The 1971 season, both of them actually, was a time when major playwrights were producing new works that seemed seminal to the change in the era. Edward Albee's All Over, Oliver Hailey's Father's Day, Julian Barry's Lenny (about comic Lenny Bruce), Harold Pinter's Old Times, Edward Bond's Narrow Road to the Deep North, and Lorraine Hansberry's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window were just the tip of the iceberg in that year. Along came a new play by fledgling playwright Terrence McNally, a protegee of Albee. He had previously had a version of Lady of the Camellias on stage in New York in 1963, and an original play, And Things That Go Bump In the Night in 1965 and a one-act comedy, Noon, as part of an off-Broadway triple bill with playwrights Israel Horovitz (Morning) and Leonard Melfi (Night) in 1968.
Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? was first presented at the Berkshire Theater Festival in the summer of 1971. It hit New York in October of that year, playing a modest 78 performances at the Eastside Playhouse with Robert Drivas in the title role, Wallace Rooney playing Ben Delight, F. Murray Abraham as all of the Men, Kathleen Dabney - and later Sally Kirkland - as Nedda Lemon and Marion Paone and Barbara Worthington as the women and the girls. A cast of six to play a large array of parts, the people who populate the ever-increasing world of distrust and hatred that surround Tommy as he journeys through the late 1960's in search of something to believe in other than Thomas Jefferson's statement, "God forbid we should ever be twenty years without a rebellion." Tommy Flowers is living his own rebellion, a fact that has somehow escaped the folks involved in this revival of the play at the Berkshire Theater Festival.
This time around there is a cast of nineteen people doing what six once accomplished. The play is now set in 1971, the year it was written and presented here and the setting doesn't work as well as it would in the 1960s, a time that seems absolutely right for its text and its characters. The Unicorn company, non-professionals all, do the best they can under the direction of E. Gray Simons, III, but he is not Jacques Levy, and he does not innovate, he merely immitates. His people pop out of poorly painted portals, ala the members of TV's much-loved, innovative show Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, in a set designed by Ian Zywicka. They wear costumes that scream the sixties by Jessica Risser-Milne and are lit by a talented man named Dan Kotlowitz. With all the different concepts at work, and they don't seem to be well-matched, the play continues to suffer under the playing of a very uneven company.
Sarah Kauffman who played deadpan in this season's opener, The Illusion, manages two wonderfully different characters in Tommy's Mother and First Lady (a Lady Bird Johnson, if ever there was one). In her first role she is acid poured over glass and in her second appearance she is divinely comic and just a hair below over-the-top. Her playing here is perfection. Almost her equal are Ben Rosenblatt in his role as the Hack (his other characterizations are fine, but not the equal of this one) and Alana Renee Waksman as the intrepid TV interviewer trying to get the First Lady to acknowledge her.
Robert Serrell almost makes us believe in Ben Delight, born Jack Wonder, the old man who is befriended by Tommy. He is clearly too young for the role, but he does his best to make us see and hear the age in his character. His final scene in the hospital was particularly effective as truth poured out of him as the lies never quite had in his earlier scenes with Tommy and Nedda. Morgan Cox is excellent as the young cellist, Nedda Lemon, who has the misfortune to fall in love with Tommy. Hesley Harps plays young Tommy well and the part of Arnold, the dog, is marvelously realized by Nicole Marquez.
Brian Weaver as Tommy Flowers has almost as much to do with this production's lack of success as the director and playwright. Working backwards we must look at the script first: it is not very good. Considered an overlooked masterpiece by some, it is neither witty nor perceptive. It is a reasonably good expose of the period of the mid to late sixties and the generation of young, discontented Americans trying to find their way to a better place through drugs, rebellion, rapacious sexual escapades and willful misbehavior of all sorts. But a good play has at least one major character with whom the audience can empathize and McNally's script doesn't give us many choices: Ben, Arnold, Nedda, but none of them are truly significant in the tale. That leaves Tommy.
Simons has allowed period imagery and "flash" to blind him to the difficulties of making us want to understand Tommy. He never gets beyond the words, although I think he tried to do so through the quirky, large production. Instead he has buried Tommy Flowers under a host of dancing nuns and screaming New Yorkers.
Weaver has a tendency to speak too quickly, making his words murky and his sentences hard to follow. He garbles almost as many lines as he makes meaningful. His best work comes in the second act as he recreates the dead Marilyn Monroe who doesn't know she's dead and is holding a press conference and flirting with her new beloved, Che Guevera and as Rachel Gonzales, a blind and retarded girl of ten who is the poster child for a major charity. Just why Tommy Flowers, who has had no success at all as an off-off-Broadway actor in a play called "Kumquat" should be taking on such roles himself is a question never answered, but at least he is entertaining for a few minutes.
That's the greatest flaw in this production. It is really only entertaining for a few minutes. Tommy often talks about the importance of "being honest." Honestly, there's not much enjoyment in this production.
◊ 07-07-06 ◊
Brian Weaver and Robert Serrell; photo: Kevin Sprague
Nicole Marquez as Arnold; photo: Kevin Sprague
Plays at the Unicorn Theatre at The Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA Monday through Saturday evenings at 8PM and Saturday afternoons at 2PM through July 22. Ticket prices range from $28-$34. For more information call the box office at 413-298-5576 or go to the BTF website at www.berkshiretheatre.org.