When the play "What's Wrong With This Picture?" was done at the tiny Jewish Repertory Theater on E. 14th St. three years ago, nothing was wrong with it at all. It was performed with so much verve, it gave the impression of being weightier than it perhaps is.
I used to think E. 14th St. was a dicey neighborhood, but it seems much safer than Broadway, where the play has been mugged. Uptown, it is performed so heavy-handedly that almost all its virtues have been obliterated.
"Picture" begins when a middle-class Jewish family ends its week-long vigil (shiva) after a woman's choking death caused by moo shu pork. When the dead woman returns to sort things out for her teenage son and befuddled husband, a conventional Jewish comedy veers off into something richer.
(Dead people turn up often in Donald Margulies' plays - a long-dead aunt appears in "The Loman Family Picnic.")
But under Joe Mantello's ham-fisted direction, the play never seems more than a Broadway yockfest - with not many yocks to its credit.
Part of the problem is casting. The son, for example, is played by David Moscow, an appealing actor who looks 10 years too old for the role.
If the mother has come back to help a confused teenager, it's poignant. For her to feel a need to help someone who exudes this much strength and self-reliance becomes pathological and dumb.
Faith Prince plays the mother with far too much show business pizzazz; Alan Rosenberg, as her husband, does everything at too hysterical a pitch ever to be amusing.
Jerry Stiller has a gentle quality as a sleepy grandpa. Florence Stanley's caustic Jewish grandma gets all the laughs but rarely seems human.
Marcell Rosenblatt, as a desperate divorcee, is too uptight even to get laughs.
The play ends so solemnly you'd think this was tragedy. I'm afraid there's another shiva impending.
It's been a long time since we actually had a new play on Broadway, and for that reason alone we would almost have to welcome Donald Margulies' spectral comedy on Jewish fears, "What's Wrong With This Picture?" which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater last night.
The play opens like a classic Jewish sitcom - a dash of klezmer music, a young man juggling bagels, yet, and then a mention of rugelah in virtually the first line. There has been a death in the family, and the group in suburban Brooklyn has been sitting shivah.
The bereaved husband is mourning his young wife - she died a non-kosher death, obviously without benefit of Heimlich and his maneuver, when a gobbet of moo shu pork went down the wrong way, at the gala opening of a Chinese restaurant.
The man's mother is trying to cheer him up - take a vacation "Go to Israel, and see how our trees are doing" - and the whole family is rallying round, trying to let go.
But the husband is inconsolable. Until - a little later - his dead wife arrives back home, looking grubby in her shroud, and in bad need of a shower.
It's returning ghost time - the world of "Topper," "Blithe Spirit," and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir." Unfinished business is afoot.
Soon the deceased-yet-lovely wife is sorting out furniture, washing-up, and, to the delight of her husband and teen-age son, behaving as though nothing were amiss. But as Margulies knows, and we know, there is something wrong with this picture of family bliss.
Exactly. The wife is dead. Life has to move on, and in such moving, even the prettiest corpse is a liability.
And the picture is out of focus in another way. Maybe the marriage wasn't so perfect...it seems that the wife, unbeknownst to the husband, was having an affair.
Even as a mother, she had an unfortunate way of scaring her son, who still remembers, from when he was 4, her swimming far away and shouting "Goodbye, forever." It was a joke, she said.
This layer of edgy uncertainty does give an otherwise highly conventional and stereotypical play a certain resonance which it badly needs. For at best, this is a featherlight play with a few hopeful intimations of weight to give it a little ballast. Too much of its actual message could be contained in the fortune cookie that doubtless came with the fatal moo shu pork.
For all this, it's slickly written, with some apt Jewish jokes and characters that emerge as clearly, if as unsurprisingly, as matzoh balls in broth.
It is also very neatly staged by Joe Mantello, with a stylish setting by Derek McLane, and has three exceptional performances: a radiant Faith Prince as the restless footloose wife and ghost; the brilliantly stylized Florence Stanley (ham on wry) as the family matriarch, and the eccentrically adorable Jerry Stiller as her ditsily geriatric husband.
And the other family members, Alan Rosenberg as the distraught husband, David Moscow as the understanding son and Marcell Rosenblatt as the cipher-like sister, are all as good as this machine-turned comedy allows.
This is Neil Simon, with more aspiration but less ability. Still, by default, it's the funniest play currently on Broadway. What's wrong with that picture? You tell me.
The title of Donald Margulies's play "What's Wrong With This Picture?" asks a loaded question. The temptation is to respond in kind: What's right about it?
In its initial stretches, the work, which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, presents itself as a Jewish family sitcom, all bright colors and broad swipes. It then veers off into loopy fantasy for a while. By the time the evening is over, it has sobered up considerably and the issues on the coffee table are guilt and mourning.
If the strands were artfully woven together, "What's Wrong With This Picture?" might seem more original and, who knows, provocative, too. But it's very much a chameleon of a play: it changes appearance without a lot of warning and slowly drains its star, Faith Prince, of her effervescence and warmth, qualities that have helped make for her stardom.
"What's Wrong With This Picture?" was first presented nearly 10 years ago in a workshop at the Manhattan Theater Club and has since had several productions, most notably at the Jewish Repertory Theater in 1990. Although the author has continued to rework it, the play is an odd candidate for revival and an even odder prospect for Broadway. (Mr. Margulies's "Loman Family Picnic" is far more accomplished and entertaining, and deals with some of the same issues.) It's as if someone had decided to pull Neil Simon's "Come Blow Your Horn" or Herb Gardner's "Thieves" out of mothballs. At this late date, whatever for?
Ms. Prince is Shirley, middle-class Jewish housewife from Brooklyn, doting mother, duster extraordinaire, fancy dresser and good-looker with a rippling laugh that men adore. She's also dead and buried at the start of the play. Her family has just finished sitting shiva. The in-laws are preparing to go home. Life is resuming, except that Shirley's teen-age son, Artie (David Moscow), can't yet forgive her for leaving him, and her husband, Mort (Alan Rosenberg), is still so grief-stricken that his face looks as if it had been stung by a swarm of bees.
Shirley, it appears, choked to death on a piece of moo shu pork while dining out at a Chinese restaurant. "Maybe if she bothered to cook a little more often, she'd be alive today," sniffs Mort's mother (Florence Stanley), never one to criticize the dead, mind you, but not one to mince words either. Mort's father (Jerry Stiller) natters on about his parking abilities, chews his nitroglycerine pills and drifts further into senility. Mort's sister (Marcell Rosenblatt) angles for Shirley's fur coat. Bickering and food jokes predominate. You could be in televisionland.
Then, late in the first act, Ms. Prince makes her appearance. Twigs in her hair, her dirt-stained shroud flying, she has returned from the grave to help mend the lingering hurts, straighten up the living room and generally set things right. The notion is promisingly fanciful. But the problem quickly surfaces: Mr. Margulies has never made it clear what misunderstandings she left behind, what emotional injustices require correcting. The sins of the departed and the guilt of the survivors are equally nebulous. Consequently, there's not much dramatic payoff when Shirley, realizing she has no place among the living, bids her son a final farewell and heads back to the grave.
The director, Joe Mantello, who guided "Love! Valour! Compassion!" to triumph earlier this season, is mostly at a loss when it comes to reconciling the warring elements of "What's Wrong With This Picture?" He seems more comfortable with the serious implications of the script than with its quips and comic quibbles. But it's the comedy that the audience is eager for. The cast members, straddling two worlds, don't always give the impression that they're in the same play.
Mr. Moscow couldn't be more earnest, even when he's putting on one of Shirley's beaded gowns at the urgings of his despondent father and shimmying as she used to. He'd be ridiculous if at the same time part of him weren't holding back, searching warily for the grain of sense in so much senselessness. The tactic is productive, the performance likable. Mr. Stiller brings great zest to a character who's decomposing in mind and body, which is not the contradiction you'd think. Ms. Stanley's standard-issue Jewish matriarch and Ms. Rosenblatt's graspy sister-in-law, being more predictable, are less interesting.
Paralyzed by his wife's death, Mr. Rosenberg not only revives immediately upon her return, but also enters a second adolescence. If the actor's goofy enthusiasm makes Mort a bit of a dope, that may be just what Mort is. Ms. Prince's character is the ambiguous one. We're told how loving Shirley was (and is), how genuine, how life-affirming. But she may have cheated on Mort, and she certainly had a habit of scaring her son to death at Coney Island, where she'd swim far out into the ocean and then turn around and pretend to wave goodbye. Is there a touch of cruelty behind the warm red smile?
Ms. Prince's cheeks shine like apples and she has a lovely, melting way of looking at adults that suggests they are actually 3 years old and adorable. Her laugh, like Shirley's, is contagious. All evening long, the actress seems to be gearing up for songs that never come. But you don't get much of the woman's secret depths. Without those underpinnings, the sparkle and solicitude can seem facile at times.
Derek McLane's set, a vulgar apartment surrounded by blue sky and billowing clouds, puts the play in proper metaphysical perspective. Ann Roth's costumes and Brian MacDevitt's lighting are the work of professionals. "What's Wrong With This Picture?" is getting as ample a production as most plays can expect on Broadway these days.
Title notwithstanding, the real head-scratcher is: Why?
Donald Margulies made a major impression two seasons back with "Sight Unseen" and somewhat less of one last year with "The Loman Family Picnic," both at the Manhattan Theater Club. Broadway is actually the third stop for "What's Wrong With This Picture?," which was also first staged at Manhattan Theater Club (nearly 10 years ago) and, later, by the Jewish Repertory Theater. For all that, the play hasn't improved much; it's still a throwback to the '50s Brooklyn days of whine and tsuris that marks both the setting and the style of writing, which is Jewish sitcom shtick. While it might enjoy a few days or even weeks of tourist trade, "What's Wrong?" hasn't a prayer for an extended stay. To the question posed by the title, the answer is pretty much everything but the frame.
Mort (Alan Rosenberg), a dry cleaner, and his son, Artie (David Moscow, who was Young Josh in "Big" and seems to be growing up to be Peter Bonerz), are in mourning, along with Mort's parents -- dour, critical Bella (Florence Stanley) and addled Sid (Jerry Stiller) -- and spinster sister Ceil (Marcell Rosenblatt). The deceased is Shirley (Faith Prince), wife of Mort, mother to Artie, and victim of pre-Heimlich-maneuver-era moo shu pork.
"Look at your father," Bella scolds Artie after disrupting the funeral service to call the rent-a-rabbi a liar, "look how miserable he is. Why can't you be more like your father?" This gets a laugh. So does Sid confessing that "soda makes me greps," though things start to get a little weird when Mort begs Artie to don the flashy number Shirley wore to his bar mitzvah and he gives in.
That's just around the time Shirley returns from the dead to put the new furniture in order and clean the kitchen. OK, so she's pretty cold to the touch, good help is hard to find. There is an underpinning of yearning here, as Artie tries to reconcile her return with a cruel trick Shirley used to play on him, pretending to drown at the beach, and as Mort tries to bed a wife for whom sex, not to mention sleep, have become irrelevant. But such glimmers of seriousness are the stuff that make all sitcoms tick, and this one ticks rather slower and more gratingly -- even at well under two hours including intermission -- than most.
Joe Mantello, who staged Terrence McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!" earlier this season with elegiac tenderness, here hammers home every predictable cliche in a production that isn't so much clumsy as uninspired.
A lot rests on the character of Mort, but as played by Rosenberg, zhlub would be a step up. The rest, winning actors all, play as though they actually believed in this stuff, and Prince goes even farther: She's totally adorable as a mom who was probably something of a monster, and when she makes her final exit -- in that spiffy dress, natch -- she looks set to give heaven a spin.
Indeed, Ann Roth has provided several other perfect costumes, including a memorable aquamarine ensemble for the orange-bouffant-bewigged Rosenblatt. Derek McLane's top-floor apartment setting is nicely appointed -- lilac wall coverings , crystal sconces and the like, surrounded by a wide open blue sky with fluffy clouds. It's airily lit by Brian MacDevitt in a way that gives this constipated little play an eerie spaciousness.