Last night's "Mixed Couples" at the Atkinson, a purported comedy by James Prideaux that brings together two middle-aged married couples at a New Jersey airfield (probably Teterboro) in 1927, is like a stuttering biplane about to go into a spin. It seems to come to a dead halt with every other line. It is, finally, a crashing bore.
Alden, a dusty specialist in Chaucer and English literature up to the Elizabethans, and his dowdy wife Elberta have chartered a plane this evening to take them to Washington for a lecture he is scheduled to deliver the following morning. To save money, they are sharing the charter with another, unknown married pair who turn out to be Don and Clarice, to whom, in the proper order, they were married 25 years ago and whom they haven't seen since.
Don, a wheeler-dealer as he would have been termed some years hence, is bound for Florida and a real-estate deal. Clarice is an ex-Follies girl (the 1909 edition), and occasionally-employed actress. They live in Manhattan. Alden and Elberta live in Englewood.
Fogged in, they are forced to spend the night in a dreary workshop hangar until dawn brings clear skies. We, the audience, are fogged in for two hours listening to utterly predictable and drab details about their lives and the dull circumstances that caused them to switch partners. If dawn brought release for them, the final curtain brought blessed relief for the rest of us.
It is a crying shame that actors of the caliber of Julie Harris (Clarice), Geraldine Page (Elberta), Michael Higgins (Alden), and Rip Torn (Don) must squander their talents on such tripe.
Harris, looking absolutely adorable in a snappy flapper outfit, and Page, in a monstrous dress and a hat too ugly even for Queen Mary, try desperately to make a show for themselves with expertly calculated mugging, utilizing to the full every glance, step (Page, lumbering; Harris, skipping), gesture and vocal inflection. Higgins remains stubbornly in character in spite of the slim opportunities given him. Torn seems miscast as the cigar-wielding entrepreneur; but then, perhaps he is merely unhappy finding himself at such a loss in a barely sketched-in role.
I would not have been surprised or offended - I would have cheered, in fact - to see the cast (it includes a pilot who drops by a couple of times with weather reports) simply give up in the middle and stalk disconsolately offstage.
Prideaux' talk is almost entirely arbitrary and includes weary jokes, many just blunt insults, that are not only obvious but so labored that they seem to pick themselves up (or be picked up by the unlucky actors) like dying beasts to fall to the ground again with a thud that can surely be heard blocks away in the offices of the Dramatists Guild. The 1927 dialogue appeared to have its fair share of anachronisms, too; but who was counting anything but the minutes?
George Schaefer has directed with bravado, no doubt forcing himself to imagine he was engaged in a revival of Noel Coward's "Hay Fever" or some other agreeable bit of fluff. Oliver Smith's corrugated-iron hangar is appropriately dingy with, in the background, a Lindy photo, an old propeller, and what looked like a Wright Whirlwind engine. Martin Aronstein has lighted the work, undoubtedly against his better judgment.
There are two (no, let's be totally fair to the men, four) razzle-dazzle performances in James Prideaux' new play Mixed Couples, which made its bow at the Brooks Atkinson Theater last night. But while the performances glitter, the play itself only glimmers. It is Noel Coward's Private Lives, without the life and without Noel Coward. Yet the acting is so exaggeratedly brilliant that you should find the evening worth your attention.
It is set in New Jersey in 1927 - a workshop hangar on an airfield, and Oliver Smith in his setting pinpoints it magnificently, with a shrewd historian's eye but also with that instinctive designer's touch that can make even the prosaic interesting. With its assorted propellers and benches, its photograph of a grinning Lindberg, and its authoritative air of technological muddle, this is a perfect evocation of time and place.
A couple enter - Geraldine Page and Michael Higgins. He is an academic trying to get to Washington to deliver a lecture, and she is his wife. His second wife. For that matter he is her second husband. They have chartered a plane, on this dank, foggy, evening, with another couple - Rip Torn and Julie Harris. Guess what? And they haven't seen one another for 25 years - when IT all happened.
The long arm of coincidence is a great device until it becomes dislocated. And dislocation here is just around the shoulder. Yet it is a device we can take - remember what we took in Private Lives but there is a difference here. Where Coward virtually mocked his device, Prideaux seems to be trying to justify his. Never mind - every coincidence is a surprise to someone else.
Torn is a successful real estate operator on his way to Florida - I wonder what happened to him in the Big Crash? - and Miss Harris is a former Ziegfeld girl, still with the body of a sylph and the tongue of a salamander.
Yes, Torn was once married to Miss Page, and Miss Harris was once married to Higgins. How did the split-up, this double trapeze, no net, marital act, occur. Naturally you would think that it was sponsored by the assertive and brassy Harris/Torn duo - but could it perhaps have been initiated by the less assertive, even mousey duet of Page/Higgins?
And that, or the answer to that, is the story and the fabric of the play. Who pushed and who jumped, who was taken in and who was thrown out? A slender subject - particularly when the only obvious answer is indeed obvious, and the writing while genial, and giving a decent basis for the histrionic inventions of the cast, is by no count brilliant or even particularly witty.
George Schaefer has apparently directed in the secure knowledge that if the play is going to make it, the actors must be given full rein, but not allowed to jump over the top. He seems to have drawn a pretty neat line between indulgence and discipline, sometimes clearly letting his thoroughbreds run, sometimes curbing them back a bit.
Rip Torn as Don (yes, the characters do have names, it merely seemed irrelevant to mention them earlier) is splendidly gross but easily hurt. His face when Miss Harris is telling the tale of an apparently unconsummated affair with John Barrymore, which might or might not have taken place, is a model of pained resignation, and when, part offensively and part defensively, he bounds into a series of chin-ups on a convenient beam, one recognizes a man of feeling to whom words do not come expressively.
As the professor Alden, Michael Higgins is vague without being absent-minded, his grace and intelligence are evident, and so is his determination. Of all the quartet his character is the only with a sense of destiny. That caused the trouble.
Geraldine Page as Elberta has made her face look like a rumpled cabbage in pique - quite marvelous, I cannot recall an actress making herself look so different from her off-stage presence. She eternally looks as unamused as Queen Victoria, but when the hint of a predatory instinct obtrudes, her face, remembering follies, if not sins, of the past takes on the retrospective glow of beauty.
And as for Miss Harris - called here Clarice - she runs over the play like an adorable bulldozer trying to get down to basic rubble where at least acting can flower.
I have never seen her better. With her cloche hat and flask of bootleg gin, her direct flirtatiousness with life, the realism of her artificiality and the neat measure of her timing, Miss Harris plays a wonderful survivor and gracefully survives the play.
But don't compare what Coward did with his situation with what Prideaux has done with his. Think simply of a quartet of fine actors making their own music, and, on those terms, you should enjoy yourself.
If actors as gifted and hard-working as Julie Harris, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn and Michael Higgins cannot breathe life into a play, it's a fairly safe assumption that the play is a corpse. Such, I'm afraid, is the case with James Prideaux's "Mixed Couples," which brought these four stars together for no worthwhile purpose at the Brooks Atkinson last night.
Mr. Prideaux has attempted to write a bittersweet romantic comedy about one of those ostensibly funny tricks that life plays on us all. But the trick one finds in "Mixed Couples" doesn't occur in life so much as it does in failed, gimmicky entertainments. It is Mr. Prideaux's inspiration that two married couples would meet by chance in a New Jersey airplane hangar for the first time since they switched partners 25 years before. It is our misfortune that the characters are fogbound for two hours, during which they dredge up every last tedious detail of their joyless lost youths.
One waits in vain to discover some redeeming element in "Mixed Couples." There is no wit, unless jokes about Englewood, N.J., and sexual dysfunction count as such. The structure is equally nonexistent: In Act II, the playwright must force each character to deliver a soliloquy so that the various plot entanglements can be straightened out. Nor is there any period flavor, despite the fact that "Mixed Couples" is set in 1927. A few references to Charles Lindberg, "Jack" Barrymore and the Dempsey-Tunney fight do not convince us that Mr. Prideaux's sensibility is lodged anywhere other than the theatrical Stone Age.
Even if the playwright were a capable craftsman or jokesmith, there would still be another insurmountable problem. There are no people on stage. In "Mixed Couples," each so-called character is a sketchy collection of a few bloodless attributes.
The free-living, aging actress (Miss Harris) is defined by her giddy flights of alcoholic merriment, while her old romantic rival, a boring hausfrau (Miss Page), is a whiny, earthbound teetotaler. The self-made businessman (Mr. Torn) is summed up by his big cigars, bullish statements about the stock market and his use of the word "ain't"; his opposite, a humorless academic (Mr. Higgins), wears spectacles, talks about Shakespeare and uses polysyllabic locutions when a simple "ain't" would do.
This quartet is so thin-blooded and unappealing that it's impossible for us to care who married whom which time and why. Mr. Prideaux doesn't seem to give much of a hoot, either. As it ultimately turns out, he views marriage as a loveless, sexless ritual that binds stolid men and bitchy women together for the sake of convenience. He delights in the fact that none of his characters is "good in bed" and that most of them are emotional cripples. True, he convinces us that these couples deserve each other, but he never explains why the audience deserves to spend an evening with them. The sour, unearned moral of "Mixed Couples" merely adds a gratuitously bitter aftertaste to a comedy that doesn't have the courage of its own silliness.
Given the script and the uninspired staging of George Schaefer, the actors do what little they can. The men, whose roles hardly exist at all, often must cool their heels while the women exchange their theoretically barbed wisecracks. At least Mr. Torn gets another chance to show off his amusing good-ole-boy accent. Mr. Higgins spends much of the evening either staring ahead in grim silence or playing schoolmarm. "If we're going to be here for two hours," he scolds the others, "we might as well exercise our minds." Needless to say, his request goes unheeded.
Miss Page, whose voice, chin and eyes all quiver in perfectly timed unison, demonstrates her considerable comic resourcefulness: She actually finds at least a dozen ways to indicate her single allotted emotion of righteous indignation. Miss Harris, a fetching vamp in peach, brings her crisp, musical delivery, impish charm and even a few intoxicated dance steps to a part that seems vaguely inspired by the Sally Bowles she created in "I Am a Camera." As she explains at one point, "I'm only trying to brighten the corner where I unfortunately am." Her efforts are admirable, but nothing short of a holocaust could brighten the uniformly gloomy corners of "Mixed Couples."