Forty years ago, there used to be something called "a commercial comedy." With titles like "Under the Yum Yum Tree" or "Tunnel of Love," these plays offered humor that was generally risque.
Is this word still in the dictionary? Does anything qualify as risque anymore? Sitcom humor is probably the closest we now come to it, and it has lowered the market value of off-color jokes. If you can get them free on TV, why pay Broadway prices? Hence, the genre has disappeared.
Even 40 years ago, however, Trish Vradenburg's "The Apple Doesn't Fall . . . " would not have made the grade. It's neither funny nor clever enough to warrant leaving the comforts of home.
Vradenburg herself calls it a fantasy. A young TV producer discovers her mother has Alzheimer's disease. A new medication brings her back to normal and she pursues life with heightened aggressiveness. The recovery, however, turns out to be a dream.
If the dream were more imaginative, if the thrust of the play were genuinely life-affirming, the slender plot might have some redeeming value. But everything exists merely to hang jokes on few of which are really funny.
To write a comedy about Alzheimer's disease suggests a lack of taste, and Vradenburg lacks it in spades. The biggest laugh of the evening comes when the elderly mother (played by Florence Stanley) uses the F-word.
Leonard Nimoy's direction is straightforward.
Margaret Whitton is capable as the daughter, Stanley is funny throughout but nothing can redeem the dreariness of the play.
Trish Vradenburg's "The Apple Doesn't Fall" is, I suppose, an attempt at blackish comedy. Directed by Leonard Nimoy of Star Treks fame, it opened at the Lyceum Theater last night, and when it fell it didn't make cider. Crab apples don't.
Despite the occasional four-letter functional word, and a modernish, angularly spartan notional set with garish photographic projections to suggest various relevant place-settings, this is an old-fashioned Broadway comedy that, when rather more slickly written, once provided basic boulevard fare for the Great White Way.
Many years ago now, their place in the sun - and their always minimal relevance - was usurped by the TV sitcom, and by now it's even about 30 years since that state of affairs was generally recognized and accepted by all but the most optimistic of would-be playwrights and the most foolish of producers.
Vradenberg is, if I understand her playbill biography accurately, a successful TV writer and novelist. She should, with all respect, keep her night job.
Her play concerns the difficulties of a young career woman, a TV script-writer and producer, Kate Griswald (Margaret Whitton), with her archetypal Jewish mother, Selma (Florence Stanley), during the mother's first descent into senility and her possible subsequent transfiguration.
Her story is told, according to the daughter, in a mixture of "truth, memories and some fantasy." In the end, disconcertingly, it seems that the fantasy has taken over, and we in the audience can't fairly distinguish between what is supposed to have really happened, and what is supposed to have only happened in the daydreams of the daughter.
The basic fact is simple enough. Selma dies. She has, it appears, a mixture of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease - a one-two punch which one would expect to prove deadly.
But a young doctor, Sam Gordon (Richard Cox), comes up with a wonder drug which manages to put the disease (or diseases) in remission long enough for the freshly spry 66 year-old Selma to start a new life.
She tours the Grand Canyon with her daughter, and later forgives her husband (Lee Wallace), a retired dentist, for divorcing her and running off with a younger woman (Madeline Miller). She then, it seems, begins a liasion with an elderly academic she had long loved in silence, and ends by testifying to a Senate committee on aging.
Mind you - there is much more to the story than that!
The humor is chiefly of the Jewish-insult variety, and the characters are all, without exception, as unlikeable as they are unlikely. But none is so unlikely or so unlikeable as the heroine, the demonambitious, foul-mouthed Kate.
Among the performances, the nicest comes from Stanley, sort of acid drop lovable as the terminal termagant yenta, and the nastiest from Whitton as the hot-shot, tear-away daughter, who learns the lesson of her life through her mother's death.
The others vary between nice and nasty, although I liked Cox's long-suffering, mostly good-guy doctor, whom apparently only the daughter's fantasy made a genius. Nimoy's staging nimbly prevented the actors from bumping into the screens or getting caught in or on the wrong projection. The rest is silence.
"Doctors kill you," Selma Griswald tells her daughter Kate as they sit in the waiting room. "Show me a person who has just died, and I'll show you a doctor 10 feet away."
Selma doesn't want to acknowledge that she's in a panic. At first she had seemed simply forgetful, but now she has delusions that hairy thugs have invaded her home. Kate is almost as desperate in her own way. Though she's an Emmy Award-winning writer of sitcoms, she's unfulfilled. She can't keep a man. She's a workaholic who, like her mom, communicates largely in one-liners and put-downs.
Sam Gordon, the doctor examining Selma, turns out to be the answer to both women's needs. Being a neurologist of the brilliance and sensitivity of Oliver Sacks, he not only diagnoses Selma's Alzheimer's disease, but he also offers the possibility of a miraculous cure. Further, he's youngish, good-looking and single.
"The Apple Doesn't Fall. . . ." sounds like something that Kate might write for television, where, if it made you cringe, you could always surf to the next channel. Instead it's the play by Trish Vradenburg that opened last night at the Lyceum Theater, where, once seated, you're stuck. The director is Leonard Nimoy, and the cast is headed by Margaret Whitton (Kate) and Florence Stanley (Selma).
"The Apple Doesn't Fall. . . ." has far less to do with Alzheimer's than it does with the second chance science gives Kate to get to know and understand her mother. When you cringe, it isn't because the playwright has made bold use of bad-taste gags to illuminate an intolerably sad situation. You cringe at hearing the monotonous, quite formal rhythms of witless sitcom lines to define characters that have become as ritualized as those in Japanese Noh drama. You don't have to understand what's being said to know when you're supposed to laugh. The cadences tell you.
Though Selma's illness gives the play its narrative shape, "The Apple Doesn't Fall. . . ." is a relationship comedy about a mother who gave up happiness for her daughter, and a daughter who resents her mother's constant advice and criticism. Kate: "Why can't you call me Kate, not Katie?" Selma: "Why can't you say, 'I love you'?" Selma, her Alzheimer's in remission, takes off from the hospital to live life to the fullest, reluctantly chaperoned by Kate. Their first stop is a dude ranch near the Grand Canyon, where Selma goes sky-diving, white-water rafting and dances the lambada. Men adore her.
The next stop is Miami to attend the wedding of Jack (Lee Wallace), Kate's father, a retired "big-shot dentist" who divorced Selma after 42 years of marriage because he couldn't face her illness. Jack is a sight gag, decked out in gold chains and wearing a toupee that seems to have been dropped onto his head from a great height. His response on seeing Selma: "You look great! Alzheimer's agrees with you."
This is an especially painful sequence, if only because you know that Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Betty White, "The Golden Girls," who could live next door, would be much better company. Ms. Vradenburg has written for "Designing Women," "Family Ties" and "Kate and Allie," but she seems to have no gift for finding the paricular natures within generic types. Kate, Selma, Jack and the others are sitcom prototypes, characterized entirely by dialogue that's either sarcastic or sentimental.
Kenneth Foy designed the unit set and the projections that permit the scenes to shift from New York to Arizona to Florida and back again without noticeable effort. The work by the actors never seems less than competent, which is not to say "The Apple Doesn't Fall. . . ." isn't ghastly. It is.
A play of excruciating awfulness, "The Apple Doesn't Fall..." arrives on Broadway with the aspect of a vanity production, the expensive conceit of a network of friends supporting one of their own. As a result, several fine actors appear to be having at least as terrible a time onstage as we are in the audience watching them, with a serious subject - coping with a parent suffering from Alzheimer's diesase - is given short shrift.
That subject is clearly the autobiographical inspiration of Trish Vradenburg's play. Vradenburg is a TV scripter whose credits include "Designing Women," "Family Ties" and "Kate & Allie." Similarly, Kate Griswald (Margaret Whitton) is the head writer and producer of a sitcom, living out the fantasy of her would-be-writer mother, Selma (Florence Stanley), turned instead by 42 loveless years of marriage into a dour scold.
When Selma succumbs, quite quickly, to the disease, Kate tries with less and less success to care for the mother she doesn't particularly like, while juggling her writing and the tiresome demands of her star (Janet Sarno). When Selma is institutionalized, husband Jack (Lee Wallace) divorces her and takes up with a hot Miami matron (Madeline Miller) - a transition established by having Wallace leave New York looking like Ed Koch and meeting Kate in Florida looking like Mel Torme.
When a doctor (Richard Cox) puts Selma on an experimental medication, her symptoms miraculously begin to reverse. She badgers Kate into joining her on a cross-country trip, and Kate returns the favor by setting up an appearance for her mother before a Senate committee on aging. Mother and daughter bond, unbond, bond again. If you remember "The Baltimore Waltz," you know pretty quickly what's going on here, for "The Apple Doesn't Fall..." bears a more than passing structural resemblance to Paula Vogel's immensely moving play about AIDS.
Vradenburg may have perfect pitch in sitcomland, but "Apple" reveals a tin ear ("I'll be there in 30 minutes sharp!" Kate promises and, later, asks, "You want me to deep-six my career?") along with a stunning vulgarity. Director Leonard Nimoy is clueless about making any of this coherent - who wouldn't be? - though his actors are giving their all up there, and, in Stanley's case, sometimes quite affectingly.
But Kenneth Foy has given them the ugliest set I've ever seen, gloomily lit by Ken Billington. Gail Cooper-Hecht's costumes are fine (Whitton is outfitted in Armani, which I suppose is appropriate). Maudlin and arch, "Apple" will fall, and quite quickly.