They said it couldn't be done. That the foolhardy venture in which the Belasco, its seats ripped out, was converted into a kind of nightclub several years ago to receive a disaster called "The Rocky Horror Show" could never find its equivalent along Broadway. But last night, another such calamity, the monumentally silly "Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap," ocurred, this time at a revamped Nederlander, formerly the Trafalgar, formerly the Billy Rose, formerly the National (why not simply rename it the Formerly?).
Of British origin (not all of our cousin's bundles are welcome), Claire Luckham's spectacle - calling it a play would be a wild exaggeration - takes place in a sports arena. The audience, seated on sharply-rising tiers of seats on four sides of a boxing ring (the fourth side occupies what would normally be the theater's backstage area), observes, in 10 "rounds," the battle to success of a female named Tanzi from childhood to maturity. (The "Teaneck" of the title is arbitrary, since in England she was known by various names - Tuebrook Tanzi and Trafford Tanzi among them, according to the location of the "bout"; the "Venus Flytrap" is her special hold.) Even the work's presumed novelty is missing, its basic idea having been employed by such far more cogent creations as Duerrenmatt's "Play Strindberg" ("The Dance of Death" in 12 "rounds") and the Brecht-Weill "Little Mahagonny," to name two examples that come to mind.
All that is really left, once we have dispensed with the infantile snatches of dialogue (quarrels with her parents, a confrontation with a school psychiatrist and disagreements with a girlfriend and the boy she eventually weds), is the fake sports-arena atmosphere. This consists of the noisy crowd, catcalls issuing from "plants" in the audience (the house seemed almost wholly "papered" the night I attended), the glaring lights above the ring in the "scenic environment" created by Lawrence Miller, the pre-performance hectoring of members of the audience by an "usher" who subsequently turned out to play the Ref (Andy Kaufman), the horrendous sounds of an electric organ clattering out pop tunes, and of major importance, the slam-bang of bodies on the padded but rackety ring floor thoughout the evening.
Due to this loudly-thumping but wholly artificial hurling about of bodies, staged by a wrestling expert name of Brian Maxine, there are alternate Tanzis (Caitlin Clarke and Deborah Harry) and alternate Dean Rebels (Thomas G. Waites and Scott Renderer). I happened to catch the Clarke-Waites match (Tanzi and her punk fighter-suitor). As a matter of fact, though, all hands, including Mom (Zora Rasmussen), Dad (Clarence Felder), Tanzi's bitchy friend Platinum Sue (Dana Vance) and the Ref himself get bounced off the ropes and canvas from time to time. It's a highly physical evening, if nothing else, and there are, quite naturally, two toned-up standbys, a man and a woman, ready to take over at a moment's fracture.
After the 10 rounds in which we see Tanzi grow from 6 to 10 to 12 to 16 to 18 and into marriage, the pot-bellied Ref tells us the story is over and that now a genuine match will take place between Tanzi and Rebel, a match in which she eventually triumphs, of course, though the ring terminology is continually shifting from boxing to wrestling.
Every now and then, too, one or another of the players will break into terrible song, sometimes with the rest serving as backup singers. Included in the selections are the Ref's atrocious parody of Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" and the country favorite "Stand By Your Man." There's also a Wagnerian organ passage as the Valkyrie Tanzi scores.
It's hard to see what comment, aside from a rejected girl's eventual career success, is being made by this simple-minded offering in which the setting and splashy effects appear to be the author's overwhelming concern. There isn't a line or a performance worth remembering, though one's sympathy can be extended to all the actors, who, at one time or another, are bounced off the canvas, the ropes, the padded corner posts and even out of the ring, though not, unhappily, out of the distorted theater itself.
Deborah Harry and Andy Kaufman lost out in a wrestling match last night, and one could only wonder how they got themselves engaged.
There are some shows that leave one virtually speechless - not because they are so particularly awful, although even in a bad season Teaneck Tanzi would come high on my personal list of monsters - but simply because there really isn't very much to say.
The Nederlander Theater - at doubtless no little cost - has been transformed into a wrestling arena. Presumably - at doubtless no little cost - it can be transformed back. So far as I am concerned the sooner the better.
Teaneck Tanzi is simplistic, monochromatic, sophomoric and boring. At least it is when it is at its best. Unfortunately at times the action flags.
The idea of the play - if it is a play or could be said to have an idea - is to present a woman's life through the metaphor of the wrestling ring. We see the heroine Tanzi progress through life in a succession of falls, battling with her parents among others, and finally, in the championship match coming up against her husband, the formidable Dean Rebel.
Her predictable victory - were she to lose there would scarcely be a play would there? - is intended to be seen as a giant statement in the history of Women's Liberation. Frankly I think Ibsen is more pertinent. Even Shaw. Even Mickey Spillane.
Not unexpectedly Teaneck Tanzi is an English import, and as we have seen before, in that far more rewarding play earlier this season, Steaming, ideas about women's equality that apparently still seem radical in Britain, are not precisely hot news here.
Of course, the play - whatever - must have been a lot better in Britain than it is now. There - and I didn't see it in any of its numerous British manifestations - I understand it was modestly produced. Here it is an overblown camp joke.
It is clearly meant to have the same effect as The Rocky Horror Picture Show - there is even music of sorts. These things don't seem to travel well. But perhaps the producers should cut their losses and make a cult movie out of it with Tim Curry. At least he is a star.
Teaneck Tanzi is obviously intended as an audience identification and participation show. There is a hectoring Referee, who abuses the audience with dangerous abandon, there are some of the appurtenances of the arena. And there is the wrestling.
The wrestling is not that good. As a refresher course I took a look at wrestling on TV - it is a highly stylized art form, something like Kabuki theater, and it has its own traditions and forms. There are heroes and villains, and a wonderful sense of style and technique.
It is a fake, of course, but it's a credible fake. The English technique is absolutely the same - it is fundamentally sport as an art form, not perhaps a particularly distinguished art form, but for those who like it, exciting enough.
The wrestling in Teaneck Tanzi - and this is the bottom line of the show - was simply not good. You would find more drama watching television wrestling - and much more class. This is an imitation that provides the palest shadow of reality.
There are two equal casts - once I had seen one I realized with horror that I was committed to two - both of them slugging it out for the rights of women.
They all seem hardly in their first blush of youth and the action is pretty demanding. The wrestling coach is Brian Maxine, a British wrestler, who has done a good job.
As Tanzi, Caitlin Clarke, with her naughty gutlessness is far superior to the pop star - lead singer with Blondie - Deborah Harry, who has less than blonde hair and looks cheerful but out of condition for this kind of thing. Her acting also is in some doubt - but so is everyone else's in this sad venture.
Andy Kaufman, who has some strong TV credits but here was seemingly making his Broadway debut, is perfectly repulsive as the Referee. He manages to make a poor role insupportable, and the alternate leading men, Scott Renderer and Thomas G. Waites, are superbly uninteresting in superbly uninteresting parts.
The thing, by the way, was written by Claire Luckham, and directed by her husband, Chris Bond, who once did a great job in writing Sweeney Todd. But this little number is going to do nothing for the cause of nepotism, women or even indoor wrestling. Just get the seats back in place as soon as possible.
There are two diversions to occupy theatergoers just before the start of Claire Luckham's play ''Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap.'' The first is the refurbished Nederlander Theater - a Broadway house that the designer Lawrence Miller has ingeniously transformed into a full-fledged wrestling arena. With a burst of gaudy lights above the ring and much architectural fiddling, Mr. Miller transports us well beyond Teaneck - all the way to Atlantic City.
The other source of amusement is one of the ushers. Slipped in among the bona fide employees of the Nederlander is a ringer - the comic Andy Kaufman. Mr. Kaufman's shtick, as his fans know, is hostility, and here he is, in the highest of dudgeon, a cigarette dangling from his lips, barking at seated customers. He demands to see our ticket stubs, and, should we not immediately locate them, he loudly threatens to eject us clear out to the street. As most of Mr. Kaufman's victims don't recognize him, there's sadistic fun to be had in watching the surly comedian provoke the uninitiated into angry screaming. A critic near me almost slugged him.
As it turned out, that may have been the high point of that critic's evening; it certainly was of mine. ''Teaneck Tanzi'' is an Americanized, retitled version of London's biggest comedy hit since ''Steaming,'' and its charm must have bailed out somewhere over the Atlantic. What we find at the Nederlander is a theatrical gimmick whose execution produces a pounding sensation in every part of one's head except the brain.
The gimmick - also employed ineffectually by John Sayles in his play ''Turnbuckle'' two seasons ago - is to stage a putative drama in the form of a wrestling match. Instead of scenes, there are 10 ''rounds'' (you'll count them). Instead of dialogue, there are bouts in which the heroine settles emotional disputes with her family by means of flips, half-nelsons, hair-pulling and body presses.
Because Tanzi and her antagonists are symbols devoid of flesh or blood, we don't care who vanquishes whom in the ring: they're all pop-up dolls. The wrestling, though noisy, is less convincing than an average Three Stooges melee. There are also songs, seemingly composed on a washboard. The instrumental accompaniment, led by an electric organ, isn't worthy of a seventh-inning stretch at Shea Stadium.
The author's metaphor cloaks a feminist message-play, set in some anachronistic land (surely not New Jersey) where women are so oppressed they are denied higher education and any career other than housewife. Tanzi's despotic husband, a professional wrestler, is dressed as a 1950's greaser and, in a typical sample of the evening's wit, is named Dean Rebel. (Another sample: Tanzi's lascivious school psychiatrist is named Dr. Grope.) After much tedious biographical exposition, which charts the heroine's progress ''from potties to panty hose,'' we reach the ''main event'': Tanzi becomes a lady wrestler so she can finally challenge hubby to a do-or-die battle for her liberation from the kitchen. Anyone who can't guess the winner in advance deserves a lifetime pass to ''Rocky III.''
With the aid of audience plants, the director, Chris Bond, tries to whip us into a frenzy of cheering and heckling. He has a particular fondness for sight gags involving the male crotch. The cast's mugging, Mr. Kaufman's fitfully amusing referee aside, is also well below the belt. Theatergoers can choose between two alternating pairs of performers in the roles of Tanzi and Dean - a choice that, under the circumstances, means about as much as being allowed to pick either coffee or tea at one's last supper.
I saw both casts, a feat that certainly earns me a mention in Ripley's. The better duo is Caitlin Clarke and Thomas G. Waites - legitimate actors who can't be blamed if they decide to fake injuries entitling them to insurance benefits as padded as their costumes. The other stars, the rock singer Deborah Harry and Scott Renderer, make a worthwhile contribution by slurring some of their lines.