Abiding Faith; or, Where’s the Caterer?

There was a sheet of paper pinned to each seat at the aforementioned Walter Kerr Theatre, asking patrons whether or not they had liked the current production and whether they would recommend the show. Now, I did not hand in my questionnaire. Who am I to caution theatergoers about a musical with such a wonderfully gifted group of players: Harvey Fierstein, who also wrote the libretto, Tom Wopat, whom I had previously seen, defenses down, in Annie Get Your Gun, and the glorious Faith Prince (last featured here on the cover of the playbill for Bells Are Ringing)? Obviously, enough people had come to the Walter Kerr on that Tuesday evening in early June to relegate me, chancing it by getting a last-minute ticket at TKTS, to a seat way in the back. Now, this might be all right when the stage is filled with a line of chorus girls making their way down a giant staircase, a set boasting an enormous showboat or an oil painting coming to life (as in the revival of Sunday in the Park with George I would see a few weeks later); but A Catered Affair is not that kind of a razzle-dazzler. It is a modest, earnest musical play; it examines characters rather than providing an opportunity for a series of show tunes. Modesty is its quiet strength, but, sitting in the back row, it still feels an awful lot like weakness.

I regret to report, however belatedly, that I did not warm to A Catered Affair, and not because its thin story felt somewhat warmed up. Sure, it is based on a 1955 television play by Paddy Chayefsky, himself not exactly a hot property these days; but then, most Broadway offerings are recycled nowadays. No, it wasn’t that. I was simply too far removed from the hearth—even further than Uncle Winston, the sidekick Fierstein insisted on turning what, back in the 1950s, could only be an outsider. I appreciated him being there, as a reminder that homosexuals where always in the picture, even when they were kept well outside the frame of the camera. Unfortunately, Winston’s moment in the limelight is “Coney Island,” dreadfully cliché-laden number in which he advises us to keep our eyes open as we ride the rollercoaster of life.

I had been told about the old stove, and that Ms. Prince actually prepared scrambled eggs during the scene. And that is a recommendation? Well, hand me a frying pan and start selling tickets! It rather reminded me of Gertrude Berg, who insisted on realism, and real eggs, even though The Goldbergs was a radio program. Yes, eggs were being prepared on the stage of the Walter Kerr that night, but I could not even smell whether they were rotten or not. An intimate play deserves an intimate theater, especially a play that depends on character far more than on plot, of which there is little, and that anticlimactic.

Indeed, A Catered Affair would have made a fine radio musical, if something like that were ever to be reintroduced into American culture. This is not to say that it is cheap or second-rate. It just means that it does not require visuals for its staging of a family in crisis, a particular brand of problem play you might call Miller Light, even though Rheingold or Schlitz were more likely to be found in the family icebox.

The Walter Kerr was once a radio studio; back in the late 1930s, the playbill informed me, Alexander Woollcott broadcast from here. I would have enjoyed closing my eyes and listening to Ms. Prince, who wowed me many years ago as Adelaide and who keeps delighting me whenever I play selections from the Guys and Dolls cast album. Having kept my eyes peeled on a faraway stage with little to see (not even the event promised in the title), I did not recall a single tune upon exiting the theater shortly before 9 PM, after 90 minutes of intermission-free drabness. Broadway does Family Tuesdays now, for families who can afford to spend money on the less-than-spectacular.

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