbled on a piece of cardboard mounted on an easel propped in front of him, and shuffled through index cards looking for the anecdotes and quips that make up the script. He lost one of the cards, and while fumbling around managed to tip the microphone onto a customer's glass of wine. The Woollcott that Thomas conjures up does not die for us--he is ruthlessly assassinated by a would-be performer who should be stopped before he kills again.

Alexander Woollcott was a theater critic for the New York Times back in the 1920s and an early contributor to the New Yorker. His career had an inauspicious start: after failing as a crime reporter he was transferred to the Times's rewrite desk, where he also floundered. Finally his editor assigned him to a throwaway task--reviewing plays--where Woollcott unleashed the savage wit that made him famous.

That wit makes Woollcott a likely subject for a one-man show. A notorious curmudgeon, he seemed to delight in nasty remarks and withering sarcasm. He called Gertrude Stein "my Lady Nausea" and referred to Charles MacArthur as "Little Vomit." He wrote such vicious theater reviews that the Shubert brothers tried to ban him from their theaters. When George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote The Man Who Came to Dinner, they modeled the garrulous old Sheridan Whiteside on their friend Woollcott, who promptly volunteered to play the role.

An entire play could be constructed solely from Woollcott's vituperative comments, but his life was interesting, too. He was, after all, a member in good standing of the legendary Round Table group of writers who met daily at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. He knew Harold Ross, the first editor of the New Yorker, and helped launch the careers of Will Rogers, Fred Astaire, and the Marx brothers. According to Thomas, he also had testicles that failed to descend, which meant he was celibate all of his life. (No wonder he was grouchy.)

This is rich material, which is undoubtedly why Thomas chose it. But instead of presenting the material as entertainment, Thomas presents it as a collection of dreary facts about Woollcott, delivered in such a weak, tentative manner that the fearsome critic looks more like the timid chairman of some small-town chamber of commerce. To make the effort totally ludicrous, Thomas includes several recorded instrumental numbers composed by Nancy Barber and Chad Willetts. As the music plays, Thomas dances. After describing how he and his friends used to play croquet, he does the "croquet dance," which means moving about the room pretending to hit a croquet ball with a mallet. And during "The Women in My Life," Thomas waltzes about with his arms empty.

What on earth made Thomas think people would want to watch this? Woollcott Died for You! certainly is not entertaining, and it's not very informative either. The production values are just plain trashy--the backdrop, for example, consists of a strip of newsprint with green squares drawn on it, apparently to suggest the oak paneling of the Algonquin.

Weeds, the bar where Thomas performs, often has open-mike nights, which means that just about anyone can get up and perform; but that's no excuse for what Thomas perpetrates. Woollcott is a vanity act that exists for the performer, not the audience. And it proves the truth of Woollcott's perceptive observation about prostitution and acting: "the two oldest professions in the world--ruined by amateurs."

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