Appleseed Productions director William Edward White is better known for gutsy mountings of the expressionist masterpiece R.U.R. and the anti-Soviet allegory The Dragon. White has given himself the more daunting task of restoring sparkle to Goodbye Charlie’s
49-year-old stage work, now being performed at the Atonement Lutheran
Church, 116 W. Glen Ave. Two fresh-faced leads assist him in this quest.
The comedy of manners, students will
remember, is not a farce, even when the subject is sex; make that
gender. No pies in the face, no pratfalls and no unwonted discoveries
of compromising positions. Instead, the emphasis is on limning
differences in character and attitude, the resolving of conflicting
As with Seven Year Itch, Axelrod
is always more interested in longing and desire than he is in
completion. So when Hollywood writer George Tracy (Jason Reed) learns
that his lothario co-worker Charlie Sorel has been shot by a jealous
husband and has returned, somehow, in the body of a beautiful woman
(Laura Ciresi Starr), he can hardly get over the delight of having the
lovely creature right there with him. Charlie’s bed lies at stage
right, with a lubricious nude on black velvet hanging above it. Is it
beckoning or isn’t it?
The play begins slowly with 22 minutes
of exposition, when hardly anyone shows up for the male Charlie’s
pathetic funeral in his beach house north of Malibu. The handful of
mourners restrain their grief, as they tell us that Charlie’s assets
were minor: skiing, a great backhand, knowledge of good wine and the
ability to get his work done.
Charlie, it is revealed, was shot going
through a porthole in a failed attempt to escape the cabin of married
Rusty Mayerling (Aileen Kenneson). Not merely a lecher, Charlie was
more of a gigolo, satisfying the needs of women he didn’t really like.
And he was in debt to the IRS. Everyone is ready to wash their hands of
him, except for George.
When everyone but George has departed, a
barefoot woman wanders into Charlie’s pad (authentically designed by
Navroz Dabu with a reel-to-reel tape player). She’s clad in an oversize
raincoat, obviously not her own. She says she landed on the beach nude,
as we never see (hey, this opened in December 1959). We figure out more
quickly than George does that, yup, in defiance of the laws of physics
and metaphysics, this lovely creature is indeed the old Charlie come
back as a woman. The idea is familiar to us because it originates in
myth and folklore and has been stolen a number of times, such as movie
director Blake Edwards’ Switch (1991) with Ellen Barkin. The denouement of Goodbye Charlie, which can’t be revealed, harkens to folkloric roots.
In her new body, Charlie brims with
self-confidence. Speaking of her decolletage she offers, “If you’re
going to be a girl, it’s better to be stacked than not to be stacked.”
The new Charlie is given to cigars, but other than that, she’s not
terribly butch. She thrusts her hands deep into her chinos (acquired
when the raincoat is cast off), has a rough throw of her shoulders, and
experiences some difficulty in learning to walk in high heels.
This is where the show’s Eisenhower-era
origins define tone. As Ms. Charlie has never heard of, say, Susan
Brownmiller, Catherine MacKinnon or Judith Butler, she appears to be
quite content in her lovely new skin and has no jargon-laden harangues
on sexual politics with which to indict George. Indeed,
transmogrification to female form has greatly improved Ms. Charlie’s
manners, which give no evidence of the selfish boorishness that
alienated Mr. Charlie from so many of his colleagues.
As their conversations develop, Ms.
Charlie works unexpected good effects on George, who, unmarried at 38,
like Mr. Charlie, has never before said, “I love you,” to anyone. And
this is at a time before “commitment-phobic” had entered the lexicon.
Although the dialogues between Ms.
Charlie and George dominate the action, they are not alone on the
stage. First there are the tearless mourners at the funeral: Irving (R.
Edson Porter), Greg Morris (Keith Arlington), Mr. Schriber (Philip A.
Brady) and Franny Saltzman (Anne Freund). Weaving in and out through
much of the action is Rusty Mayerling, the thwarted adulteress. Actress
Kenneson, who inhabits this role, is a perfectly attractive young
woman, but Axelrod has written her part to underscore why Ms. Charlie
is more appealing. (Sample line: “All that screaming in five different
languages—four of which I couldn’t even understand.”) Compared to her,
Ms. Charlie has fulfilled Henry Higgins’ plaintive question, “Why can’t
a woman . . . be more like a man?”
Laura Ciresi Starr makes her Syracuse
debut in the title role, but brings a raft of national credits,
including work as a dialect coach at Ithaca’s much-admired Kitchen
Theatre. She plumbs as much subtext as can be found in Charlie and
beats the bloomers off her previous film rivals. This is 2008, and
Starr knows Charlie has to be more than a dream walking.
Also making an area debut is Jason Reed,
a new assistant professor at SUNY Morrisville, with stage credits in
Shakespeare and Caryl Churchill from the Middle West. He’s strongest in
the earliest scenes, as his George tries to deliver a hopeless and
unappreciated eulogy for the supposedly departed Charlie. Elsewhere he
delivers a Tom Ewell-like wonderment about all that women have to offer
guys, no doubt the sentiments of the playwright.
John Poorman’s period costumes aren’t as
outrageously dated as Dabu’s set. Doug Rougeaux choreographed the
stunts. And director William Edward White also performs lighting and
sound duties, with associative quotations from Frank Sinatra and other
Rat Packers. White also wins his point: There is a subtlety in
Axelrod’s play that Minnelli’s movie betrayed. Maybe it’s time to check
out those Cabernets near Brattleboro.
This production runs through Saturday, Sept. 27. See Times Table for information.