There may be a theater piece in the sad decline of Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle after he became synonymous with everything that America had come to suspect about what went on at those wild Hollywood parties, but "Fatty" at the Tiffany Theater isn't it.
It's hard to say what "Fatty" is. Harry Essex's script has the rambling structure that we associate with the book of a musical (18 scenes, all of which look alike in Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral's basic-black set.) But Steve Allen has only written four songs, none vivid. This means that the dialogue has to carry most of the burden at the big emotional moments, and Essex has a fatal instinct for lines you never thought you would hear seriously used again.
"He's innocent! I'd stake my life on it!" grunts Joey Bishop as Arbuckle's ever-loyal agent. "I'm a businessman--not a philanthropist," growls Mike Robelo as the studio chief with two unreleased Arbuckle comedies in the can. "They made me lie!" sobs Julie Davidow as a friend of the late deceased Virginia Rappe, in what the tabloids used to call a "collapse on the stand."
The trial scene, with its jut-jawed attorneys and its greenlit flashbacks to earlier crises in Fatty's life, is particularly clunky. One can imagine Mel Brooks and his team cooking up something like this for a "Your Show of Shows" sketch, all the way down to the sinister medico who seems to have taken his training in Transylvania (Gustav Vintas) testifying against Fatty. "Your Show of Shows," however, had pace--which "Fatty" doesn't have a clue about. Producer-director Hal Grossman allows scene after scene to bump lamely along until terminated by a blackout, during which we see some fuzzy imitation Fatty Arbuckle movies. Grossman also lets his cast get away with murderously sloppy diction (especially Bishop) and encourages actress Udana Power to go absolutely over the top as Fatty's wife, Minta. It's the most overwrought female performance since Frances Langford stopped playing Blanche Bickerson.
But there is a reason for seeing "Fatty," or at least a reason for not leaving at intermission. This is Art Metrano's evocation of Arbuckle. Not the screen Arbuckle particularly, although we can believe that this fellow could make us laugh, if his heart was in it.
What's felt is how the heart has been taken out of him. One sees the bewilderment in the big fellow's eyes. He never did fully understand his success and he understands even less why anyone should want to take it away from him, once the law has found him innocent of taking that poor girl's life.
At the same time, Metrano gives the character dignity. This Fatty never begs for sympathy, not even when his lines seem to be doing just that. (There are moments when you wish this was indeed a silent movie.) When the tears come, he's ashamed of them. The image of the "big baby" is something he's been fighting all his life.
Though a comic, this Fatty doesn't want to be laughed at . There's a silent moment towards the end where his bulk takes on an air of threat. Just for an instant he becomes a golem , who easily could squeeze the life out of a young woman. Then the sweetness is back.
All of this is actor's stuff, perhaps more instinctive than reasoned out. But it's the real stuff. I believed Metrano's Fatty, if not the one that the show was telling us about, and it would be fine to see him in another version of the story, with some real lines to say.
The new Tiffany Theater, by the way, offers intimacy and comfort. It's really two 99-seat theaters, back to back, with a well-appointed lobby (including bar) between. It is supposed to have cost $300,000 to complete. Given its Sunset Strip address, the rental will be very high. Yet actors here are expected to work for nothing (as they did for "Fatty.") Something backwards about that.
Harry Essex's play, at the Tiffany Theater. Producer Hal Grossman, in association with Steve Silberfine and Ron Finnerman. Songs Steve Allen. Director Grossman. Set and lighting Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral. Costumes Emilio. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Choreography Danny Taylor. Musical director Tom Griffin. Film sequences Robert Dunlap. Hair and makeup Chelsea. Production stage manager Jim Ring. With Tom Griffin, Mike Robelo, Robert Dunlap, Joey Bishop, Art Metrano, John Alderman, Clare Peck, Sandy Barry, Julie Davidow, Udana Power, Danny Winchell, Richardson Morse, Jason Evers, David Haney, Gustav Vintas, Gary Hollis, Hal Shafer. Plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. on Sundays Tickets $16-$17.50. 8532 Sunset Blvd. (213) 851-3771.