Friday, January 25, 2008

Come Back, Little Sheba (The SOB Review)

Come Back Little Sheba (The SOB Review) - Biltmore Theatre, New York, NY

*1/2 (out of ****)

Everybody loves a good comeback. Unfortunately, the revival of William Inge's melodramatic Come Back, Little Sheba is not one of them.

Ostensibly about hopes and dreams that have long since gone, just like the titular dog, this revival feels like a tired old one at that. In essence, we've seen it all before.

Certainly, Inge broke fertile new ground when he wrote this play about alcoholism and an unwed couple's unplanned pregnancy back at the dawn of the 1950s. But there's nothing new here. Time has a way of diminishing the shock value, and this particular production possesses absolutely none.

Well, that is unless you count director Michael Pressman's well-intentioned, but nonsensical color blind casting. Despite keeping Little Sheba set in the early 50s, a full decade before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, he pairs the fine African American actress S. Epatha Merkerson as a very forlorn Lola with a crackling waspy Kevin Anderson as her recovering alcoholic husband Doc. They're an unhappily married couple.... of 25 years. And they're sitting on a powder keg.

While it certainly would have been a much better world back then if no one had thought twice about multi-cultural families back 58 years ago, that's unfortunately just not the way it was. In a week when we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr., yet ironically saw how even all these advanced years later America's first "black president" could inject race into a political campaign, their pairing only serves to distract.

Personally, I became more fixated on what I imagined Lola and Doc's backstory to be as I found myself conjuring up how difficult their experience with bigots might have been when they first would have met, way back in America's roaring 20s. My imagined script was far more compelling and interesting than the stilted déjà vu dialogue delivered by the angry drunk of a husband lording over his long-suffering yet completely helpless, hopeless wife. In listening to their banter, I couldn't help but think of all the times since Inge wrote this play that I've heard a similar refrain many times over and many times better.

And then I realized how ludicrous my exercise was. And what a wasted opportunity Pressman allowed to pass him by. He's squandered an opportunity to explore new territory by instead retracing all too familiar steps.

He assembled a decent enough cast, with a very meek and mild Merkerson headlining with a hunkered down portrayal of the hapless Lola, who just can't seem to come to grips with how she's allowed her life to pass her by -- or the fact that her beloved dog Sheba has run away (thus the title). Anderson comes unhinged as her tormented alcoholic husband. Zoe Kazan breathes what little fresh air wafts through this production -- her first Broadway outing -- as Lola and Doc's coquettish boarder.

Yet almost in spite of the talent he's amassed, Pressman misses a chance to make his story more relevant for today's audiences. It would have been far more intriguing had Pressman revised the play a bit, shifting its timing to a more recent decade when society was really beginning to grapple with interracial marriages. Rather than completely ignore the matter of race, Come Back, Little Sheba could have served as a thoughtful contemporary examination of the historic challenges mixed race couples had. Instead, we get all the histrionics one would expect from a depiction of the fifties.

Unfortunately, this Come Back feels more like a stale and unsatisfying throwback. We're left to merely ponder what could have been.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Little Sheba Comes Back To Broadway Opening Night (January 24, 2008)
Little Sheba To Come Back To Broadway (August 16, 2007)

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At 26 January, 2008, Blogger jan@broadwayandme said...

Steve, I hadn't read your review before I posted my own this morning but as you'll see, I agree with you entirely. I just wish I, and the rest of the audience, could see that version of the show you imagined while sitting there. It sounds far more involving and I wish someone--maybe you?--would write it.

At 27 January, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Jan, You and I clearly see eye to eye on this one. Here's hoping others read your thoughtful review.


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