"There are smiles that make you happy, there are smiles that make you blue," goes the old song. And there are smiles that set your teeth on edge. "Harold and Maude," a truly dopey play by Colin Higgins that the Martin Beck had the misfortune to acquire last night, smiled until it set my teeth so on edge I was afraid they'd wear down to the pulp before it was over and Janet Gaynor came out to bow demurely in the misty glow of a baby-blue spot.
Yep, Janet Gaynor, the little darling of "Seventh Heaven," "Sunny Side Up" and the original "A Star Is Born," making an ill-advised Broadway debut in a piece of mush that has persevered on the movie screen, where it has become a cult favorite among the young; as a novel; and as a play commissioned by Jean-Louis Barrault (which we are told has been in the French repertory since 1973, a statistic that should give you some idea of the current state of the Paris theater) since Higgins first wrote it as a screenplay for his master's thesis in 1970.
For those of you who, like myself, have not been exposed to any of the earlier versions, a few explanations are in order. "Harold and Maude" is the story of a love affair (evidently consummated, we're led to believe by a dimmed-out bed scene) between a neurotic 19-year-old named Harold, an ingenious inventor of mock suicides, and a dotty old woman named Maude who turns 80 with a stupefyingly sentimental gesture that bails out both Harold and the playwright as surely as the arrival of a Marine regiment.
Maude, an Austrian countess, if we are to take her at her word, lives in a house she has found empty and moved into unannounced, filling it with furniture bought on time but never paid for, and various purloined items, including a baby seal from the local zoo. Harold, who has heretofore shown no great interest in the opposite sex, lives with his widowed and overbearing mother whom he tries to disconcert with such fake but painstakingly designed stratagems as hanging himself, blowing himself up, lopping off his hand at the wrist, and so on. These inspirations date back to his accidental burning down of the school chemistry lab.
It is a mutual interest in attending funerals, any funerals, that brings the two together. And since, in addition to having an incurably sunny disposition and a frighteningly even temper, the liberal-minded Maude is drenched in penny philosophy and aphorisms ("Today's cliches are tomorrow's profundities, and vice versa," is one of her gems), Harold soon succumbs to the old bat's outlook. So much so that he can explain he smells snow as he samples a "Christmas in New York" concoction in an odor machine of her invention.
The screenplay source of the material is evident in the way the action skips back and forth between the two households (back-to-back sets on a turntable), to a cemetary, a forest glade, a church and a psychiatrist's office. And David Amram's soundtrack-like score, which allows for a little hymn sung by the star, skillfully supports the motion-picture illusion.
I had the odd impression that Miss Gaynor, whose performance has an attractive sweetness when she isn't being called upon to say or do so many silly things, may have been ensnared by fond memories of one of her last movies, "The Young in Heart." A bespectacled Keith McDermott resembles a redhead Harold Lloyd, and some of his "suicide" devices are amusing. But acting honors must go to Ruth Ford for her comically poised performance as the disdainful mother who, among other things, takes advantage of a computer dating service to screen three applicants (all widely divergent caricatures, of course) in the hope of finding a suitable mate for her screwy son. Chet Doherty, Berit Lagerwall, Jack Bittner, Jay Barney and the various other supporting players perform efficiently under Robert Lewis' thoroughly expert direction.
Tony Straiges' toy-house sets are about what the play deserves, and Florence Klotz' costumes and Neil Peter Jampolis' lighting are nothing but flattering to the enterprise. But "Harold and Maude" is bathetic tripe.
Over the past 10 years Colin Higgins has gotten so much mileage out of Harold and Maude that he was probably thinking of them as surrogate parents, or at least friendly bank officials. It has been a movie, a novel and a hit play in Paris. But every winning streak has to end somewhere - and for Higgins I suspect it ended last night at the Martin Beck, when Harold and Maude was officially recycled as a Broadway play.
This mawkish little piece about the milder shores of love might not succeed with Broadway audiences, who are strange animals with a notably low threshold for arrant sentimentality. The story could be intended to be a fable, but I suspect it was merely intended to be funny. In truth, for the first 20 minutes or so it is. Then gush sets in like dry-rot and the play crumbles nastily before our very eyes.
Harold is a young man of ingenious bent who attempts to obtain the attention of his widowed mother with a brilliantly devised series of pretended suicides. He has perpetuated 15 of these before the play opens, and as the curtain rises we find his hanging body inertly suspended from a chandelier - which is number 16. Unfortunately, while it succeeds in giving an ooh-la-la to the new French maid unaccustomed to his taste for mortality, the mother is so unmoved she doesn't even read the suicide note.
Then at a funeral - he identifies with funerals - he meets an eccentrice 80-year-old Countess, Maude. Maude has free-thinking ideas on property, and indeed on almost everything else. It is Auntie Mame time. Maude opens the whole world up to the cloistered young Harold. She shows him all the worthwhile things, such as the birds, sunflowers, music and seals.
Harold falls madly in love with Maude. Not just emotionally but physically. He decides he wants to marry her, despite, or perhaps even because of, the 60-year difference in their age.
The ending, which I shall not reveal, should come as no surprise to anyone accustomed to seeing playwrights painting themselves into a corner and then acting like a stag at bay.
There is, at first, a very definite sweetness to Maude. Harold, too, in his zany fashion has something to commend him - after all no one can be all bad who introduces himself to his nervous computer date by simulating chopping off his hand with a meat cleaver. And added to this is the mother who has vinegar and eau de cologne flowing where her blood should be.
Robert Lewis has directed - especially with some of the specific shticks - with considerable resource. Tony Straiges' doll's house setting more or less works, and Florence Klotz' costumes are suitable.
In many areas the acting is too exaggerated, probably because Lewis decided, validly enough perhaps, to let the playwright have his head and his gags. Keigh McDermott, an extremely vivid actor usually, seems at loss with the character of Harold and stumbles over the transition from crazy genius to awakened lover.
However two performances are exquisite. Ruth Ford as the mother, playing with parental responsibility as is it were a Tiffany bracelet, and with strangled looks and a huskily startled voice, seems perfectly perfect.
The surprise, however, is really Janet Gaynor. It appears that this is her Broadway debut, and to judge from her program bio, it could be her stage debut. Why did the lady wait so long? She's terrific. Playful, wry, chirpy, indomitable and very lovely - she plays the part to the life. Seriously, if Harold and Maude is worth seeing at all, it is worth seeing most of all for the spectacle of the chunkily-gossamer figure of Miss Gaynor in full geriatric fig.
In some remarkable way, Janet Gaynor has been able to preserve her sweetness down the years, all 73 of them. Her hair is a tightly curled gray now, she is just about as plump as she ought to be, she has a funny little half-hop that suggests some spiritual kinship with the rabbit kingdom, her eyes glitter with honest amusement. You like her. You feel protective about her. You want to take her by the hand and get her out of all this.
All this being "Harold and Maude," the latest version of a relentlessly fey conceit by Colin Higgins that has already done duty as a film, a novel, and a Parisian play. I have not seen any of its earlier incarnations. I have a feeling I've seen the last, though. The multi-scened mess at the Martin Beck is not only soporific in its wistful stabs at zany philosophizing, it is downright grisly whenever it decides to make a joke.
Not grisly, mind you, because of Harold's many and varied attempts at killing himself. In fact, the evening's first image, after the painted front curtain that is a tangle of sunflowers has gone up, is in itself amusing. Harold, a 19-year-old redhead (Keith McDermott), is hanging by the neck from the chandelier of his living room, a good three feet off the floor. So far, so funny. The trouble begins the moment the lad's lowered himself and the people of the play begin talking.
Harold's elaborately faked suicides - he subsequently sets fire to himself, blows himself up with three sticks of dynamite, and makes a show of chopping off his right hand with a meat cleaver - are all simply attempts to attract his mother's attention. Why he should wish to attract mother Ruth Ford's attention is less than clear, since the unfeeling creature is plainly as obtuse as she is unintelligent, but I suppose we must grant a playwright a few beginning premises.
What cannot be granted, I'm afraid, is the quality of the quips that now begin popping. Miss Ford, who slugs away at the part for a great deal more than it's worth (I shall think of her as Slugger Ford from this day on), probably has the worst of these. Speaking of Harold, she remarks "Sometimes I look at him and wonder if he's completely lost his head" at precisely the same time that a maid removes the silver lid from a dish she's serving to reveal Harold's severed head on the platter. Nor is the author satisfied with that. Harold, headless, must now stalk into the room to help build the blackout - which is why so many of the evening's blackouts tend to vanish in a hush.
No, perhaps I'm wrong about who has the worst gags. In an effort to cure Harold's malaise by marrying him off, Miss Ford interviews no fewer than three computer-selected candidates, one of whom adopts the stance of a bull-frog wearing a vest and one of whom is a working actress. The actress is planning to play Cleopatra, "with an Egyptian accent." She already seems to have appeared in "The Cherry Orchard," by Ibsen. I am not certain that these jests qualify for what is sometimes called the Big Time.
But there is another half to the play, Janet Gaynor's half. The Tony Straiges scenery, which is handsome but very nervous, keeps twitching at its turntable in its eagerness to go somewhere else, and whenever it does go somewhere else it is likely to pick up Miss Gaynor - having lunch at a funeral, replanting a sickly fir in a graveyard, climbing a tall tree, puttering about among the doodads of the cluttered cottage she calls home. The doodads include a stolen traffic light suspended from the ceiling; a piano placed directly against a roof-support so that, in order to play it with two hands, the left hand must be curved around the sturdy beam; and a machine Miss Gaynor has invented that produces an assortment of odors on demand, including the aroma of roast chestnuts.
Yes, the lady is a kook, one of your "deep" ones, the sort who devotes herself to removing the lock from the church poor box, liberating canaries from pet shops, and purloining cars and trucks as needed. Stashed away among the sunflowers in her backyard is a baby seal, recently reported missing from the local zoo; the problem of getting it out of the sunflowers and off the premises give rise to the most awkward piece of stage business the Martin Beck can ever have fallen heir to.
Having met Miss Gaynor, and having dined with her Oriental-style while she does a perfectly O.K. hula, Harold falls in love with her, eventually planning to marry her. It's not just that she's charming (we see that). It's that she's wise, wise, wise (here we pull up short again, sharply). Miss Gaynor has been given bromides without bite by way of aphorisms, and must do her still-dimpled best to make them sound demi-profound.
"None of us really owns anything," she must say, "we come into the world with nothing, we go out of it with nothing." Everyone lives in a castle, she points out, but that's no reason for not lowering the drawbridge and going for a stroll now and again. When she has proudly shown the lad a postcard and he's complained that it's only a postcard, she comes close to exploding: "Just a postcard! Suppose it was the only postcard in the world? Then everyone would want to see it!" As the actress struggles to proclaim the triumph of the ordinary, the play sighs and dies for want of a soupçon of wit.
Now Miss Ganyor, who has not done a great deal of stage work during her lifetime, comes a good bit better equipped than you might think. Her gestures are not only graceful; she finishes them. Her eyes still possess an ingénue's twinkle, her smile is ingénue-ingratiating, her readings are earnest and attentive and decently varied. If she has a problem, it's that she's also confined to an ingénue's voice, one that would most likely not be strong enough to exert command over a better play.
But she hasn't got a better play; we've got to do the best we can to content ourselves with simply liking her. Personally. The play she's got is one in which, at the moment Harold offers her a ring, she discloses that she's taken a sufficient number of sleeping pills to assure her immediate demise, after which she rises into a baby spotlight - shades of "Smilin' Thru" and "Maytime"! - and walks slowly across stage into the sunflower-patch, where she subsides. One supposes, come spring, she'll make a nice row of daffodils.
Before leaving her young swain, she reassures him. The author has arranged that she pat the boy's head gently while murmuring "And this, too, shall pass."