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BACKSTAGE : THEATER

A toast to the subtle approach

Harvey Fierstein hopes to bring audiences force-fed on blockbusters back to the table in 'A Catered Affair.'

September 30, 2007|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

When Harvey Fierstein was about 9, his Uncle Irwin coerced him onto the Cyclone, the roller coaster at Coney Island. When the scary ride was over and little Harvey was back on terra firma, his uncle chided: "So you lived through that, right? But you kept your eyes closed, and you missed the whole thing."

"I never forgot that lesson," recalls Fierstein in his inimitable basso profundo as a car service takes him through the clogged Manhattan streets to a shoe fitting at T.O. Dey, Broadway's premier shoemaker. Decades later, he has used this seminal event as a central metaphor in "A Catered Affair," the new Broadway-bound musical that has him wearing two pairs of shoes and three hats: as featured performer, librettist and one of the lead producers. "It seemed to me that these people are faced with the same thing: They're in relationships with their eyes closed and you want to say, 'You're halfway through the ride, you can't afford to wait until the scary feeling ends. Open your eyes!' "

"These people" are the Hurleys, a working-class Irish Catholic Bronx family who must decide whether to spend their life savings on a new cab for Dad or blow it on an extravagant wedding for their daughter. The characters and their dilemma were created by the late Paddy Chayefsky in a 1955 teleplay, "The Wedding Breakfast." A year later, Gore Vidal adapted the story for a Richard Brooks film, "The Catered Affair," starring Ernest Borgnine and Bette Davis. Now Fierstein has adapted it to the musical stage, choosing newcomer John Bucchino to supply songs and Tony-winning director John Doyle ("Sweeney Todd") to fashion it into an intimate chamber piece.

Given its oilcloth themes -- "musical theater meets Clifford Odets," according to Doyle -- the $6.5-million, 10-character show seems one of the more anomalous offerings in a season dominated by behemoths such as "Young Frankenstein" and "The Little Mermaid" and such satiric larks as "Xanadu." Indeed, in the course of following the show from the first day of rehearsals in New York to the first paid preview of its out-of-town tryout at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, one finds that Fierstein's roller-coaster metaphor seems as apt for the cast and creative team as it is for his characters.

"It's the most emotionally exhausting role I've ever done -- and I've done a few," says Tony winner Faith Prince, who stars as Agnes Hurley, the repressed housewife who hopes that her daughter will find the marital bliss that has eluded her.

"It's horrifyingly scary, delicate and complex. I'm not sure if I'll ever 'get' it," says Leslie Kritzer, the 30-year-old actress who, after stealing notices in a minor role in last season's "Legally Blonde," plays daughter Janey.

"It could fall flat on its face or be something that people will remember forever," Doyle says. "That's what's so great about the theater: the unknown."

Subject matter suits him

If anybody knows his way around the theater, it's Fierstein. After three decades and four Tony Awards, the actor-writer has been rethinking family relationships since his 1982 Tony-winning "Torch Song Trilogy," followed by "La Cage aux Folles." "Harvey's strength has always been to mine both the heartbreaking and humorous in life in the most unconventional ways," says lead producer Jordan Roth. "This was totally the right fit for him." Not that "A Catered Affair" seemed destined to join the seemingly endless film-to-musical trend. The relatively obscure 1956 feature was dismissed at the time by critics. The New York Times panned it as "a low-income playback of the old keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, thin in subject matter and scant in its probe of character."

"I didn't think the film went far enough with the fears of the characters," says Fierstein, while bantering good-naturedly with Gino Bufulco of T.O. Dey as he slips on a pair of size 10 1/2 EEE loafers. Fierstein has raised the stakes by bringing to the forefront the death of a favored son, a casualty of the Korean War, and making Agnes more resentful of the circumstances of her marriage. Fierstein has also written in the role of gay Uncle Winston, sleeping on the Hurleys' living room couch after splitting with his "roommate," Keith, and adding a distinctly contemporary spin. In Fierstein's version, Agnes and his character, Winston, discover the complexities of love and commitment through their respective relationships.

"The issues are this big," says Fierstein, pressing his thumb and forefinger nearly together. "But Chayefsky also knew how to get his fist around the human heart. So it's about how you feel about your life -- and nothing's more important than that."

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