Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Happy Birthday" - Frosting Without a Cake

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Hunter Canning

The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) has dipped into the theatrical archives and revived the Anita Loos work Happy Birthday which was a Broadway hit for Helen Hayes in 1946. However this time around a less than stellar cast cannot hide the problems of this lightweight vehicle, which moves forward in fits and starts rather than sailing jauntily toward its conclusion.

It's a rainy night in Newark, NJ as the regulars start to come into The Jersey Mecca Cocktail Bar, the place being owned by Gail (Karen Ziemba). The staff includes Herman (Ron McClary) who holds court as a bartender, and June (Leslie Shires), girlfriend to Gail's son Don (Tom Berklund), Don being off in the merchant marines. 

(L to R) Victoria Mack, Todd
Gearhart, Mary Bacon
A place with a bit of an unsavory reputation, the Mecca is a place for quiet assignations and where business can be conducted away from prying eyes. Such as when Gabe (Joe Tippett) is looking to get a quickie divorce so he can marry his girlfriend Bella (Hanna Cheek) before she becomes too much in the family way. Thanks to the help of a perennially soused Judge (Anderson Matthews), this matter just might get quickly resolved. There's also the issue of Paul Bishop (Todd Gearhart), a bank teller spending some quality time with his girlfriend Maude (Victoria Mack), a woman who may also have another man on the side.

Into this mix comes the somewhat prim and proper Addie Bemis (Mary Bacon), a librarian and a woman who is clearly out of her comfort zone. It seems she told her dad (Matthews), a notoriously mean drunk, that she's been seeing Paul and now her father is coming here to confront him. Addie, who made the entire thing up, now just wants to warn Paul of the danger and then quickly depart.

Of course things don't go the way she plans, as Addie begins to get drawn into the lives of those she meets in the Mecca. Addie also harbors a secret love for Paul and finds herself sticking around and trying to get to know him. One thing leads to another and when Addie, a lifelong teetotaler, gets talked into a having her first sip of alcohol - a Pink Lady to be precise - it's not long before her inhibitions get tossed in the dustbin and she starts behaving in a rather wild manner, carrying the other denizens in the establishment along for the ride.

The Loos' script has a lot of layers to it, many of which may not have been readily apparent to a 1946 audience. Such as how quickly one can go from being a happy drunk, and the life of the party, to a pathetic one. There's also the issue of how some people have to buy their friends in order to keep them around. Another topic to be considered is that of generational conflict, as seen in the interactions of Gail, Don and June. All interesting possibilities to be sure, but ultimately, none of which really come together. 

It helps tremendously if the setting presented has some colorful characters or a good period atmosphere. But this production of Happy Birthday has neither. The people inhabiting the Mecca never really leaping off the page into the audience's consciousness and certainly not into their hearts. There are also several plotlines that are introduced and quickly dropped, like Gail's relationship with her son and how June figures into it all, as well as the previously mentioned problems of Gabe and Bella, with what happens to them being a plot point that's left hanging. Though Tot (Darrie Lawrence) and Emma (Nora Chester), two somewhat gossipy ladies who egg Addie on in terms of alcoholic consumption, come off nicely; as does Myrtle (Margot White), a lonely woman pinning for her married lover, who's busy spending time with his wife. Also quite good is Anderson Matthews in the duel roles of The Judge and Addie's father.

Another problem is that one never feels the story is taking place in the time period indicated. Things start off nicely with some boogie-woogie music, but except for some occasional mentions about specific events, there's nothing to really anchor it to any particular place and time, the sets and costumes doing nothing to help add to that specificity. On the plus side, Brett J. Banakis' set does give the playing area a nice homely feel and the costumes by Campbell Baird are fine as far as they go. There are also some good lighting effects by Paul Hackenmueller and the sound design by Bart Fasbender is nicely executed. However one particular stage effect meant to show Addie and Paul alone together might have done better with a simple spotlight on them and the rest of the characters frozen in darkness instead of what's actually used.

It also doesn't help that the lead character is rather bland. A definite star vehicle for whomever is playing Addie, Bacon isn't up to what the role demands, at least not as directed by Scott Alan Evans. Her portrayal being too much of a one-note offering, whether Addie is the midst of an alcoholic haze or just wanting desperately to talk to someone. The only time Bacon is able to break through is when Addie is talking to her father about what has befallen her. Sadly by this time this happens, the show is almost over. Had this inner strength been brought to the forefront earlier, things might have worked better. Bacon's co-star Gearhart also doesn't fare that well as Paul. A square-jawed and honorable fellow, he comes off as tired and boring without making any significant impression.

Direction by Evans is rather slipshod. He has all the pieces of the story available, but isn't able to bring them together with enough energy or zest to really put the show over the top. He does a decent job with what he attempts, but it's not nearly as good enough as it needs to be.

Happy Birthday, the title applying to one of the characters in the story, is one of those shows with a lot of potential, but in this particular case it ultimately fails to deliver where it counts.

Also in the cast are Joseph Masi and James Prendergast.

Happy Birthday

Featuring: Karen Ziemba (Gail Hosmer), James Prendergast (Dad Malone), Joe Tippett (Gabe Darcy), Hanna Cheek (Bella Lane), Ron McClary (Herman), Margot White (Myrtle), Lesley Shires (June), Mary Bacon (Addie Bemis), Victoria Mack (Maude Carson), Tom Berklund (Don Hosmer), Anderson Matthews (The Judge/Homer Bemis), Todd Gearhart (Paul Bishop), Joseph Masi (Policeman/Mr. Nanino), Darrie Lawrence (Tot), Nora Chester (Emma)

Written by Anita Loos

Production Stage Manager: Jeff Meyers
Assistant Stage Manager: Andrew Slater
Dramaturge: Matt Herzfeld
Casting Director: Kelly Gillespie
Press and Publicity: Richard Hillman PR
Marketing: The Pekoe Group
TACT General Manager: Cathy Bencivenga
Wig & Hair Design: Tommy Kurzman
Associate Costume Design: Nicole Wee
Props: Lauren Madden
Choreography: Valerie Wright
Music Programming: Joe Trapanese

"I Haven't Got A Worry in the World"
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II 

Sound Design & Original Music: Bart Fasbender
Musical Direction & Original Music: James Cunningham
Lighting Design: Paul Hackenmueller
Costume Design: Campbell Baird
Scenic Design: Brett J. Banakis
Directed by Scott Alan Evans

Presented by The Actors Company Theatre
The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (no intermission)
Closed: April 14, 2013

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