More and more, while watching trifling comedies, I get the impression that I'm seeing either an extravagantly expanded revue skit or a home-tube sketch.
"It Had to Be You," last evening's two-character romantic comedy at the Golden, is so friendly and unassuming that you'd like to pat it; but that would just be encouraging its authors. Written and acted by the wife-husband team of Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna, it is as flimsy, far-fetched and gag-ridden as a TV comedy, just slightly racier.
The two play smoothly together, as well they might, though I think he has the edge if only because of his more incisive delivery and the faint whine that colors her speech.
It is Christmas Eve, and following a long and monotonous monologue by Theda Blau in a bare studio where she has been waiting to audition for a television commercial, the play moves to Theda's small, inelegant Manhattan flat to which she has enticed the producer-director Vito Pignoli (I suppose those names are meant to be funny, too).
For two acts - but not without the help of sex, a blizzard, the unavailability of a hired limousine, and most importantly a wrenched back muscle as he tries to flee the place - Theda keeps Vito captive until he capitulates to the strains of the title song.
Short as the evening is, the situation is stretched very thin, and it isn't helped by the fact that Taylor, a mature blonde with blurry features, displays more addlepated doggedness than nutty charm in her unrelenting pursuit of Vito. "It Had to Be You" is primarily a comedy of insult with the trapped male bouncing tart, sometimes coarse, remarks off the unheeding female. They are not characters, just implausibly joined pieces of a toy, except insofar as the actors invest them with personality traits.
To pad this out, the authors have, among other things, made Theda the writer of a five-act one-woman play from which she insists on reading and acting out scenes to his and our utter dismay. And they have included, in apparent desperation, a maudlin second-act scene wherein she induces him to phone a son, currently at an Oregon college, whom he has not been in touch with for years and to confess his love for the boy, who just may be making out on his own this eve and in no mood to be bothered.
If all this sounds drippy, it is, but it is relieved at more or less regular intervals by a laugh line, or at least a smile line.
The mediocre work has been staged skillfully by Robert Drivas in a setting whose sudden materialization (especially the satin-quilted double bed that spins up from below) is the evening's highlight. That set, the combined effort of Lawrence King and Michael Yeargan, and Carrie F. Robbins' costumes, Roger Morgan's lighting, and Drivas' direction all deserved something much more substantial than "It Had to Be You."
Humor is the most personal of vices. A play called It Had to Be You - it sounds like a song titel - opened at the John Golden Theater last night, and I thought it was sweet, funny and asassy. But it is as flawed as the San Andreas fault in California. I loved it - but, judiciously, this is going to be a mixed notice.
The play is written by Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna, and stars both of the above. They are the acting/writing team that gave us, more than a decade ago, Lovers and Other Strangers. I enjoyed that more than most of my colleagues - the title incidentally has entered the common currency of the language - and I suspect that this could be a minority report on It Had to Be You. I hope it isn't, for this is a cartoon comedy of great dexterity and loving warmth.
It is a one-joke comedy. You do have one-joke comedies just as you can have one-horse towns. In either instance the joke or the horse has to be pretty good to sustain the traffic. The Taylor/Bologna joke is pretty good.
She is impossible - indeed, impossible is probably her middle name. She is an aging New York kookie posing as an actress, which she might well be, trying to make a buck auditioning for a TV commercial. She is also writing a play about the Czars and Rasputin. It is a comedy. It would be.
After this disastrous TV audition, one of the advertising writers comes up to her and assures her that he admired her befuddled but valiant honesty. She takes him home to bed - from then on he is a hostage to love. It had to be him.
He tries to escape - rather like a fly trying to escape from those old-fashioned fly-papers. He is by turn enchanted, devastated and appalled by her mixture of honesty, innocence, bravado and funky funk. It is a deft exhibition of female rape - that, by the way, is the one joke.
There are smart lines along the way and there is a sharp feel for New York City in it. It is that quality of wistful brittleness that virtually makes Neil Simon the city's national poet. There is also a sweetness here, and, of course, the spectacle of two seemingly totally unsuitable people apparently falling irrevocably in love.
There are no surprises here - you know the final curtain by the time the first curtain has been up 10 minutes - no, five. And the repetition of the initial set-up undeniably lacks variety. The setting by Lawrence King and Michael Yeargan is boring and ugly, although Carrie F. Robbins' costumes are, at least, serviceable.
The staging by Robert Drivas - a formidable assignment I should have thought when you have a man and wife team of actors appearing in their own play - was light and exceptionally well-paced.
As for the performers...one would hate to intrude on a happy marriage but it reminded a little of Danny Kaye's celebrated comment on the Himalayas - "Loved him, hated her." Well not quite.
Miss Taylor has the more difficult job to do - she is the sole generator of the action. Bologna is wryly passive. But whereas Bologna manages to give his a certain shading, even with time off for sentimental interludes.
I did enjoy it. I enjoyed its atmosphere, its attitude and many of its variations on a joke. I enjoyed Bologna a great deal, and Miss Taylor in spasmodic, almost spastic, bursts. Drivas has done a smoothly professional job. A lot of people, if they find this play, will also enjoy - but the play will have to be, in a very particular sense, them.
The 1980-81 Broadway season reached its official conclusion last night with the opening of ''It Had to Be You,'' the last show to arrive in time to qualify for this year's Tony Awards. I'm afraid the season didn't end with a bang or even a whimper - just an attenuated yawn.
For what it's worth, the comedy at the Golden is in one way typical of the season's offerings: it begins with an actor addressing the audience. In this case, the actor is Renee Taylor, who wrote this play with her co-star and husband, Joseph Bologna. Miss Taylor plays Theda Blau, a failed actress, health-food nut, analysand and would-be playwright who wants to ''find love and success in New York.'' She soon meets Vito Pignoli (Mr. Bologna), a hugely successful television-commercial director, and, by holding him hostage in her apartment on a snowy Christmas eve, somehow persuades him to be her partner in both marriage and dramaturgy.
Is this Miss Taylor's and Mr. Bologna's true-life story? I don't know and I don't care, but there does seem to be something of a generation gap between the characters they've written and the characters they are playing. Theda and Vito are roughly as mature as kids who have just arrived at the drinking age. Miss Taylor and Mr. Bologna have been around somewhat longer than that, and we keep wondering why they are acting so silly. Maybe they've cast themselves as juveniles to persuade some producer to book them in a summer-stock tour of ''They're Playing Our Song.''
Not that this evening's silliness begins or ends with the casting.It begins, actually, with Miss Taylor's opening monologue, a litany of ostensibly comic complaints that sounds like a compilation of every joke that Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller never bothered to use on the ''Tonight Show.'' Miss Taylor, though, has an added gimmick. From the moment the curtain rises, she's laughing through big tears, so that we'll know that life's rejections have really hurt her. ''I just make everything seem funny,'' she says. ''Pain makes me wacky.'' Or so she claims. Actually, Miss Taylor does not make everything seem funny; neither her pain nor her wackiness is especially real. She's just begging the audience to love her, and, as her routine bombs, the tears on her cheeks begin to look like a nightclub comedian's flop sweat.
Once Vito arrives on the scene, the credibility problems are compounded exponentially. Why would a man with an apparently active and happy love life immediately go to bed with a total stranger who lives like a bag lady? Especially when that stranger is given to making wisecracks such as ''I'd like you to insert a large firecracker in your behind - and light it.'' Not even Vito seems to know why. After threatening to punch Theda out, he calls her, with rare conviction, ''the most overbearing woman I've ever met.''
Nonetheless, Vito just can't bring himself to leave. At first he stays in Theda's apartment because his limousine service won't pick him up in a snow storm. Then he stays because, leaving on foot, he slips on the stairs and throws out his back. Finally, in Act II, he decides to stay forever because Theda persuades him to place a phone call to his long-estranged son. By making this call - which reduces both characters to still more tears - Vito miraculously learns to ''stop hating himself.'' He then decides, Q.E.D., that the time has come to quit his ad-agency job and settle down with Theda to collaborate on hit plays. ''If you put two monkeys in a room,'' it's rather peculiarly explained, ''sooner or later you'll come up with something worthwhile.''
Perhaps other romantic comedies can get away with stories as absurdly contrived as this, but not one that has been written with such sledgehammer bathos and humor. And certainly not one that is performed by actors who believe that yelling is the soul of wit. (Robert Drivas is listed as the director, but one suspects he was outvoted two-to-one on creative decisions.) The cleverest thing in the show is the set designed by Lawrence King and Michael Yeargan: Theda's apartment flies on and off the stage in a magical flash. The most truthful thing is a line delivered by Vito in Act II: ''When you go to a theater to see a comedy, you want to laugh.''
I daresay Vito would be well advised to stay away from ''It Had to Be You.''