MOONSTRUCK: The Old Man and the Old Moon, now at the New Victory Theatre through Oct 13, is outshining some of the neons on 42nd Street. It's lit from within by the PigPen Theatre Co., seven resourcefully creative twentysomethings who met as freshmen and spent their years at Carnegie-Mellon majoring in makeshift magic.
This signature piece, which they presented to glowing notices two years ago at The Gym at Judson, is a fantastical folktale. "We all came up with the story together," said Matt Neurnberg, who narrates the tale and populates it with a rangy assortment of characters, "and it has been a developing story for the last three or four years."
Now graduates, they continue to enhance, streamline and refine their opus on tour. Next stop is Boston, MA, (Nov. 19-23), and there is talk of taking it to the West Coast. Their fanciful fable so far: The old moonkeeper who periodically pours buckets of liquid light into a leaking moon (thus keeping the world from plunging into darkness), loses his wife to boredom and a Circe-like song. He abandons his chores and sets sail to find her, encountering a "prison fish" that devours him whole like Jonah, a goofy crew of sailors, a mighty battle, a sea storm and the End of the World.
Before you start paging Jerry Bruheimer or Michel Bey, rest assured These Magnificent Seven here have it all in hand with their own do-it-yourself or make-do aesthetics, creating stunning visuals with burlap, flashlights, bottles and a laundry list of low-tech effects. It's inventive and fun, but B.Y.O.I. (Bring Your Own Imagination). TO JAIL AND BACK: His 12 years a convict, Joe Assadorian was a one-man riot in the cellblock, regaling fellow inmates at New York's Otisville Correctional Facility with dead-on imitations of the denizens there. But that was then, and this is now — one year later, exactly, on Oct. 8. He has corralled 19 of those rough customers and crammed them into The Bullpen, his 65-minute solo show at The Playroom on W. 46th St.
The title, in case you don't know, is a large holding cell where detainees wait to be sorted out for transfer or arraignment — not a nice place to visit, except as a patron.
Another cell-ebration: Billy Hayes opens his one-con show, Riding the Midnight Express, at the Barrow Street Theatre Oct. 2, the 39th anniversary of his escape from a Turkish prison where he was serving 30 years for smuggling hashish. It's quite a different yarn than Brad Davis played in the '79 film, a Best Picture Oscar contender.
As the man who lived it tells it, he escaped the island prison on Imrali in the Sea of Marmara by skiff to the mainland during a raging storm, by cab to Bursa, by bus to Istanbul and by foot through a minefield to Greece, where he was almost shot as a spy and held for 12 days before he was finally deported to the good old U.S. of A. The play is his attempt to refute "Midnight Express." Oliver Stone, who won an Oscar for that screenplay, simply had Hayes kill the evil guard and walk out of the prison.
POPPING CAPRA-CORN FROM A PRIZE PROPERTY: Not only is You Can't Take It With You the Pulitzer Prize-winning Best Play of 1937, it's also the Academy Award-winning Best Picture of 1938. Only one other property achieved those twin wins: Driving Miss Daisy — and it was lovingly turned into film by its creator, Alfred Uhry.
You Can't Take It With You (the play) just settled into the Longacre for a sixth Broadway outing. The movie pops up Oct. 22 to cap "Capra," Film Forum's two-week (Oct. 10-23) salute to director Frank Capra, who won his third Oscar for "YCTIWY."
Capra caught the play when he was in New York to premiere Columbia Pictures' most expensive flick to date, "Lost Horizons" (which, incidentally, kicks kick off the Capra retrospective Oct. 10-11 with a scene that has been missing for 75 years. He started hammering on Columbia prexy Harry Cohn to shell out what was then considered an exorbitant sum for the rights. Grudgingly, Cohn paid the $200,000.
Although the play is something of a perennial with high schools and community theatres, the YCTIWY that most people remember is the movie version, which is in perpetual rerun on television — and that's a distinctly different kettle of kooks. What George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart created was a family of highly idiosyncratic individuals rubbing uneasy elbows with the straight world — basically, the same conflict Kaufman and Edna Ferber drew in The Royal Family: an acting dynasty vs. "the non-pros." YCTIWY has a Montague/Capulet tint: the sanest of the Vanderhof-Sycamore loons makes amorous inroads with her boss, Tony Kirby of the capitalistic Kirbys. It seemed to fit Capra's mold of common-man comedies, and the move from the Vanderhof living room to the real world added 134 characters to the original 19.
For starters, the story (which never strayed from the Vanderhof homestead) begins on Wall Street and stays there a long time while Tony's bank-magnate father gets the upper hand on a rival by buying up all the property around him. The lone hold-out: Grandpa Vanderhof, and, when/if he signs up, there goes the neighborhood.
"I think what drew Capra to You Can't Take It With You was the sort of social populism he subscribed to," reasoned Hart's son, Christopher. "That was his thing. He transformed the piece into his way of thinking rather than make a movie of the play. Land issues and having to move weren't issues in the original story. The film focuses on the Kirbys, resolving that father-son conflict, more than the Vanderhofs."
Several city blocks of sold-short masses rally against the machinations of money-grubbing Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold), who finally sees the error of his ways when his business rival (H.B. Warner, DeMille's "King of Kings") works himself into a fatal heart attack delivering the film's longest rant against the unbridled greed of the rich.
Such additions forced a few of the play's characters out of the picture. Stopped at the studio gate were a couple of Vanderhof houseguests — an exiled Russian royal-turned-Times Square-waitress and an in-her-cups actress — but these bits work like gang busters on stage, as Elizabeth Ashley and Julie Halston handily demonstrate.
The Russkie who does come to dinner—repeatedly ("Grandpa, I'm in time for dinner, no?") — is a dance teacher responsible for setting one character into constant balletic tics, twists and twirls. Mischa Auer played him in the movie — with the same slacker instincts he showed as the perennial houseguest in 1936's "My Man Godfrey." "The movie made him a freeloader, but he's not that guy in the play," bristled Reg Rogers, the current custodian of the part. "He's more of a philosopher — and he's dark. Grandpa says, 'Don't mind Kolenkhov. He lives in a darker place than the rest of us,' and I think that's true. He has one line where he says, 'Ah, love! Love is the only thing left in the world, and soon Stalin will take that away from us as well.'"
Robert Riskin, a skilled and witty adapter, moved the romantic subplot front and center, but his inventions were painless, thanks to the infectious charm of Jean Arthur and, reaching the first rung of stardom here, James Stewart. Capra confirmed this the next year by reteaming him with her in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
You Can't Take It With You is also Lionel Barrymore's last stand. He played Grandpa Vanderhof on crutches, with hourly injections to relieve the pain of his arthritis. The script explained this condition as the result of a dare from his granddaughter to slide down the banister, but, just before filming began, Barrymore lost the use of his legs. He had tripped over a cable on the set of "Saratoga," aggravating an old hip injury. That plus the arthritis found him spending his other 1938 movies ("Navy Blue and Gold," "A Yank at Oxford," "Test Pilot") standing and sitting. After this film, he retired permanently to a wheelchair — which meant he couldn't film his famous radio role, Scrooge, or play Dr. Meade in "Gone With the Wind," who would have looked ludicrous tending a rail-yard full of wounded Confederates in a wheelchair.
Capra brought things to a harmonious, if cloyingly corny, conclusion with Arnold and Barrymore doing a dueling-harmonica version of "Polly Waddle Doodle All Day."
NEW COLE GOLD: The first La Mome Pistache, 89-year-old Lilo, was the special bonbon that topped the press meet 'n' greet for Can-Can, which opens its 2014-15 season at the Paper Mill Playhouse Oct. 1-26. With Kate Baldwin and Jason Danieley in the lead roles, they are billing it "a Broadway-bound, world-class revival."
Other than the role, Lilo and Baldwin have another thing in common: "Gay Paree." "That song was never in the Broadway production," pointed out this revival's co-adapter, Joel Fields. "It was written for the show but dropped out of town. We found it and restored it. It now opens the second act. We found references to it in historical pieces about Can-Can, then a record — I think it was called 'Porter Sings Porter' — and we heard Cole Porter playing and singing the song in that wonderfully distinctive voice of his. You could almost hear the clink of ice in his glass while he's playing it. "We wanted to keep all of the original songs and not raid the Porter catalog. There's so much that's brilliant in it already. Who needs to do that when you have 'C'est Magnifique,' 'I Love Paris,' 'It's All Right With Me' and 'Allez-Vous En' in the score?" If only 20th Century Fox had been as considerate with its 1960 film version. In order to inject a little ring-a-ding-ding zing into musty old Montmartre, adapters Dorothy Kingsley and Charles Lederer invented a whole new character for Frank Sinatra.
"Our goal," said Fields, "was not to make it feel like a new book. Our goal was to make an audience member who had never seen the show before feel like they were seeing a perfect musical from the '50s. There was so much in the Abe Burrows book that worked beautifully, and there were also some things that felt like they could be transformed. Some of the changing was to create more of a character journey."
According to his co-adapter, director David Lee, "The main change is the relationship of the two leads. In the original, it was one of those things where they met in the third scene, fell in love and split up by the act break. That always seemed to be a big journey to take in a short period of time. So we just looked at 'C'est Magnifique,' where she's talking about 'When love comes in and takes you for a spin,' then 'one day, your loved one drifts away, but when once more, she whispers, 'Je t'adore, c'est magnifique.' What's she talking about? We came up with the idea that these two knew each other when they were young. They had a horrible split. He's gone on to become a judge, she's to become a dance-hall operator. This brings them together. That seemed to be the key, and we found the key in Cole Porter."
RITA RULES THE ROOM: I don't care who her husband is. Rita Wilson is drawing sizable crowds on her own in her premiere gig at Café Carlyle (through Oct. 4) — and doing it the hard way: singing her own stuff, songs she wrote, co-wrote or covered. Part Bulgarian, part Greek (a "Buleek"), she has some legitimate claims to the room: One, she attended the last shows the hotel's star resident, Elaine Stritch, gave there. And two, she co-starred in a commercial with the Carlyle's longtime headliner, Bobby Short. While he sang the praises of a perfume ("Kinda young / Kinda now / Charlie / Kinda free / Kinda wow / Charlie / Kinda fragrance that's Doris Day / And it's here now / Charlie"), she blithely pushed her guy off a pier.