The Owl and the Pussycat by Bill Manhoff. Directed by Ted Pugh.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"The sun does not spit."
I remember when the Lincoln Center Theater - a.k.a. the Vivian Beaumont - was taken over by Joe Papp of the New York Shakespeare Festival. He created a series of productions of the Masterís plays that seemed hell-bent on proving that no matter what you do to them William Shakespeareís dramaturgy could not be shaken, stirred or in any way disturbed. He almost went broke proving it, adding dead horses to a steam bath in Troilus and Cressida and adding a Marilyn Monroe clone to another of this plays at that venue.
With The Owl and the Pussycat it almost seems as though Walking the Dog Theater, with its history of odd choices that seem to work out well, has made a similar decision. The difference here is that the text of this play is not as sturdy as the dialogue in the Shakespeare folios. The plot isnít as dense, either. What has emerged in the Bassilica Industria in Hudson, New York, is a production of what once was a very funny, sadly touching, play transformed into a very sadly, barely funny one. Diana Sands and Alan Alda pulled off the extremes of this show without half trying. David Anderson and Ashley Mayne are just trying too hard, all of the time.
Where Alda could literally jump out of his skin without ruffling his pajamas in the original production, Anderson cannot manipulate his shorts without shedding pounds of emotional fat. Sands was able to convey anger, love and confusion with equal parts strength and vulnerability while Mayne is more Marlon Brando in her approach, equal parts angst and annoyance.
Iíd like to think that director Ted Pugh just didnít get it, didnít grasp the piece as the comic romp it is and so, instead, played the very different lives of the two characters in the play for all the reality he could rouse in the playing of his two players. Pugh and his associate Fern Sloane are talented performers and stage magicians and they should have been able to take two interpretive artists and guided them into the land of comic techniques. That, however, is where the quartet have failed. There is very little comedy in this romance.
Doris, a prostitute who only admits to being a model and an actress with two commercials under her belt, is kicked out of her apartment and she takes refuge in the apartment of the man she believes turned her in to her landlord. He is Felix, an author without a publication credit, a clerk in a bookstore, uptight and frightened of women and of anyone who comes to his door at two in the morning. When he makes the fatal error in judgement and lets Doris into his private lair, his goose is plucked, bled and cooked.
Mayne is a very powerful young performer. She should be tackling early OíNeill, William Inge, or even Albee and leaving the lighter fare to actresses who can wrestle with the dynamics of comedy. Doris could be a stereotype, a caricature, but instead Manhoff has given her something different to work with. Unlike Judy Holiday in Born Yesterday who simply needed an education, Doris, in Mayneís exhausting performance, only needs a push into the world of letters where she would probably end up a public defender with a large private income. This isnít Doris. Doris understands a few things in life and they are righteous indignation and self-righteous hell-raising. Mayneís performance is of a very different character, not Doris. I donít know who she was when I saw this show, but whoever it was she was something else!
Anderson, on the other hand, has all of the bumbling down for Felix Sherman, but none of the stupefying slowness nor the exhilarating wrath. In the third act when he tries to humiliate Doris for the last time, his anger level was so high I honestly felt that her compliance could take him one of two ways: into a fantastic rage, an orgy of hatred and self-loathing, or, into the deepest of remonstrances and apologies. Instead, Anderson just went down on one knee and said "oops.í His Felix is like that, hot and cold, cold and hot without reason or understanding of what the man is doing which is playing the part of his mother in her relationship with him. Felix has issues, lots of issues, and actually many more than Doris, and among them is the oddly Oedipal issue in which he finds himself living with her, watching her watch a good time.
I wonít say go see this show. Iíd suggest buying the play and reading it for yourself. The set in this production is cleverly created by Nick Thielker out of cardboard boxes, and it alone is worth a look. What happens on stage isnít as interesting as the stage itself. And thatís a pity because Bill Manhoff wrote a play with many challenges but those have been removed or at least downplayed by having this couple become more human and less Ha-Ha. Wrong choice.
The Owl and the Pussycat plays through July 20 at Walking the Dog Theater in Hudson, New York in an old warehouse, Basilica Industria, across the street from the Amtrak Station at 110 South Front Street. For information, schedules and tickets call the box office at 518-392-0131 or go to their website at www.wtdtheatre.org