In Abraham Tetenbaum's "Crazy He Calls Me," we are supposed to ponder the mental health of the two characters, who, in the view of a yenta seated near me, could both be the subject of the title.
My own thoughts were about the producers, whose mental condition must be much more severe than either of the characters if they wanted to invest money in so inept a play.
In the first act, we watch a barely credible relationship between a young immigrant woman and a Brooklyn lawyer who, in his mid-30s, is still a virgin. (The play is set in 1938, but nothing about it convinces you the author understands anything about Depression Brooklyn, either sexually or economically.)
In the second act, suddenly the character foibles that were minimally suitable to light comedy must support a "problem play," in which the immigrant's mental problems become severe and her husband sues her. At this point, I must disagree with the nearby yenta who thought both were crazy. The lawyer is a jerk, but hardly certifiable.
Polly Draper is totally wrong as the immigrant. To begin with, she is too attractive to play a woman who has no interest except charitable activities. (Nor does her ditzy, selfish mentality make you believe she is that devoted to helping others.)
To make matters worse, Draper's accent is wrong. Russian Jews who came here before World War I, as this character did, spoke with a Yiddish accent, not a Russian one. Their interchange with Russians had been severely restricted.
Draper's accent is Russian and quite unconvincing. Moreover, her voice squeaks and grates so much you want to spray WD-40 on her vocal cords. The result is to make the character thoroughly unsympathetic.
Barry Miller, who brought such intensity to "Biloxi Blues" in 1985, is flaccid here. The only assertive thing about him is his hair, which stands up a good half-foot above his head, presumably to make him Draper's near-equal. His low-key manner is apt for the character but adds no life to the dreary evening.
Even the physical production is strangely overblown for so modest a play.
The Broadway Alliance, that admirable cooperative plan to present on Broadway modest productions at modest prices, received a third nail in what is beginning to look suspiciously like a coffin at the Walter Kerr Theater last night. It was hammered in by "Crazy He Calls Me," a play by Abraham Tetenbaum. And crazy wasn't half of it!
Imagine going to a cocktail party where hardly anyone turns up - but there are two monstrously tedious people who grab you by the neck and talk and talk and talk. You try to switch off, but they are unstoppable.
The first two box-office nails, last season - Steve Tesich's "The Speed of Darkness" and Timberlake Wertenbaker's "Our Country's Good" - were damn good plays, well worth a Broadway production, which were given simple but excellent stagings. "Crazy He Calls Me" is a play not worth the time of night, given a staging of minimal production values, and amply deserving the ignominious fate doubtless about to engulf it.
Tetenbaum's play is the story of a wooing and misalliance set in Brooklyn from 1938 to 1940, and featuring a nutty charity worker with a mildly incomprehensible Middle European accent (Polly Draper) and a nerdy, needy and mean-spirited Jewish lawyer (Barry Miller). But it is not merely Draper's accent that is mildly incomprehensible. So is the play.
The lovers meet when the lawyer, Benny, happens to hear the woman, Yvette, make a fund-raising appeal for some old persons' home. He is attracted, she comes on to him like gangbusters, they get married, but already by the beginning of the play he apparently is suing her for fraud.
It seems, she didn't tell him she was crazy - I would have told him myself if he had only asked, I would even have told the producers that they were crazy - but he loses the case. It all ends happily when he goes to visit her in the mental institution, releases her from her straitjacket and apparently walks out with her into the sunset.
Their relationship is as boring as it is unlikely. From their first date, when she graphically introduces him to the joys of masturbation, to our last view of them leaving the hospital, they seem a couple not so much odd as grotesque.
The director, John Ferraro, has doubtless done his best, and the actors - both Miller and Draper have been widely seen in far happier and more productive circumstances - come over merely as unpleasant people that you wouldn't want to spend five minutes with, let alone the length of even a comparatively short play.
Crazy, crazy, crazy. And a pity. The Broadway Alliance is too good an idea to let slip through such careless and foolish fingers as those of these producers, Walt K. Weissman, Beth Weissman and Roger Alan Gindi.
At first "Crazy He Calls Me," a new two-character play by Abraham Tetenbaum at the Walter Kerr Theater, seems like just another boy-meets-girl, girl-helps-boy-masturbate romantic comedy.
The time is 1948, the place Brooklyn. Benny (Barry Miller), a young lawyer who still lives with his mother and sister, has fallen for Yvette (Polly Draper), a Polish emigre, nee Yetta, who has a burning mission to raise money for a Hebrew home for the aged. But no sooner has Benny stopped off for the first time at Yvette's apartment for a nightcap than the audience begins to suspect darker doings. Not only does Yvette insist on helping her date achieve orgasm while he remains fully dressed in his pin-striped suit but she proudly displays an impressive collection of lipstick-stained napkins kept in a bureau drawer and yells at a possibly imaginary uncle through her parlor floor.
Crazy you call her? Some of Yvette's other habits include a propensity for picking fights with waitresses and construction workers, a tendency to speak in guttural inner voices that sound like Fanny Brice impersonating Linda Blair, and an insistence on canceling her own recitals as a classical pianist just as the audience takes its seats. Her sense of humor is nothing if not single-minded. When Benny, in the course of a bucolic picnic lunch, gently suggests that Yvette consider submitting to a medical examination, she angrily hands him a thermos and insists that he fill it to the brim with a urine specimen.
Yet Benny's ardor remains unshakable. As he recounts his courtship and marriage to Yvette in flashback, he constantly reassures the audience that he had "no indication we'd be anything but an ideal couple" and rhetorically asks, "How could anyone have known I was being deliberately misled?" That he was a fool to fall for Yvette is apparent to anyone but him, however, from Scene 1. Besides the circumstantial evidence of the heroine's lunatic behavior, there is the fact that Benny delivers his narration from beneath a courthouse portico and refers to Yvette as "the defendant." Only the nature of the crime, and implicitly the true identity of the mysterious heroine, remains elusive throughout. Has Yvette ended up on trial as a clandestine ax murderer, a sex offender, a saboteur of Schubert, a member of an anti-fascist underground, a terrorist in league with the homeless Hebrew aged?
Since the playwright, unlike his characters, does not believe in immediate gratification, the answer to that question is withheld until the final minutes. And when the revelation arrives -- it will not be divulged here -- it proves even more anti-climactic than Benny's indelible Act I curtain line, "The plaintiff moves that we adjourn for a short recess." After two hours of repetitive, windy exposition including that 20-minute recess and enlivened only by a scene in which Mr. Miller silences Ms. Draper by stuffing a knish into her mouth, "Crazy He Calls Me" has no real payoff except a vague, sentimental message. The experience of seeing this play is like watching a whodunit in which the butler is revealed as the murderer in the opening scene and promptly arrested, but the characters spend two hours more rehashing the same two or three clues.
Given that "Crazy He Calls Me" is on Broadway, another eternal and cliched mystery inexorably presents itself. How did such a tiny piece of nonsense attract producers and grow into a huge and costly web that would ultimately ensnare a smart director (John Ferraro), a first-rate design team (Loren Sherman, Jennifer Von Mayrhauser, Dennis Parichy), and a pair of actors as talented as Ms. Draper and Mr. Miller? One never knows. Maybe the producers' script reader is their butler.
The artists who lend their skills to "Crazy He Calls Me" are guilty of nothing except wasting their own time and other people's mad money. The vibrant Ms. Draper, returning to the New York stage from her Hollywood sojourn in "Thirtysomething," gets to wear a lot of lingerie and, intentionally or not, parody Meryl Streep's performance in "Sophie's Choice." Mr. Miller, playing a young man so naive it seems a miracle that he can tie his shoelaces by himself, spends an undue amount of time on his knees. If he isn't praying, he should be.