Phyllis Newman needs a job, and "The Madwoman of Central Park West," a solo musical that opened last night at 22 Steps, is her resume. In song and story, the comely brunette comedienne outlines her career as wife, mother and performer, and describes her burning ambition, now that she has a little time on her hands, to get back into the traces of show business.
You might say, that's exactly what she's doing now in this carefully prepared entertainment, first seen last spring at the Hudson Guild in a slightly different form entitled "My Mother Was a Fortune Teller." And you'd be right, except for the fact that this extremely personal piece is more or less a cross between self-analysis and showcase, a one-woman show for just one woman, Newman.
At least, I assume it's the McCoy, for the script, prepared by the star and playwright Arthur Laurents, who has also staged the evening smartly, is all in the first person and follows quite closely those details of her life with which the public is familiar. As for other details - her "fortune teller" mother; her difficulties (surmounted) in getting her husband, a "prince of Broadway," to hire her for a show; her flirtation with her daughter's teacher - it must be assumed that they, too, are accurate.
In order to support the title, the engaging star is presented in a well-appointed but disordered bedroom, appearing feet first from beneath the bed and then climbing onto it to jot down lists of things she must do or say or not do and not say, and to put her sassy, and unseen, teenage daughter in her place with several "zingers."
She goes on from there, with the occasional aid of projected drawings in color and a peppy five-piece band positioned behind a bedroom wall, to sing songs old and new and, in between, to show us a session with her witheringly abrasive male analyst (offstage voice), her meeting and first date with her future husband, her reactions on winning a Tony ("Subways Are for Sleeping"), that awkward flirtation, her comfortable status as a matron, her concern that it may be too late to reach her goal as a performer after so many years out of the business, and her final exultation at being on a stage once more.
The songs include such items as an excerpt from "Fiddler on the Roof" ("What Makes Me Love Him"), a pair of numbers ("My Mother Was a Fortune Teller" and "List Song") by the star and arranger John Clifton, a bright novelty piece ("Copacabana"), two clever show-type tunes ("Don't Laugh" and "Better"), the Peter Allen-Carole Bayer Sager "Don't Wish" (part of Allen's show at the Biltmore), and "No One's Toy," in the course of which a militant Newman expresses her dislike of "woman" songs on the order of "I Enjoy Being a Girl," "I Am Woman" and "There Is Nothing Like a Dame."
She is bright, amusing and in full command of her material. But lighthearted as her approach is, the closed air becomes the least bit fetid, the material being less general in application than, say, such a parallel work as the downtown "I'm Getting My Act Together." Still, true confession, both onstage and in print, seems to be all the rage these days.
Philipp Jung designed the ingenious setting, Theoni V. Aldredge did the star's clothes, and Ken Billington attended to the expert lighting. The sound, "designed" by Abe Jacob, is annoying, coming as it does from big speakers on either side of the stage of this relatively small house instead of from the person on stage or even the musicians behind the wall scrim.
Now, somebody please find Phyllis Newman a job in a full-fledged musical show.
There is something essentially gallant about a one-person show. It could so easily go wrong - and guess whose fault it would be then! However Phyllis Newman who last night opened The Madwoman of Central Park West need have no fears. The theater is that oddly-named Broadway newcomer on 48th Street, the 22 Steps, and Miss Newman did not take a single step wrong.
The show is described as "an original musical comedy" and that is precisely what it is. However it is not only original, it is in some respects positively strange.
It has an all-acting, all-singing, all-dancing cast of one, and a list of composers and lyricists running to 19, including many of the aristocrats of the business. Moreover, while the book has been written simply by Miss Newman herself and her director, Arthur Laurents, it appears to be loosely autobiographical, and has its heroine talking for quite a lot of time to the rest of an imaginary cast.
Psychiatrists occasionally employ something called an abreaction whereby the patient is encouraged to act out his or her past in a do-it-yourself search for possible traumas. In Madwoman the indomitable Miss Newman gives herself a thorough going-over. As therapy this is priceless - her producers should get a rebate from her for the couch-money she is saving.
But seriously this is an utterly delightful show, by a woman bold enough, delicate enough and sweet enough, to take her psyche off in public and give it a wash and a whirl. The result is crazy, brilliant and rather touching.
Miss Newman is someone I occasionally meet at cocktail parties, or across the crowded floors of restaurants, and she seems terrifyingly bright and makes me feel a klutz. Now in this show I realize I have nothing to fear from her ever again. She is totally vulnerable. Under that tough Manhattan carapace of art-deco stone there beats a heart of pure heart.
The story is simplicity itself. A woman is faced with home, family, career and mental health and all possible dangers thereto. With this particular madwoman the career happens to be show business - with all the special snares and delusions that that implies - yet she could be a lady in law or a woman in animal husbandry. The specific career matters less than the common pain.
But being a show-business matron, Miss Newman can work off her aggressions with style and fun. Also having, as they say, connections, she has been backed up musically by some of her nearest and dearest friends and musically the show is all bright lights and sentiment, glitter and enchantment.
Miss Newman is such an endearing and honest performer. She continually parodies herself - the show is intentionally an exercise in self-mockery - but does so with such charm protruding from beneath the parody, that you just want to protect her.
The woman is all-Broadway, and Laurents' staging of the show, precisely catches this quintessential element. Some months ago I saw this musical as a show-case Off-Off-Broadway. I loved it then, but it needed more work. More work has been done and this new Madwoman is an idiotic charmer full of vitality, fun, fantasy and guts.
In a one-woman show such as Phyllis Newman has provided in "The Madwoman of Central Park West," there is an inevitable blurring of lines between performer and personage.
When Lily Tomlin did the same kind of thing two years ago, she wedded herself to very strong material and the result was a success. "Madwoman," which opened yesterday at the 22 Steps Theater after having been reworked from an earlier version performed at the Hudson Guild Theater, is much weaker.
Miss Newman's performance is mostly good and sometimes quite winning, though it lacks any very specific flavor. The problem is with the personage she plays: a neurotic, well-to-do New Yorker torn between coping with her husband and two children, and resuming her show-business career.
No doubt there is an element of personal experience in the role, but that is beside the point. The character is a written character - Miss Newman and Arthur Laurents have written it together - and its unvarying quality of rueful kookiness becomes very tiresome after the first half-hour or so.
We see Miss Newman in her bedroom, which she rarely leaves, making lists and trying to get organized. She sings the first of the show's songs, most of which are older numbers worked in to fit. This one is "Up, Up, Up" (Bernstein-Comden-Green), whose lyrics assert happiness while steadily undermining the assertion.
Miss Newman plays someone who hurls herself at every situation with a kind of apologetic loquacity and an unstoppable stream of wisecracks; some of them quite funny. In scene after scene - talking to her invisible but recalcitrant daughter and her invisible and unhelpful son, attending a group therapy session led by a fearful bully, nibbling at the edge of an affair - she sets herself up to be slapped down and succeeds.
She bounces back each time with a vulnerable smile. Beneath the perky banter there is an appeal for sympathy; and appeal follows appeal. Before long we are feeling over-litigated. Even her bedroom is designed by Philipp Jung to milk symathy: the hapless clutter of books and magazines, the huge bag of potato chips by the bed, the bulletin board that looks like a leaky brainstorm.
Miss Newman's nervous encounters with life seem designed for instant recognition rather than for discovery. The troublesome adolescent daughter, the cheerleader girlfriend who ends up in a mental home, overcome by sheer normality, the encounter-session bully: all of these are recognizable, for having been portrayed so often; but they are not really believable.
Miss Newman delivers her songs gracefully, though her voice, possibly as a result of mediocre amplification sounds harsh and bare when it is fully exercised. The arrangements and orchestration by John Clifton and Kirk Nurock are crisp and effective; so is Herbert Kaplan's direction of the small band.
The best part of the evening comes when Miss Newman cuts away from her tepid personage and goes into a marvelous medley of show songs, all of which portray women in various condescending fashions: as doll, bubbly housewife or vamp. Miss Newman manages to parody a dozen of the best-known pop singers and their mannerisms with verve and humor.
After that it is back to rueful gaiety.