Review: The Goodbye Girl

Mean guy moves out, nice guy moves in—now everybody sing!

With The Goodbye Girl, now playing at Theatre Three, it goes like this: Buy your ticket, sit down, wait four songs and fall in love. That's exactly how long it takes for Dallas actor Gregory Lush to make his first entrance. And when he comes onstage and starts singing, dancing and throwing his long legs around, he succeeds in charming not just his leading lady (Lisa-Gabrielle Greene), but everyone in the house. Feel that happy vibe run through the audience when they realize what a good time they're in for with this actor.

Hello, dahling, the Goodbye guy is great.

Lush is a doll as Elliot Garfield, an aspiring actor from Chicago who has sublet a tiny two-bedroom Manhattan flat that just happens still to be occupied by a 35-year-old ex-dancer named Paula McFadden (Greene) and her whip-smart 12-year-old daughter Lucy (Ruby Westfall). Paula too recently has been abandoned by the latest in a series of live-in actor-boyfriends, and the awful jerk has re-let the place without telling her. When the new tenant arrives in the middle of the night, Paula's in a tizz. Broke and with nowhere else to go, Paula has to convince Elliot, whom she loathes on sight, to allow her and Lucy to stay on as his roomies.

Get ready to  gush over Gregory Lush—with Natalie King, Ruby Westfall and Lisa-Gabrielle Greene—in Theatre Three's The Goodbye Girl.
Andy Hanson
Get ready to gush over Gregory Lush—with Natalie King, Ruby Westfall and Lisa-Gabrielle Greene—in Theatre Three's The Goodbye Girl.

It's the same plot, more or less, as the 1977 movie starring Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason. (A widely ignored remake aired on TV earlier this year starring Jeff Daniels and Patricia Heaton.) Neil Simon adapted his own original screenplay for the 1993 Broadway musical, collaborating with composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist David Zippel.

As soft, sweet musicals go, The Goodbye Girl is a big old marshmallow. It was a first-class flopperoo on Broadway, despite the star power of its leads, Bernadette Peters as Paula and Martin Short, who at least scored a Tony for his frenetic performance as Elliot. But it might have been bad timing—1993 was a year when critical tastes were more attuned to heavy hitters such as Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Theatre Three, with its intimate seating arrangement and in-the-round stage, is the perfect venue for lighthearted fare like this, and they've picked a nice time of year to produce a musical comedy with broad audience appeal. This is one of the few shows not going dark right after Christmas and about the only one with a non-holiday theme. It may be a little early for a valentine, but The Goodbye Girl certainly has all the elements for a theater date with someone you're sweet on.

Of course, it doesn't begin that way in the show. Paula's heart has been trampled on so often by love-her-and-leave-her actor beaux, she's wearing a barbed-wire bra (metaphorically speaking). Lucy, afraid of seeing her mother mistreated again, tries her hardest not to be swayed by Elliot's easy manner and "charisma," a word she looks up after a playmate describes Elliot as having it.

Elliot's no pushover either. In New York for the first time, he's hoping for his big break playing Shakespeare's Richard III in a small theater so far off Broadway it's practically in Flatbush. He doesn't need the distractions of sharing an apartment with an early-rising school-age kid and her yakky (but pretty cute) mom. The situation bristles with comedic conflicts. Here's Elliot singing his rules of co-habitation: "I like to shower every morning/And I don't like your panties wringing wet on the rod/And if you have to leave your razor on the sink/You run the risk I'll turn into Sweeney Todd!"

Zippel's lyrics, thank goodness, are twice as clever as Hamlisch's tunes, which have none of the quirky, bouncy originality of the composer's earlier work on A Chorus Line and They're Playing Our Song. Those were both from the 1970s, when Hamlisch's skills as a tunesmith were at their zenith. Even Barry Manilow might reject Goodbye Girl's bland melodies as too much easy-cheesy pap to pass as pop. (A revival of Hamlisch's They're Playing Our Song, also written in collaboration with Neil Simon, opens February 15 at Irving's Lyric Stage.)

Anyhow, the show's shorthanded plotting forces every character's emotional attachments to turn on a dime. They all hate one another in one scene and are flirting in the next. She loves him, she loves him not. "How can I win?" sings Paula, bemoaning her own habit of getting involved with losers. Then she's all aflutter in the throes of her new crush.

Elliot's bravado as lord of the sub-leased manor crumbles when he discovers that his play's eccentric Hungarian director (Bruce R. Coleman, who also directed this production) wants him to do Richard III in drag. Not exactly the serious New York debut Elliot was hoping for.

Paula and Lucy attend his disastrous opening night—Elliot sings his tortured inner dialogue as he clomps around as "Queen Richard III" in a purple lamé frock and curly blond wig—and then try to soothe his shattered ego afterward. Just like in the movie, Paula melts in the presence of Elliot's sad-puppy breakdown, and you only have to check the list of songs in the second act ("Who Would've Thought" and "What a Guy") to see that true love is just down the hallway in the shabby brownstone sublet.

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