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Theater Review

'Swifty' Could Be Nifty With a Sharper Focus

April 12, 1999|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Irving Paul Lazar deserves better representation than he's getting in "Swifty," Christopher Hart's scattershot biography of the talent agent beneath the Olympian black-rimmed glasses, now at the Grove Theater Center.

The playwright is the son of writer-director Moss Hart, Lazar's first major client. Hart was "like a brother to me," wrote Lazar--by way of his collaborator, journalist Annette Tapert--in his posthumous 1995 memoir. For Lazar, a man like Hart embodied "the glamour, wit and charm" of show business at its most alluring. Lazar wanted that world. He brokered his way in.

In its heyday, the Lazar roster boasted enough Hollywood, Broadway and literary stars to satisfy a dozen lesser 10-percenters. But not this macher, the self-described "volatile" product of Manhattan's Lower East Side tenements, a born "loner," perhaps, but certainly--despite his constant travel and parties and Spago patronage--a made one. It's a classic American life, if lives can be sized up as material, and the question of what made Swifty run generates a million answers.

Which is a lot for one play. At this stage, author-director Hart hasn't made up his mind about how to focus his subject. And while Hart acknowledges Lazar's less noble traits, you can't help but wish someone like Nick Tosches ("Dino," the exhilarating riff on the life of Dean Martin) had been brought in for a rewrite, if only to add some zip.

We meet Lazar (David Wohl) in his final year, after the death of his wife, Mary. Freelance writer Tapert (Linda Gehringer) has come to interview the great man for Vanity Fair. She's also observing the power plays afoot between Lazar and his social secretary and paramour Alicia Kwan (Karen Lew), the most fictionalized character here, based on the real-life Teresa Sohn. Tapert also notes the tension between Lazar and his assistant Alan Nevins (Scoot Powell), who has learned how to poach clients from the master poacher himself.

The office politicking belongs to one play, of limited payoff. There's another one going on, as Lazar regales the magazine writer with stories of his life. On stage we catch glimpses of Lazar's childhood, his early band bookings for MCA, his run-ins with the rub-out mob guys, with Sinatra (Powell again) and other paragons of cool.

Hart bookends "Swifty" with flashbacks to Lazar's peak moment in the celebrity sun, an all-star "Swifty is Fifty" birthday bash. Behind a semitransparent curtain, center stage on Kevin Cochran's drab, Embassy Suites-styled set, Hart funnels anecdote after anecdote into the mouths of, among others, Lauren Bacall (Heather Lake), Cole Porter (David Allen Jones) and Ernest Hemingway (Stephen Mo Hanan).

Act 2 fares better than Act 1, simply because there are fewer and longer scenes, with less structural chaos. The highlight is a vignette wherein Lazar interviews old pal Milton Berle (Mo Hanan) for his memoir. It's a mini "Sunshine Boys" unto itself (not that "The Sunshine Boys" is really that much fun). Here, amid Hart's generally sluggish staging, Wohl and Hanan get something going on their own, establishing a sharp performance rhythm.

Willowy, wry Gehringer hasn't much to do except beam during anecdotes, but she almost convinces you that Tapert is more than a device. (Tapert is, in fact, a co-producer of "Swifty," along with Hollywood stalwart David Brown.) Too often, from this character and the others, we hear the obvious. We don't need to hear Tapert worry about presenting "a sanitized version of Irving's life." We get it. We don't need Moss Hart to remind Lazar that they shared "a need to escape a common enemy: poverty." We get it.

This may be a life story better suited to--and I hate to say this--the conventional format. A good, lean, profane 80-minute one-man show might be the ticket. The present, amoeba-like "Swifty" isn't. The guy's name, after all, was Swifty. Not Languid.

* "Swifty," Grove Theater Center Gem Theater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 6 p.m. Ends April 25. $18.50-$22.50. (714) 741-9555. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Swifty

David Wohl: Irving Lazar

Linda Gehringer: Annette Tapert

Scoot Powell: Alan Nevins, Frank Sinatra

Gila Shapiro: Cindy, Star Lazar, et al

Karen Lew: Alicia Kwan

Heather Lake: Rose, Wammo Girl, et al

David Allen Jones: Noel Coward, Moss Hart, et al

Stephen Mo Hanan: Milton Berle, et al

Written and directed by Christopher Hart. Set by Kevin Cochran. Costumes by Terry L. Nista. Lighting by David Darwin. Properties by Gigi Horowitz. Stage manager Eric Johanson.

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