Category: Archive

Theater Review All in the family: art imitates life in Meara comedy

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

DOWN THE GARDEN PATHS, by Anne Meara. Directed by David Saint. Starring Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson and John Shea. At Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, NYC.

Comedian Anne Meara is probably the only female Irish-American playwright whose name springs to mind without benefit of extensive research into the subject.

And playwright she is, as she demonstrated three seasons ago with "After-Play," which could be interpreted either as a serious comedy about the difficulties encountered in a couple of long-standing marriages or as a meditation on the pleasures and possibilities of purgatory.

Some measure of Meara’s early fame came as a result of a series of much-admired commercials for the Blue Nun wine label, performed with her husband and performance partner, Jerry Stiller. Those radio and TV spots, detailing the relationship between an Irish-Catholic girl and her Jewish suitor, reflected the actual lives of Stiller and Meara with warmth, wit, and conspicuous tenderness.

That Irish-Jewish balancing act surfaces again in Meara’s new play, "Down the Garden Paths," which has at its center a parallel couple of aging comics, Sid Garden and Stella Dempsey Garden, captured at the moment when their science-writer son, Arthur, is being honored as the recipient of a humanitarian tribute the author calls the Herschel Strange Award.

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The fact that the Gardens are being played by Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, participants in another successful and long-lasting personal and professional partnership, only adds to the richness of the overall mix.

Complicating the situation even further is the presence in the cast assembled by director David Saint of a Wallach daughter, Roberta, and another, Amy, from the Stiller household, each seen in two contrasting roles.

Rounding out the thespian menu are John Shea as Arthur, Leslie Lyles as his wife, Adam Grupper as a second Garden son, Angela Pietropinto as the Herschel Strange hostess, and, finally, Jerry Stiller, on screen as the titan for whom the awards are named.

With Frank McCourt on tape at the Irish Arts Center in Joseph O’Connor’s "Red Roses & Petrol," and Stiller on film in his wife’s new play, a trend may be emerging that, if carried to its extreme conclusion, might just eliminate live actors from the theater entirely.

In "Down the Garden Paths," as she did with "After-Play," playwright Meara refuses to settle for conventional comedy plotting, or, for that matter, even the mechanics normally associated with what is termed "the well-made play."

The pluralization of the title’s final word, "Paths," in lieu of the more expectable "Path," offers a suggestion that the playwright is once again toying with the usual components of ordinary dramaturgy. whereas in "After-Play," where her director was also David Saint, she could be said to have been flirting with the metaphysical, here her objectives seem almost existential, as might be suggested by some of the publications of Arthur Garden, which come equipped with such titles as "Infinite Horizons" and even "Probable Paths."

In her intermissionless, 90-minute new play, Meara presents three scenarios, plus a brief suggestion of a fourth, each of them triggered by a long-ago incident, potentially disastrous, in the family’s shared history. The play’s successive scenes, separated by a lowered screen on which are projected fragments of film featuring the jovial image of Herschel Strange, aka Jerry Stiller, play out the family’s reality as it would have gone had the crucial moment in the Gardens past had a different result from what actually took place. The old saw about "the path not taken" becomes operative here.

Ironically, as directed by Saint, the Gardens don’t really come across as a family, despite all the blood ties linking the play’s cast members. This seems particularly true in the first half-hour or so, and may improve with more playing time, as the actors become more at ease in their attempts to inhabit Meara’s troubled little universe.

Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson have, after half a century of living and working together, reached the point where they are so loved and admired by the theatergoing public that they are virtually critic-proof. The same comment applies, perhaps to a slightly lesser degree, to the Stillers as well.

"Down the Garden Paths," which somehow works better in theory than it does in actual performance, suffers a bit from a kind of double image. You find yourself looking at the Wallachs and wondering to what extent they’re playing the Stillers or, on another level, it’s quite possible, as you’re watching Anne Jackson, to forget that you’re not watching that other, equally endearing Anne, Meara.

Make no mistake, Jackson and Wallach are, as usual, excellent here, although the latter’s part doesn’t afford him as rich an opportunity to shine.

John Shea is fine as the Gardens’ writer son, Arthur, although the role seems seriously underwritten and vaguely awkward, particularly as the play struggles along toward its somewhat dispiriting conclusion.

With the exception of the unfailing Leslie Lyles, who is the wife of another actor who is also a gifted writer, Keith Reddin, the supporting performances tend to resemble the work you find in summer stock theaters: harried, shrill and superficially conceived and focussed.

David Murin’s costumes, some of which are strikingly ugly, are suitable, while James Youmans’s unhelpful apartment setting suggests the dais in a Florida hotel convention room rather than a place where anyone might live.

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