Friday, May 16, 2008

A Catered Affair (The SOB Review)

A Catered Affair (The SOB Review) - Walter Kerr Theatre, New York, NY

**** (out of ****)

Like a rare vintage wine that deserves to be sipped and savored, the seriously sublime A Catered Affair opens up across the tastebuds into a glorious bouquet. That is, if only you open up your mind and your heart and let it permeate all your senses.

This tender tale of a mother's revelatory determination to use her fallen son's military death gratuity toward her daughter's wedding will never be confused with fizzy champagne delights served up as a musical comedy.

Nor does it have the tasteless buzz of flat day-old beer like some of this year's lesser efforts. Yet, when all is said and done, this beautifully-acted, earnest chamber musical is intoxicating nevertheless.

Granted, as many an oenophile can attest, not everyone can fully appreciate a dry tannin as it's absorbed by the tongue's epithelium. It's an acquired taste.

The same is most certainly true of taking in a tuner, rich with integrity, daring to wear its dry dignity on its sleeve, right alongside its huge beating heart. But those who have the palette for the introspection of 1950s humanity will love A Catered Affair almost as much as I did. In fact, while the show itself may be dry, it left me in tears.

That's in part because of the incredible compassion with which Harvey Fierstein has vividly crafted his genuinely touching book (and he certainly has a knack for imbuing his carefully drawn characters with appropriate, almost poetic language evocative of its time). Fierstein's libretto has been wondrously blended with John Bucchino's stirring score. John Doyle's understated direction strikes the right balance between the many trials and inner demons the musical's principal characters face and the often hidden gentility each possesses.

Chief among them is Aggie Hurley (Faith Prince in the performance of her career), the aforementioned grieving mother who has recently lost her beloved son in the Korean Conflict. Having invested all her hopes and dreams in him, only to have them dashed by his death, she's had a late-breaking epiphany in realizing she's largely ignored her daughter Jane (Leslie Kritzer, a pure revelation). That's in spite of the fact that the self-effacing Jane has placed her own dreams on the backburner so she could pitch in to help her financially struggling parents, including her complex cabbie father Tom (an impressive Tom Wopat), make ends meet.

That is, until she's met the well-bred Ralph Halloran (Matt Cavenaugh). The two announce that they plan to be wed in a civil ceremony to keep things simple with only immediate family invited to attend. No matter that Jane's Uncle Winston (a fantastic Fierstein) sleeps on the Hurley's living room couch, although the fact that he is a "confirmed bachelor" may have something to do with the slight as a way of appeasing Ralph's uppercrust family.

Dejected by the slight, Winston drowns his sorrows with alcohol and shows up soused at the dinner meeting between Hurleys and Hallorans, becoming unassailably uncorked. If it's true that people speak the truth when they drink, Uncle Winston's pronouncements, however crude, have reached the pinnacle of honesty that would make Paddy Chayefsky -- known for his workmanlike realism -- very proud. And to think that even today, some fifty plus years later, there are still some superciliously selfish families, who would turn their backs on their own loving and giving brothers and uncles simply because they were born gay.

Completely devastated by the thought that she's betrayed her own brother, Aggie has a second epiphany when she receives a check from the military for her son's demise. She decides that she's going to put on a lavish affair with all the trappings she never enjoyed herself (her own wedding was of the shotgun variety), and Aggie enlists Winston to provide his expertise in making the wedding an event Jane will never forget. This despite Tom coveting the dollars to finally own his share of the cab company.

In telling the story, Doyle excels in creating an awe-inspiring authenticity -- from the breathtaking, nuanced portrayals offered by his impeccable cast right down to subtle flourishes like Aggie making real scrambled eggs for Tom on a working oven (thanks to David Gallo's simple, yet serviceable set design) -- steadily building to a splendid finish.

This slice of fifties Bronx is brought to life further by Ann Hould-Ward's spectacularly unspectacular costumes and Zachary Borovay's inspired projection designs. And while some may think Brian MacDevitt's lighting is a tad heavy-handed, particularly when the Hurley son's casket flag is highlighted, I found its use highly effective and respectful, particularly given the ongoing sacrifices American troops continue to make in wars far from home.

If even half of Broadway had as humungous and unpretentious a heart as Harvey Fierstein, the theatre world would never be viewed quite as cynically by those looking at it from the outside as irreflective of society. For that and more, I proudly raise a glass to toast Harvey & Co. on one of the best shows I've seen on Broadway or anywhere else over the past year.

For anyone who has a palate worthy of the best reserve, A Catered Affair is a must-see.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
A Snubbed Affair (May 14, 2008)
And The Tony Nominees Go To... (May 13, 2008)
Whoopi! Tony Eligibility And More Handicapping (May 9, 2008)
Did Affair Positively Cater To Critics? (April 18, 2008)
A Catered Opening Night (April 17, 2008)
Early Tony Handicapping (March 25, 2008)
Wildfires Force Closure Of La Jolla And Old Globe Theatres (October 23, 2007)
Harvey Fiersback (October 5, 2007)
Were Left Coast Critics Feting A Catered Affair? (October 3, 2007)
San Diego Opening Is Catered Affair (September 30, 2007)
Which Upcoming Broadway Musicals Will You See? (June 15, 2007)
Fierstein To Musicalize Bette Davis' Fave Flick (March 21, 2007)

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At 16 May, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, you REALLY loved this show! For me it was more appreciation than love. I thought it was admirable of Fierstein to bring this uncompromising, somber musical to Broadway, certainly more groundbreaking in tone alone than In The Heights. And I thought the score was lovely. Prince and Wopat were wonderful too, I agree. But overall it just seemed to be missing ... something, at least for me. But I still thought it deserved a Best New Musical nod, right in the spot that Cry-Baby occupies. That, my theatre blogger friend that I haven't met yet, is a travesty. P.S. - I love your site!

At 16 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Dylan, I'm a big believer that sometimes, it all depends on our own mood vs. the energy of the cast on any given day. The day I saw it, both my mood and the cast were riding high. In essence, we were all "on."

Thanks so much for the very kind words. And I sincerely appreciate your thoughtful conversation on each topic, too!

At 17 May, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

What a beautifully written review. I'm a little bit in awe. I could never, ever have written this. I'm doffing my critic's cap to you, my friend. You really captured "A Catered Affair" in all of its subtleties and poignancy. I loved the rare, vintage wine analogy. It's a pretty special experience when something touches you so deeply, isn't it? I'm just glad my knee pain didn't ruin the experience for you! I'm so glad you had a chance to speak with Faith Prince afterward. And wow, she looked so different at the stage door!

At 17 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks Esther. Your favorable review did a very nice job of capturing different aspects and the essence of the show.

How is that knee of yours anyway?! Hope it's feeling better.


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