Late in the first act of Richard Baer's "Mixed Emotions," someone mentions Lew Walters' Latin Quarter, and an appreciative murmur rustles through the theater. If you are old enough to think of Barbara as Lew's daughter, you will remember the sort of Broadway comedy "Mixed Emotions" tries to be.
The reason such comedies went out of fashion is that they relied upon the audience's squeamish, smirking attitude toward sex. In the wake of the sexual revolution, it was increasingly difficult to find such audiences.
As you might imagine, the audience with which I saw "Mixed Emotions" was largely geriatric. Whatever impediments age has brought, it has not weakened their ability to squeal at jokes about sexual prowess and virginity.
Baer's play, which, for all I know, has been in mothballs since 1957, is about an elderly man and woman whose spouses have died. For most of their lives the two couples were the closest of friends. The widow is now going to move to Florida. On the eve of her departure the widower, who has kept in touch with her only fitfully, suddenly proposes marriage.
This is not a bad premise for a play. Neither love nor libido, after all, desert the elderly, and the special problems they create might indeed make a worthwhile evening. But Baer is only interested in gags and his two subjects never have moments in which they exhibit simple humanity. They're always wisecracking, as if they were sitcom characters, which minimizes one's emotional participation in the play.
Still, Katherine Helmond is fetching as the widow, and Harold Gould brings great animation and elegance to the buffoonish role of the widower. There are two other characters, movers, who bring real clodhopper humor to the evening and, at one point, give the leads time to change costumes. Brian Smiar, as the older of the two, actually makes the crude character graceful.
The sets and costumes have polish and the direction is smooth. "Mixed Emotions" had the healthy effect of killing any nostalgia I might have for Broadway of yesteryear.
Contrary to common cliche, time doesn't really march on - it rather irritatingly meanders with a sauntering gait that can occasionally leave you in doubt as to just where all its desultory journeying has gotten it.
Consider, if you will, Time and Richard Baer's nostalgia-inducing new play "Mixed Emotions," which opened last night at the John Golden Theater, becoming the first new play of the 1993/94 Broadway season.
Now had this been the first new play of the 1963/64 season, while the dialogue of this second-time-around romantic comedy of love and sex among the sexagenarians might have been thought a shade racy, the retro play itself, although as slight as a feather, would, I suspect have been gently welcomed.
It would certainly have found its audience - sexagenarians and sexagenarian-lovers of all ages in a matinee mood - and the Broadway economics of the day, more kindly than ours, could have enabled it to enjoy a respectable and profitable run.
Today I am not so sure. Time has dawdled on. Broadway economics - even though this is a production under the sensibly favored union terms of the Broadway Alliance - are harsher, and audiences (and particularly the Broadway critics, myself included) in the face of TV competition, more demanding.
And "Mixed Emotions" is nothing much more than a TV sitcom placed within a proscenium arch and acted by the very charming and skilled flesh-and-blood of Katherine Helmond and Harold Gould, both conventional actors of occasionally delightful subtlety.
It is just a year after 61-year-old Christine (Helmond) has lost her husband, and she is closing her Manhattan apartment to go and live with another widowed friend in Miami. The moving men are already packing. Her life is in transition.
Sixty-five-year-old Herman (Gould) is her late husband's best friend, just as she was best friend to Herman's late wife. With little ado, Herman proposes marriage. Will they? Won't they? What do you guess? Do you care?
There is a sweetness to the play, a pleasant life-assertiveness, and quite a few perfectly agreeable moments (made all the more agreeable by the elegant acting - apart from the nimbly geriatric lovers, there are a couple of neat turns from Brian Smiar and Vinny Capone as comic moving men - Tony Giordano's smooth staging and Neil Peter Jampolis' quite livable setting) but is this enough? For free, maybe, but would you pay money?
The script lacks the saving cleverness or wisdom of a Neil Simon - there are only thin situation jokes, such as an unlikely confusion between Vatican Square and a parking lot, or the statement (producing the first big laugh of the first act): "I am a Catholic grandmother. I do not put out on the first date."
For people conditioned and nurtured by TV scriptwriters, this could be sufficient to the night. And it could hold particular appeal for those who favor mild and predictable entertainment to any true stimulation or, indeed, untoward display of emotion, either mixed or otherwise.
And will this amiably commonplace first play of the season succeed? Worse plays have. It all depends on just how far Time and Broadway have moved on and how kindly audience and critics perceive the movement.
Whatever its title may promise, "Mixed Emotions," the mild-mannered comedy by Richard Baer that opened at the John Golden Theater last night, is a single-note play. Like the sitcoms it often resembles, it seems by its very predictability designed to soothe: its outcome is never to be doubted, nor do its characters, who are largely the sum of their one-liners, ever surprise us.
The story of the bumpy courtship of a Manhattan widow and widower, "Mixed Emotions" establishes its basic comic rhythm, which has the hypnotic quality of a Ping-Pong match, early on. Within the first quarter of the performance a feeling descends that one could leave the theater and return at any time, assured that the jousting couple would be having the same barb-swapping argument, ringing minimal variations on jokes they have already told. Indeed, the play often gives off a bizarre sense of existing in the ever-genial, repetitive eternity of television syndication.
The plot hinges on the question of whether earthy, practical Herman Lewis (Harold Gould) will be able to persuade romantic, cultivated Christine Millman (Katherine Helmond), who is packing to move to Florida, to stay and marry him. Each was a close friend of the other's late spouse, and, now in their 60's, they have been gently quarreling for decades. "If we were married, we wouldn't use needles," laments Christine. "We'd use knives."
It might help if the knives were drawn more often in "Mixed Emotions." Though its characters flare briefly into cathartic confrontation toward the play's end, they are mostly locked in a seesaw exchange of cute put-downs. When Herman describes himself as a sexual stallion, Christine responds, "Whatever kind of horse you are, if you're whinnying in my direction, just think of me as the old gray mare."
Mr. Baer, a writing teacher and former television writer making his Broadway debut, has provided a large assortment of mild ethnic jokes (Herman is Jewish; Christine is Catholic), a running gag about the couple's inability to agree on the dates or places of events in their shared past and some familiar jabs at the younger generation. ("Know what that song has that today's songs don't have?" asks Herman, as he dances to "Sentimental Journey." "Yes, a melody," answers Christine.)
The only additional characters, two moving men played by Vinny Capone and Brian Smiar, seem to exist principally to walk in on Herman and Christine during moments of embarrassing sex talk. Mr. Capone has been given the evening's saggiest lines, which are built around his cultural illiteracy and include his mistaking an abstract painting for the work of a kindergarten student.
As directed by Tony Giordano, the attractive stars usually pitch their punch lines straight to the audience in the theatrical equivalent of the deadpan close-up, and their dialogue is neatly punctuated by laugh-anticipating silences. Ms. Helmond, who delivered some strikingly outrageous comic turns in the films "Brazil" and "Time Bandits," is far more muted here and so silkily modulated in her speech that she sometimes suggests a hostess on a home-shopping show. Mr. Gould seems more instinctive, though one could do without the body English with which he accents his more libidinous comments.
It is worth noting that "Mixed Emotions" is the first play in two seasons to be presented under the cost-cutting agreements of the Broadway Alliance, which means that its top ticket price is $35. With its cheery promises of romantic second acts in the lives of people over 60, it is clearly meant to appeal comfortingly to an older audience. Viewers who prefer to be lulled rather than stimulated by the theater could feel it's a bargain.
A worthy experiment in bringing down both production costs and ticket prices, the Broadway Alliance has so far attracted -- with one exception -- amateur plays that share appalling values. After a long hiatus, the Alliance resumes operations with "Mixed Emotions"-- and so does that young tradition.
A threadbare sketch struggling vainly to be a boulevard comedy for the '90s, Richard Baer's new play features vets Harold Gould and Katherine Helmond, though most of the television work for which these two are best known is infinitely sharper and more credible than what's being passed off as humor here. Even the matinee crowd is likely to find "Mixed Emotions" flat. While the relatively low $ 35 ticket may bring a few folks into the theater, long-term prospects are about nil.
Set in Manhattan, the play concerns the aggressive efforts of Gould's fussy, carpet-salesman widower to marry and bed (not necessarily in that order) Helmond , a self-assured interior decorator and his best friend's widow. For decades the couples were inseparable, and there are lots of references to dead spouses watching from above.
Now Christine (the odd Catholic among three Jews) is packing up to move in with a friend in Miami. Driven by horniness that Christine finds at first amusing and then a little scary, Herman pursues her with all the subtlety -- and appeal -- of a redneck bent on date rape.
That Christine will yield -- even that she will end up abandoning her plan to relocate to stay with Herman -- is not in question, these being the conventions of such fare. The second act dwells a bit more on the loneliness that might force an aging couple to make compromises.
There's also a little bit of truth-telling about the sainted spouses that will do no harm to their reputations. These serious subjects surely were on the author's mind, and may have been what attracted the stars and a good director to "Mixed Emotions." But the play is riddled with the flat, phony humor of a dilettante writer encouraged by friends; Gould and Helmond, whose performances have the ring of conviction, often seem bewildered by the material despite Tony Giordano's limpid direction.
Christine's change of mind at the end of each act may follow genre convention , but Baer makes no case for either one. Similarly, Herman's coarseness and his obsessive equation of love and money may indeed be something aging widows take as a given with aging widowers, but if Christine finds something endearing in Herman to offset his unceasing vulgarity, it isn't in Baer's script.
Even at just two hours, "Mixed Emotions" is padded with the principals dancing and with the intrusions of a pair of New York moving men (Vinny Capone and Brian Smiar), neither of whom exists in nature. Production values are OK, though Neil Peter Jampolis' set looks less like a chic Manhattan living room than the reception area at a suburban corporate headquarters.