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A Worthy Trio Gets A 2nd Look

March 04, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

How do you decide which shows you'll review yourself, Mr. Sullivan, and which ones you'll assign to other people? Oh, you get an instinct for it over the years.

Take "Andrea's Got Two Boyfriends" at the Eagle Theatre. Three retarded adults and a social worker--it sounded like another disease-of-the-week story.

Or "Nite Club Confidential" at the Tiffany. A murder mystery set in a 1950s club. More camp nostalgia.

Or "Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill" at the Zephyr. Hadn't we taken that trip before?

So other Times critics got to review these shows. Indeed, Don Shirley reviewed "Berlin to Broadway" two or three times, with its various changes of cast. It has run nearly a year, you see. "Andrea" and "Nite Club Confidential" are hits too. What do I know?

I do know--having finally caught up with all three--that each deserves to be a hit. "Andrea," by David Willinger, is the most valuable of the three, in that it extends one's knowledge of the real world. In contrast, "Berlin to Broadway" and "Nite Club Confidential" are entertainments, the latter without a thought in its head. But each show knows its business. The audience has only to relax and go with it.

It takes a while to relax at "Andrea." Stories about afflicted people are always painful, and Constance Grappo's cast is so plausible as retarded young adults (Tabi Cooper as Andrea, Chris Pass and Robert Fieldsteel as her "boyfriends") that you feel ashamed of yourself for staring at them.

Gradually the uneasiness passes. You begin to feel more as if you're visiting them. Their handicap becomes a given, through which you see their individual faces. You also begin to lose pity for them--the

wrong kind of pity. You see that their activities strike them as being as interesting and as important as our activities strike us--that putting the peanut butter on the bread is, in their context, indeed a skill, something to be proud of.

At the same time it's clear that terrific patience is required to take care of these youngsters. It has been said that "Andrea" isn't really a play--that people of such reduced capacity can't conceive of a story and can't truly figure in one. But there is a "normal" character in the play, their social worker (Tom Fisher), and it's his progress that we watch.

Without revealing the end of "Andrea," it contains both frustration and hope. Not hope that retarded people can be relieved of their condition through kindness or therapy (this is a realistic play), but that the larger population can come to accept them, maybe even embrace them, as part of the family. The urge to look away from the retarded may have been part of the reason I didn't want to see the play in the first place. In its gentle and often funny way, "Andrea" takes us behind a closed door and shows us that nothing goes on there that we can't recognize. As Kirk Ellis said in his Times review, it gives us "an uncommon firsthand experience" and an entertaining evening of theater at once. It has just moved to the Eagle from the Burbage Theatre, original cast intact. Tickets at (213) 466-1767.

"Nite Club Confidential" is so slick a package that it could be mistaken for a cynical one. Not so. Playwright Dennis Deal is totally smitten with the 1940s and the 1950s--the styles, the sounds, the lingo. He's got the worst case on an era since Sandy Wilson fell in love with the 1920s.

His show doesn't quite live up to Wilson's "The Boy Friend" as period pastiche, but it comes close. The vocal arrangements, for example, are dead-on facsimiles of the Hi-Lo's. Krista Neumann isn't playing a Marilyn Monroe figure, but has uncanny intimations of Monroe all the same.

In the same way Scott Bakula brings up Bogie without imitating Bogie--the show knows how to make allusions while pursuing its own purposes. Another cleverness is the way it seems to have forgotten about its plot completely, after which it whams you with a double dose of plot.

And, of course, it has Fay De Witt (see Janice Arkatov's interview, above.) De Witt will remind some viewers of Kay Thompson; others, of Rusty (Knockers Up) Warren; others, of Fay De Witt. She's an icon of an entertainment era that improves in style the farther we get from it.

"Nite Club Confidential" is what we college kids in the 1950s used to call "a mock," but it's not really a mock at all. It's a sigh for the good old days, when trash had class. (213) 851-3771.

"Berlin to Broadway" is loaded with class. Director Paul Hough and musical director Scott Harlan may make it too busy a show at times, but the amplitude is welcome after so many skimpy small-theater musicals.

There are only six performers, but everybody's so gifted and so various that the impression is one of a much bigger company. Too, an enormous amount of thought has gone into the presentation of every song, every moment. It wasn't necessary, for example, to throw in the occasional line in German during the early Brecht-Weill songs; but how it strengthens their hold on the imagination! (As does the low ceiling of the Zephyr, suggesting the Berlin cabarets of the Weimar period.)

And the second half, when Weill takes his talent to Broadway, is as silky as the first half was gritty. Familiar as the reader may find this show's material, the readings are so fresh that even "September Song" and "Mack the Knife" sound new. And there are songs from shows like "Love Life" and "Johnny Johnson" that even Weill connoisseurs may not know. (213) 851-3771.

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