Online since August 2002

An affair of the heart

Published October 2007

By Carol Davis


A Catered Affair
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Music and lyrics by John Bucchino
Directed by John Doyle

Cassius Carter Centre Stage
The Old Globe
1363 Old Globe Way
Balboa Park
San Diego
Through Nov. 4

The day after I saw the world premiere musical "A Catered Affair" at the Old Globe, I announced to my friends that they should see it now before it heads off to Broadway and the Tonys. No question in my mind that Faith Prince will be nominated for, if not win, the Tony for leading actress in a musical. Her first was for her role as Adelaide in the 1992 revival of "Guys and Dolls." Of course, co-stars Harvey Fierstein and Tom Wopat are no slouches, either, in the Tony department, but I get ahead of myself.

Based on the 1956 Gore Vidal movie, "The Catered Affair" staring Betty Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds, Rod Taylor and Barry Fitzgerald, taken from Patty Chayefskey's teleplay, the drama revolves around a struggling middle-class family and the arising conflict of a big wedding vs. a small wedding for their daughter who is engaged and planning to get married.

A Catered AffairA Catered Affair
The new musical, Fierstein's project if you will (he wrote the book), follows the movie pretty closely with a few exceptions. The most obvious is the uncle's gay lifestyle, something one would never talk about in the '50s, but works in this genre and will work better if Fierstein tones his shtick down a bit. The other involves a son, who has been killed in "the war" (this doesn't happen in the movie version). And while the movie has so much going for it, a son's war death, the gay uncle, the struggle for money, and issues of self-worth and belonging still have a deep emotional thrust that makes watching this drama unfold tug at the heartstrings.

Dad Tom (Wopat), who drives a taxi, has striven all his life for his own cab medallion. He's the strong, silent type who is taken for granted. Mom Aggie (Prince) feels like she's just been going through the motions most of her married life in what she refers to as a loveless marriage. And bachelor uncle Winston (Fierstein), mom's brother who lives with them, adds another voice to the family struggles. Whatever they are thinking, they keep to themselves. Whatever they are feeling, they don't share. And whatever they may or may not want remains suppressed, buried and not open for discussion.

The fly in the ointment, the buzz around the light bulb, the electric shock that moves this family to a new direction, however, is daughter Janey (Leslie Kritzer), who is engaged to Ralph (Matt Cavanaugh). Janey has an epiphany one morning and announces to Ralph that they should get married ASAP with a no-frills, no-guest-list ceremony at City Hall rather than wait for the "big wedding." This throws the whole family into an uproar, but not before all hell breaks loose, all bets are off for the cab, everyone becomes unhinged, mom and dad finally see each other for who they are and Uncle Winston comes into his own.

The musical drama opens against a backdrop of a Bronx tenement housing project (set by David Gallo) with metal platforms and fire escapes sliding in and out, opening just for small scenes in and around the shifting landscape. Brian MacDevitt's exceptional lighting along with Zachary Borovay's projections are all that is needed to make this look happen. It's beautifully and efficiently done. Four busybody neighbors are gossiping about the neighborhood ("Women Chatter I") when the set opens. Uncle Winston (Fierstein is in his skivvies washing out his boxers) joins in the patter. Cut to the bedroom where Jayne and Ralph are just tiptoeing out of bed, when the decision to get married comes pouring out of Jayne's mouth. Ralph has a difficult time with it, but Janey is convinced it's the right move at the right time. After all, they have been sleeping together, and God forbid she should get married with a "swollen waist." Better yet, a friend needs a car driven to California pronto – what a great way to spend a honeymoon.

When Tom and Aggie get back to their home in the Bronx from their son's funeral ceremonies in D.C., Jayne decides to tell her Mom about their new wedding plans and leaves the decision of no relatives, including Winston coming to the wedding, up to her to break the news ("No Fuss"). Winston, not at all happy with that bit of information ("Immediate Family"), decides to throw the party anyway, incurring the cost of the hall all by himself. Later that night, when the brassy in-laws comes for dinner, they will hear nothing of a small wedding.

Aggie hops on the bandwagon ("Our Only Daughter") and tells Tom of her plans to go ahead with the wedding. Knowing that money was the deterrent in the first place, she tells him the rest will be paid for with the check coming from the government covering their deceased son's survivors' benefits. Jayne will have the wedding she never had, demands Aggie, and proceeds to convince Jayne of just that. In reality, they both need this wedding, perhaps Aggie more than Jayne.

But, ooops! Did we mention Tom was going to use that same money for his cab?

With fitting music and lyrics by John Bucchino carrying the story along at just the right pace, a ten-piece orchestra under the baton of Constantine Kotsiopoulos, and the deft and sensitive direction of John Doyle, this economical one-act musical drama has the emotional impact of a strong right to the gut. While amusing and even funny in part, the story is heartbreaking as it cuts to the core of the raw, too-long-suppressed emotions of both Tom and Aggie. The characters are well-defined from top to bottom. This soundly chosen cast has the depth to pull off what is hoped to be a rousing success in the Big Apple if audiences there can sit through the lengthy pauses long enough for the silences to sink in, for the emotions to register, and for the story to play itself out to its poignant and right conclusion.

Prince – with her all the emotional range and rage gleaned from her years of acting – is perfect as the long-forgotten wife, the taken-for-granted mother: the volcano waiting to erupt. When she plans, with Jayne, the details of the how the wedding dress will look ("One White Dress") every mother in the house who ever planned a wedding related. Her sheer delight in watching her daughter in the wedding dress she tries on is at odds with her emotional longing for the wedding she never had ("Vision"). The deep-seated anger that sent shock waves through the audience as she stamped her foot on the floor and slapped her palm on the kitchen table to signal an end to the bickering in her house was enough to tell everyone she was someone to be reckoned with.

In an understated way, Wopat is no slouch either. As the almost-forgotten husband father, and brother-in-law, he appears to be an outsider looking in while all the fuss unfolds around him. He watches his lifelong dream of owning his own cab evaporate in the excitement of the new wedding plans. But when he is accused, by Aggie, of not loving her and marrying her because of pressure from her father oh so many years ago, he comes unglued. Watching his anger grow as he sings the stirring aria "I Stayed" you could have heard a pin drop. It was exhilarating!

Both Kritzer and Cavenaugh proved to be formidable as the bewildered couple wanting to get on with their lives without all the mishagas of in-laws and outlaws. Their moving "Don't Ever Stop Saying I Love You" said volumes of what they never heard their own parents say. Between the two, Kritzer's Janey is more developed than Cavanaugh's Ralph. He could use a strong number of his own to add more balance to the relationship and character. The gossiping neighbors, who had four chatter songs, help fill the gaps and added a little to the narrative.

What more can be said of Fierstein than what has already been said? The man is a mountain mover, full of life and fun. While his Winston character was a bit over-the-top on opening night (I'm confident it will tone down throughout the run, which has already been extended a week), his presence is gigantic. From the opening chatter song to the all-knowing ""Immediate Family" to his references to his "partner," to his explosive and drunken invasion on the in-laws' dinner party, to the comfort he gives to Aggie as they plan the wedding and floral arrangements to the level-headed reassurances he bestows on the family, he sparkled. In the final analysis, however, it's the humanity all of the characters, the understated music, the truthfulness of the writing and the heartbreak that's peeled away throughout that makes this show a stand-out.

I'm giving it two thumbs up!

See you at the theater.

Theater Home Page | Turbula Home Page