PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Catered Affair — Altar Egos

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18 Apr 2008

Harvey Fierstein, Faith Prince, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Matt Cavenaugh, Heather MacRae, Kristine Zbornik, Katie Klaus, John Doyle and John Bucchino.
Harvey Fierstein, Faith Prince, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Matt Cavenaugh, Heather MacRae, Kristine Zbornik, Katie Klaus, John Doyle and John Bucchino.
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Marriage as an institution ("and who wants to be in an institution?") is explored on a variety of planes — present tense, future tense and very tense — in A Catered Affair, a domestic musical donnybrook that bowed and curtsied April 17 at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

The Hurley household in The Bronx is the home under attack — from within: Daughter Janey (Leslie Kritzer) has decided to marry herself off the premises, not out of an overriding passion, but because she and her Ralph (Matt Cavenaugh) can get a free honeymoon by delivering in one quick hurry a friend's car to the West Coast.

"It sounds sillier every time I tell it," scoffs her mother, Aggie (Faith Prince), who herself was rushed down the aisle, in off-white, with child and without a Kodak moment to hold on to. She chides her taxi-hack hubby, Tom (Tom Wopat), to make it up to her at long last by giving their daughter the wedding they never had. All of a sudden, elopement is not an option — even though it is the MO of choice for the participating couple. Never mind them and to hell with the expense (which costs Tom his dream of owning a Medallion taxi and eats up the bereavement check from the government for their recently fallen soldier son) — Aggie will have her dream!

She almost goes the 90-minute distance strangle-holding this dream, and, when the realistic world forces her to release it, Aggie lets out all the angst and anger in her system, like a proud lonely lioness in the jungle mortally wounded by pygmies.

Music, it can be said, helps this very bitter pill go down. The songs are by John Bucchino, who has developed a prestigious cult following well outside of Broadway's earshot, and the book (via Paddy Chayefsky's 1955 teleplay and Gore Vidal's 1956 screenplay) is by Harvey Fierstein, a Main Stem mainstreamer and Theatre Hall of Famer with two Tonys for writing and one for acting to his credit.

Fierstein wears both hats here, writing himself into the show in a role that was Barry Fitzgerald's last in Hollywood. Although Harvey makes his entrance with an emerald-green "Top o' the morning," he's hardly the type to play a twinkly Irish drunk slug, so the author has custom-fitted the part to his specifications. Instead of a "confirmed bachelor," Uncle Winston is now a gay man temporarily out of love.

Fierstein explained at the elaborate after-party thrown at the Hilton Hotel's Grand Ballroom: "When I was examining Faith's role, I asked myself what I really want to say with that role. Aggie was a woman who didn't realize that her husband loved her. That was the Paddy Chayefsky thing that interested me. So I said, 'How do I take that up to the level I want to take it to? How do I talk about living your whole life in love with someone but being so scared that he doesn't love you that you don't dare to allow yourself to love him?' Once I knew that, I wondered how to show that. Then I thought, 'The brother doesn't do anything in the movie. He's just comic relief — a drunken Irishman — and I didn't want to do a bad stereotype. Then, it occurred to me, 'Gay men in the '50s had no lives. They're hidden. They have sex in shadows.' Which is not unlike what Aggie's doing. That's when the idea came to me: to contrast the gay brother who has no life and the sister who should have a life and has no life."

A Catered Affair has been gnawing at Fierstein longer than you might imagine. "When I was a kid, I saw the movie, and I always loved it. Then, about 25 years ago, I wanted to write it for Chita so I went to Kander & Ebb. They weren't interested, so I put it away for another ten years or so. Then, I said, 'Maybe it's time to do it.' I was getting a little frustrated at the shows I was being asked to write. I just thought they were all so silly. I don't have time to do silly. La Cage aux Folles certainly was light, but it wasn't silly. I did do silly once. I did Legs Diamond, which really taught me a lesson not to waste time. Life is too precious to waste. So, after a while, I finally said, 'Let me see what I can get together here.' And that's what we did. We went to work."


Glenn Close, Bernadette Peters, Scott Wittman, Matthew Broderick and Marc Shaiman, Edie Falco, Joan Rivers, Kathie Lee Gifford, Regis Philbin and Joy Philbin, S. Epatha Merkerson, Suzanne Vega and B.D. Wong.
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Constantine Kitsopoulos, who's used to bigger Broadway stuff (La Boheme, Coram Boy, Swan Lake), led an orchestra of ten through Jonathan Tunick's delicate orchestrations. The cast on stage also numbers ten, and, this being a John Doyle-directed show, it should be pointed out that there was no overlapping. The actors played parts — not instruments, as was his Tony-nominated (Sweeney Todd) and Tony-winning (Company) wont — and every man-jack of them was ready to canonize him.

Most actors — certainly the ones who've worked on his three Broadway shows — revere him, but Doyle was hard-pressed to explain the special rapport he has with his actors.

He observed, "You do your job. You work with them as people. It's far too complicated to explain quickly. It's a personal relationship and asking them to tell the truth. And that's all."

Next, Doyle will relapse into Sondheim — specifically, the composer-lyricist's much-workshopped musical with John Weidman about Addison and Wilson Mizner, Bounce. "That will be happening in the fall and down at The Public, so I'm very excited about it," Doyle said. "It's not a workshop. We're going to do the whole thing. We're doing it for real."

All fixed up from the dowdy-housefrau stage-disguise, looking downright glamorous in a billowy black-crepe affair with matching wig, Prince made her fashionably late Star Entrance and drew clusters of press and adoring fans.

Having given — in spades — "at the office," she did not arrive via stretcher-bearers. There were no hints of fatigue from her emotional whirlwind. Fact is, she seemed exuberant. "No, the show is not draining for me. In fact, I sleep really well at night."

Which is not to say her work is easy. Aggie's dream dies hard, and Prince hammers it to your heart. "It's a pretty high dive there," she conceded, "but, honey, that's the only way to do this show. John Doyle says 'Go for it, babe. That's the only way to fly.'

"But you know what? The play kinda does the work for you. It's so great. Those dominos are just stacked stacked stacked. Everything happens in, like, 36 hours."

First and last, A Catered Affair is a drama, almost just incidentally, with music. And Prince honors the drama magnificently — at one point holding a silent stage for what seems like two minutes. But she definitely and emphatically counts Bucchino a collaborator in her performance. "I think the songs add such depth in a totally different way, and haunting themes, and the lyrics are so seamless. It's kind of a different form. And Jonathan Tunick's amazing orchestration. It's a total little gem."

Plus, she's pleased Fierstein built a relatable universality into Aggie. "I'm playing my grandmother, and she's from Augusta, GA. And this takes place in The Bronx. When John Doyle read the script, he was reminded of his grandmother in Scotland. That's what I love about the piece. It's for everybody. Everybody relates somehow."

Wopat comes in for some universality, too — particularly in the show's powerful 11 o'clock number, which — surprise, surprise — goes to him rather than to Prince, giving the show balance and making it more than a star vehicle for her. Standing up on his hind-legs it seems, he barks out "I Stayed," the rattle of a simple man who footed the bills and compromised his own dreams to make his family comfortable.


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