"Horowitz and Mrs. Washington," which was brought to the Golden last night by a battery of producers, is a shameless sentimental comedy about an elderly, retired and cantankerous Jewish manufacturer who is recuperating from a stroke, and a widowed black practical nurse who has been hired to come in days to cook and care for him in his Central Park West apartment. Sam Levene is Horowitz and Esther Rolle is Mrs. Washington, and I'm sure you could take it from there on your own.
The play that Henry Denker has extracted somewhat awkwardly from his recent novel of the same name is essentially a comedy routine, albeit a lengthy one, with Rolle playing straight woman to Levene. The latter, employing with impressive mastery every trick in his considerable comic vocabulary, is almost a show in himself, and Rolle makes a poised and effective foil. But all their efforts, together with those of Joshua Logan, who has staged the work with a resourcefulness that makes one regret his long absences from Broadway, cannot overcome the obviousness and mawkishness of the story, as well as its patronizing air.
Our Sunshine Boy, Levene, having gotten most, but by no means all, of the black, Hispanic and Jewish jokes out of his system, has developed a fondness for Mrs. Washington, whose therapy sessions have brought her patient well along the road to recovery. But there is a threat now that his daughter Mona, a socially hyperactive West Coast matron, will, with the connivance of his lawyer son Marvin, who has changed his surname to Hammond, sell off the old man's belongings and ship him to California. Among her other interests, Mona is on the board of the Hebrew Home for the Aged there. But, of course, we need have no fear of that happening, and if Horowitz and Mrs. Washington aren't prepared to hitch up at the finish, they do plan to take in a show together now and then.
Denker, in trying to adapt his rather long novel to the stage, bridges scenes by dropping a painted gauze curtain and using offstage voices to describe events taking place outside the apartment. Among the latter is the arrest of Mrs. Washington's grandson who, during a citywide power blackout, has stolen an air conditioner for her comfort. This leads to a maudlin and totally gratuitous scene between Horowitz and the boy.
Theodore Sikel strikes a nice balance between filial concerns and personal ambition as the lean, graying Marvin. The possessed Mona, in contrast to her brother's cool, is all histrionics in Patricia Roe's performance. Joe DeSantis is briefly effective as a doctor whose inspection of his patient elicits nothing but "aahhs," and Christopher Blount makes a momentary appearance as the errant grandson.
Steven Rubin has brought an accurate eye to bear on a long-lived-in West Side apartment colorlessly but comfortably furnished by the late Mrs. Horowitz, and the costumes and lighting are equally complementary.
Rolle, who has achieved prominence in a TV situation comedy, hasn't strayed far from the medium with this play, and Levene, who has so far successfully avoided television, didn't really deserve to be brought so close to it.
There is nothing so depressing as a play that has an attitude where its story ought to be. Horowitz and Mrs. Washington, which for some obscure reason obviously apparent to its producers and backers, opened at the John Golden Theater last night, is precisely the sort of junk play that used to give Broadway a bad name.
Now, life is not made up of haute cuisine dinners at Lutece. If only it were. There is perhaps a place in life for junk food - but junk food at a price. Horowitz and Mrs. Washington is a situation comedy I would not even trouble to watch on TV during a blizzard in a transit strike. I would rather read a junk book.
Years ago - when Broadway was a very unprofitable area and dying at the seams - it was jammed, briefly at least, with this kind of non-essential, patronising and fundamentally worthless play. Then people got smart - some people that is. They realized that if audiences were going to pay solid bucks to go out to a show, they wanted a little more energizing than TV-pap. And it worked. Broadway became profitable again. You can't put back that particular clock.
Good news. A couple of very decent actors, personal favorites of mine and probably yours - Same Leven and Esther Rolle. I have seen them both better, but I hardly hold that against them in the circumstances. Bad news. Henry Denker's play, apparently from his novel of the same name. He should have kept it as a novel, or made it into a film script, or done something else, almost anything else, with it.
The anecdote is an odd couple - a curmudgeonly old Jew with a heart stuffed with gefilte fish and a big, black mama of a nurse. The poor old guy, a widower yet, beset with awful, but well-meaning children, has been mugged in Central Park, and then has a stroke in the hospital. As they point out to him, if you are going to have a stroke, where better?
This old man so bigoted that if he found himself in Las Vegas he wouldn't even be able to bring himself to play blackjack, spends the first act indulging the audience in singularly nasty jokes. This is meant to show how lovable the man is.
The big black mama takes it all in her ample stride, and nurses him back to a semblence of motor activity - thus preventing him from joining his totally obnoxious daughter (who he patently sired and richly deserves) in San Diego.
Denker has a nose for dramatic cliches, and digs for them as if they were truffles. His play is as predictable as a yo-yo, and only slightly less interesting.
Joshua Logan directs with a sort of gallantry, I suppose, but the performances are, generally speaking, awful, except in the cases of Levene and Miss Rolle, where embarrassed would be a fairer epithet.
The scenery by Steven Rubin - the best part of the evening - seemed totally realistic to a certain style of life. Or death. Give unto television that which is television's. Simply don't charge $22.50 a seat for it.
It was a rough night in the theater. Thank heavens, I got a taxie each way, and very easily. It was the kind of play you might walk to, but would have felt impelled to run from.
I have never been able to resist Sam Levene, and I certainly have no plan to start doing so now. Here he is again, at the Golden, this time whipping a wheelchair round and about the faded furniture of a family apartment on Central Park West, scowling and growling and venting his soaringly melodic spleen on black people and marbles, more or less equally.
And he is funny, as he is accustomed to being. Crusty-funny, endearing-funny I guess one of the things I most admire about him is that if he is endearing, he never tries to be. Or at least never lets you catch him at it. He comes by his hostilities honestly.
In Henry Denker's "Horowitz and Mrs. Washington," which seems like a rough sketch for a play with none of the subtleties worked in yet, Mr. Levene is brought home from a hospital after having been mugged, slashed with a knife, and then felled by a stroke while waiting in the emergency room (he was "lucky" to have been where he was when the stroke hit him, his somewhat obtuse son cheerfully ventures.)
It is not Mr. Levene's intention to be cheerful about anything. Since his attacker was black, he is going to sing out a few savage bars on the subject of that racial minority (being Jewish, he's a member of a minority himself, but that doesn't deter him in the least). Of course, we tell ourselves that he doesn't exactly mean what he's saying, that he's simply seizing a splendid opportunity to be outrageous. And outrageous he is, especially after discovering that the therapist who's been hired to coax him back to animated life is also black. "There is nothing worse than an educated Negro!" the man bleats.
In his nurse, however, he has met his match. The deceptively bland Esther Rolle, that Mount Rushmore of a performer, simply stands her ground until he is ready to put his left hand and foot to work, whether the effort involves picking up marbles and buttons, cutting up his food or getting about with the cane of his choice. If he is intractable, she is a tyrant - and he's intelligent enough to recognize the fact. "Did you ever have an ambition to run a concentration camp?" he asks, raising his eyebrows slightly higher than his forehead. He offers to open a chain of them for her.
But because the good lady is omnipresent, and because it turns out that she can produce blintzes as delectable as his late wife did, Mr. Levene gradually turns his lyric furies in other directions. The infinite distaste with which he glowers at a recalcitrant marble (one that doesn't care to be picked up) is richly instructive. Mr. Levene makes it transparently clear, in the sheer ferocity of his concentration, that inanimate objects lead lives of their own - disreputable lives.
He is not ashamed of himself. He is ashamed of the marble. There is rebuke in his glare, a sense of scandal in the blazing whites of his eyes. And how have canes come to make such shabby spectacles of themselves? Presented with a choice of three or four samples, he rejects one as though it had deliberately set out to offend his esthetic sensibilities, explaining that this cane ought to be sold as part of a set - complete with a tin cup and pencils.
Any heartfelt venom has has left over is reserved for his daughter, a do-gooder who's helped established a Jewish nursing home in San Diego and would dearly love to install him there. Mr. Levene makes a lovely aria of loathing out of the mere repetition of the name of the city this busybody lives in. I should add that Mr. Levene is in no sense a clown. He is a wonderfully wicked actor.
Miss Rolle is of considerable help, body stolid, voice penetrating, mind clicking away without the bat of an eyelid. Waspishly informing her charge that she's sure he doesn't mean vocal therapy, she's sneakily amusing. Given a one-word tag to a joke, she lands it with thunderclap authority. When Mr. Levene remarks that you can tell how rich a white man is by the tan he acquires in the winter and then asks how you can tell about a black, Miss Rolle's blunt "Cadillacs" comes down as though gravity had just struck.
I now must call your attention to that last joke. You heard it before. And how many years ago? There are very few lines, and very few attitudes, in Mr. Denker's play that you haven't come across before; and when a fresh one is occasionally concocted, it's so transparently concocted that it's robbed of all possible surprise.
"Horowitz and Mrs. Washington" is the sort of piece that's stitched together with set-ups, enabling you to envision the next scene while the present one is playing. If a patient comes home from the hospital carrying on about blacks, what kind of nurse is going to care for him? Right. If the therapist is going to cook the Jewish curmudgeon's meals for him, what kind of food will she cook? You've got it. If, in a moment of sentiment, the old fellow gives her grandson his bar mitzvah gold piece, and if, later on, he and his nurse have a violent falling-out, what's she going to give him back?
The falling-out itself, forced into place to provide a climax before intermission, is composed of very stock stuff: she berates him because Jews own Harlem tenements; he defends his race by pointing out how many Jews have been killed fighting for civil rights. The emotional flipflops themselves are often arbitrary, popping up because we must have a change of pace. In one scene, Miss Rolle is urging Mr. Levene to crush the morning newspaper with both hands; his damaged muscles need a workout. Mr. Levene observes that he can't crush the newspaper and read it at the same time. Having delivered the gag line, he leaps to his feet and dismisses the woman. But this is nowhere near the worst task she's set him. It's simply time for a flareup, that's all.
The evening has been given a firm and confident look by the director, Joshua Logan, and splendidly served by its two principals (though not by daughter Patricia Roe, who mugs horrendously). But it's predictable and repetitive, even with Sam Levene to call out self-derisively, "If you want to see a man of 72 play with buttons, gather round!" Personally, I'd like to see Mr. Levene play with buttons or marbles or blintzes or canes anytime. But the play needs therapy.