Almost the first thing you hear in "Mail," after a little tinny-sounding music, is a young woman shouting, "OK, let's get one thing straight - I'm sorry I called you a selfish slime bucket."
If you think that's funny, you'll probably have a delightful time at "Mail." The show is about a self-confessed jerk who leaves town for four months. When he comes back and begins opening his piles of mail, the letters come to life. The people who wrote them suddenly appear in his messy studio, entering through windows, doors, the bathtub, closets.
An amazingly high percentage of his mail consists of actual letters from friends and family. There are, of course, bills. (A crew of very tough women sings him his Con Ed bill.) But much less junk than I tend to get.
This is a revue sketch idea that might have been amusing for 12 minutes. By my watch, it lasted 2 hours. It could only fill that time engagingly if the central character were genuinely interesting. He's not. He has written five "satirical-comical-autobiographical novels." It comes as no surprise that they're all unpublished.
There is a lesson here. The novels are probably no worse than this theoretically satirical, comical, autobiographical musical. It, however, has been produce, which may explain why publishing is healthier than the theater.
The material treats the writer and his problems in cliche terms. Jerry Colker's lyrics are standard; occasionally they strain for cleverness, as when he rhymes "vasectomy" with "expect o'me." The most they achieve is cuteness, though all too often they're just obnoxious.
Michael Rupert's music ranges from soft rock to show tunes, country-Western, soft shoe - name it, it's probably there. Since he plays the writer, he has given himself music that displays his beautiful voice well. Generally, however, the music is as facile and vapid as the characters who sing it.
If the sheer expenditure of energy were a guarantee of success, "Mail" would surely be one. The most comes from Rupert, whose charm and talent are considerable. Brian Mitchell is a particularly impressive performer as his close friend. Mara Getz does well as the whining girl friend, Antonia Ellis is funny as his crudely written agent, and Robert Mandan is strong as a cliche father.
The direction and choreography are inventive and taut, the set ingenious. But maybe someone should point out to young American writers that the world has many more appealing subjects than their not very interesting lives.
While I would hesitate to call "Mail," which opened at the Music Box last night, a dead letter, so far as I am concerned it was certainly sent to the wrong address.
A pity, - because although on the whole this new musical by Jerry Colker and Michael Rupert irritated me, and I think irritated me progressively as it proceeded, even through my irritation I could see a lot of talent being wasted.
This is by no means a show like "Late Nite Comic" earlier in the season, where one simply wanted to take a hook to it, but unfortunately it never fulfills all the gleams of hope it intermittantly promises.
I suppose it is really a revue dressed up as a sketch - but I get ahead of myself.
"Mail" obviously started as a concept, almost a literary conceit - and it never really recovers from that start.
The idea is to take a 29-year-old wimp, Alex, paralyzed with fears of commitment, who has written five unpublished novels and now is on the point of marriage.
Of course...he ups and outs, or as he puts it, he decides to "hit the ground running." This is, in effect, the prelude. He runs for four months (mercifully encapsulated into the drop of a curtain) and returns to a telephone answering machine that, understandably, has given up the ghost, and an enormous pile of, you've guessed it, mail.
As he plows his way through this morass of unanswered missives, his correspondents take shape before his eyes as he reads their wounded and questioning letters.
Some are from his erstwhile fiancee, Dana; some are from his predatory female agent, Sandi - a lady who, given a bed, book and candle, would instantly blow out the candle - some are from his friend Franklin, who feels betrayed; some are from his father, Max, who feels misunderstood.
Others - in many ways the more amusing - are junk mail, one offering a magazine subscription, others seeking charity appeals, others inviting him to a unclassy class reunion, or merely threatening missives from tax inspectors and the various utilities.
The idea, once expressed, has nowhere to go but on. As Alex lives out his letters, he gradually sorts out his life, until in a totally expected ending that is unexpectedly abrupt, he rejects the agent lusting after his body and desiring power over his work, and he reconciles himself with father, best friend and the girl of his life.
There have been many epistolary novels - some have even been adapted to the stage - and undoubtedly the letter form has distinct dramatic possibilities. And yes, it is conceivable that a man faced with a four-month buildup of letters might indeed find a moral lesson in them and derive psychological strength from their perusal.
But apart from the sometimes amusing revue-style sketches of letters probably best left unopened, the thing is just not well enough done.
Colker, responsible for the book and lyrics, and Rupert, who provided the music, started out very promisingly a season or so back with the imaginative improv-style musical about stand-up comics called "3 Guys Naked from the Waist Down." And it was sharp, tart and good.
Those qualities are conspicuously lacking here. Colker's book lacks attack and development, while his lyrics are inexplicably feeble. After a start that sounds faintly, and hopefully, like Sondheim-manque, we soon descend to the level of: "Will she make me / Will she break me / Will I follow where she'll take me." Buster - will June follow Moon? You bet.
Almost worse is the thin trickle of gurgling melody that represents Rupert's score, which sounds like Marvin Hamlisch zapped and muzaked.
Not all is lost. The complete cast is chamber-size - four principals and a protean ensemble of six, but they make up in talent what they lack in numbers.
Under the enthusiastic and energetic direction of Andrew Cadiff, and sizably helped by the inventive choreography of Grover Dale, the company goes about its business with the dedication of letter-carriers in a blizzard.
Michael Rupert is almost too wimpy as the wimpy hero, but Marra Getz makes an agreeable heroine and Brian Mitchell is a powerhouse as the friend. I was particularly impressed by two of the versatile men in the ensemble, Alan Muraoka and Rick Stockwell, the latter having something of the lanky dynamism of Tommy Tune.
Yet the most energetic performance of all comes from no member of the cast but from the scenery and the projections, both devised by Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral. With the conspiring assistance of Richard Nelson's lighting, the settings practically turn cartwheels in their often brilliant efforts to divert. To no lasting avail.
No doubt the newly increased, much reviled postal rates have made us all think twice before sending that extra postcard or thank-you note. But after sampling the avalanche of sung correspondence that comprises ''Mail,'' the musical at the Music Box, you may wish the post office had discouraged letter-writing entirely by raising the price of a first-class stamp to, say, five bucks. ''Mail'' is to epistolary fiction what Hallmark cards are to the poems of Robert Browning. Its hero, a struggling New York novelist named Alex Berkowitz (Michael Rupert), seems to receive more mail than most best-selling authors, yet it all sounds so anonymous that every letter might well have been addressed to ''Occupant.''
The evening's principal creators - Mr. Rupert (music), Jerry Colker (book and lyrics), Andrew Cadiff (direction) - first banded together on a promising, original musical about stand-up comedians, ''Three Guys Naked From the Waist Down.'' Now they have been hit by a bad case of Sondheimitis. ''Mail'' is a concept musical in the Sondheim-Prince tradition - it emulates and sometimes paraphrases ''Company'' in Act I, ''Follies'' in Act II - but without the imagination, passion and wit needed to make its premise fly. A concept musical that is all concept and no content is as empty as a frame without a picture.
Even the concept is shakily contrived. Mr. Colker asks us to believe that Alex, unhappy with his fiancee (Mara Getz) and his stalled literary career, would run away from his Lower East Side apartment for four months without letting anyone know his whereabouts. While one might think Alex's friends and suburban Jewish family would call the police during this protracted disappearance, they settle for sending nagging letters to his apartment instead. Why? So ''Mail'' can have its gimmick - credibility be damned. The show unfolds during the long cathartic night in which Alex at last resolves his psychological crisis by reading the four months' worth of mail he finds upon his return.
As he does so, the correspondents materialize by popping through windows or the furniture, singing and dancing in a variety of pop styles fashioned to fit their age or personality. The rock-and-disco missives from Con Ed and Ma Bell are so headache-inducing that they actually succeed in being more obnoxious than the real thing. Alex's literary agent (Antonia Ellis), described as ''the Mata Hari of the Hamptons,'' is a seductress who bumps about in Frederick's of Hollywood-style lingerie to the accompaniment of jungle drums. The Life magazine executives dunning Alex for subscription payments have metaphorical implications, as do the pitchmen for the ''all-American sweepstakes of your life.''
In spite of such pretensions, ''Mail'' can't say anything about either upper- or lower-case life because even its central characters are as generic as the perpetrators of junk mail. Alex's best friend (Brian Mitchell) is defined only by the fact that he is black (he sings a rap song); his father (Robert Mandan) is a grump who makes Archie Bunker seem as complex as King Lear. We learn more about Alex's girlfriend from the color of her stationery (pink) than from the interminable wailing about her broken heart.
Worse, Alex himself is a cipher - a grab bag of attributes and psychobabble that fails to add up to a person. Though only 29, he says he is of the Ken Kesey generation; in the 10 years since high school, he has somehow managed to go to Dartmouth and to complete five hefty, unpublished ''satirical-comical autobiographical novels.'' We never learn what really bugs him (vague ''ambivalence'' aside) or why he suddenly makes up with his spurned loved ones for the final curtain. It would take the neurotic verve of Albert Brooks to make something out of Alex's nothingness, and Mr. Rupert, a charming romantic in ''March of the Falsettos'' and ''Sweet Charity,'' is no comic. Perhaps to compensate for his blandness, the major supporting players are so aggressively shrill that one prefers to focus on the superior chorus performers Louise Hickey and Michele Pawk in smaller roles.
As a composer, Mr. Rupert seems as much in search of his own voice as his character is. The level of Mr. Colker's lyrics can be summed up by his reconciliation song for Alex and his dad: ''Father to son, man to man/ It's time we gave each other a hand.'' The choreography is by Grover Dale, who exploits a fat woman's physique for cheap laughs in Act I before turning to a surreal Act II vaudeville sequence that taps out Alex's conflicts in shtick derivative of Tommy Tune.
Though Mr. Cadiff's staging quickly runs out of jack-in-the-box tricks, the show does contain the season's most hilariously ill-conceived set change. Late in Act I, just as we're being pushed into a serious depression by the all too grimly realistic representation of Alex's squalid apartment, a turntable raises our hopes by at last sweeping the eyesore away - only to reveal an even more unappetizing set, the filthy adjoining bathroom.
Is it possible that ''Mail'' is a surreptitious advertisement for Federal Express?