Cold War curio

The 1950s often are cited as this century's watershed for American theater. It was then that Lee Strasberg's Actor's Studio, whose members worshiped at the altar of a Russian psychoanalytic guru named Stanislavsky, dominated Broadway and off-Broadway headlines with a method based on recalling real-life emotional moments and transferring them to the stage. The studio conquered populist territory by wowing Americans with a generation of movie actors who remain legends.

Marlon Brando, Geraldine Page, and Jessica Tandy are just three of the powerhouse names who managed to bridge the gap between live theater and film with their own idiosyncratic performance styles, effectively erasing the chalk line that "serious actors" had drawn between acting for a live audience and acting for a camera. On the other hand, Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean were the disciples whose unearthly beauty couldn't be wasted on a few hundred audience members a week; they applied Stanislavsky's method to the vast audience of the movies.

This was perhaps the last time American theater exerted a significant influence on the outside world. The stage tattooed a definition of performance on both film and theater in the '50s, insisting that audiences peer beneath the surface of actors' performances for psychological clues consistent with the Freudian ideas that had filtered down into popular culture. That search for subtext is what makes George Axelrod's manic sex comedy The Seven Year Itch such a strangely relevant curio when staged in our own uptight decade. You will remember its title from the 1957 film version directed by Billy Wilder and starring Marilyn Monroe.

Pocket Sandwich Theatre also remembers the movie version with sly references here and there. But serving as a greater inspiration in this production by Hal Finley are the fashionable neuroses that made Axelrod's comedy such a huge hit on Broadway in 1953. The play overflows with stylized sitcom performances and an abundance of hip references to nicotine, alcoholism, and adultery--the first breaths of confession that life in the '50s wasn't all hula hoops and TV dinners.

A word about Pocket Sandwich for the uninitiated: The company specializes in revivals and campy original scripts that often rely on characters and situations rescued from the trash heap of American popular cinema. (Its last production was titled Atomic Cavegirls of Island Zero.) Pocket Sandwich may not be first in line when the critics' awards are handed out, but the deliberate overacting it encourages represents its own challenge to the many actors who participate in its shows, then move on to more legit gigs. So determined is Pocket Sandwich to involve ticket buyers, it has adopted an audience-participation format that matches but predates the wildly successful Comedy Central phenom Mystery Science Theatre 2000. During certain productions, Pocket Sandwich distributes popcorn for the audience members to hurl at characters they don't like--crude, perhaps, but more faithful to the spirit of audiences in William Shakespeare's lifetime than any 1996 summer Shakespeare festival you can name.

There's no popcorn-throwing allowed at Pocket Sandwich's version of The Seven Year Itch, but the audience is drawn in by the sheer datedness of the material. Axelrod's play is presented with such bald-faced fidelity that you're left to sift through a horrendously dated script for gems of insight without the benefit of the irony most often provided nowadays. There are no guardian angel-sized quotation marks that descend from the ceiling onto this production, no introduction of a '90s sensibility into dust-covered archival comedy. The performances range from barely competent to enchanting, and they all are pitched at the same high volume. The comedy is punchy and rhythmic, if fatally monotonal. What's startling about this production of The Seven Year Itch is how closely it echoes--43 years later--the domestic anxieties of politics in the '90s.

The title refers to the incessant urge by a married publishing executive for a bit of horizontal refreshment on the side. The action derives from his perpetually stalled efforts to ravish a beautiful upstairs neighbor. But there are other troubles plaguing our Richard (David Noel)--like too many cigarettes, too much scotch, and the rabid psychosexual diagnoses of psychiatrist Dr. Brubaker (David H.M. Lambert), whose book Of the Mind and the Subconscious Richard has changed to Of Sex and Violence because it'll sell better.

Richard's masculine weaknesses are triggered when his wife and child go away for the summer, leaving him in the thrall of the single woman who lives upstairs. Significantly known only as The Girl (Chanda Kay), she is an addle-brained, tight-clothed beauty whose cheerful honesty is frantically mined for subliminal invitations by the fatally goofy Richard. He's a 4-F in the sexual revolution, and so represents every heterosexual male who ever has attempted the role of seducer but has been thwarted by his own insecurity.

Playwright George Axelrod even predicted our love affair with kitschy cinema when he wrote the stylized fantasy sequences, which might be called "Walter Mitty Goes to the Movies." Richard and The Girl are rendered as a classic movie couple, desperate to escape the specter of romantic disappointment, their attitudes toward fate gorgeously cinematic.

The Seven Year Itch couldn't have felt more pertinent if historians had left it inside a time capsule for four decades. The white male on the threshold of anger is the protagonist here, and his adversaries descend upon him in the form of wife, mistress, client, and competitor (represented by the fantasy figure named Tom, who just might have ravished Richard's vacationing wife). Richard's publishing client, the impatient and eccentric Dr. Brubaker, embodies the contemporary popular stigma of heterosexual men--or at least the stigma so many heterosexual men insist has been thrust upon them--when he compares the hapless Richard to a serial rapist, because they both decline to wear socks. Scratch this Seven Year Itch and uncover a weirdly caustic commentary on our own sex wars.

The Seven Year Itch runs through October 5 at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre. Call 821-1861.


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