Jerry Russell and Sue Loncar angle for a better relationship as father and daughter in On Golden Pond.
Jerry Russell and Sue Loncar angle for a better relationship as father and daughter in On Golden Pond.

Jerry Russell Keeps On Golden Pond From Being its Schmaltzy Self

When Jerry Russell plays the lead, that's reason enough to see the show, even when that show is On Golden Pond, Ernest Thompson's soggy 1979 dramedy about the irritations of growing old. Several other actors share the stage with Russell in the current production of the play at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, but it's hard to remember what they do or why they are there. Russell's performance as 80-year-old retired English professor Norman Thayer is so touching and subtly drawn, he's all that matters.

With this actor, credibility in character is simply matter-of-fact. Russell's ease onstage reflects decades spent honing his craft as founder, director and acting company member at Fort Worth's Stage West. He's played King Lear and other heavyweight roles already, so he could probably get away with a Norman who's just a twinkly curmudgeon who utters mildly risqué things. But Russell is too fine an actor to cheap out a role, so he has taken the time to make Norman complicated, putting thought into such small gestures as how he wears a fishing hat, dials a rotary phone or kisses his wife of 50 years.

Russell underplays beautifully. When Norman quietly confesses to wife Ethel (Sylvia Luedtke) that he lost his way on a familiar path outside their vacation cottage, the actor's eyes brim with real tears, but he doesn't sob; his voice cracks but only barely. By the end of the play, Russell has made Norman so genuinely fragile that when he crumples to the floor at Ethel's feet, it's tempting to shout, "Is there a doctor in the house?"


On Golden Pond

On Golden Pond doesn't allow Norman to expire, thank goodness. That would be too much tragedy for a play as light as this. But the old fellow does look pretty sick as the lights go down, and it's a relief then to see Jerry Russell bound out onstage for his curtain call, much heartier and younger (at a guess, probably mid-60s) than the man he's just portrayed.

Turns out it's the play that's the real old geezer here. Thompson's script shows its age as one of those over-praised honkers that found favor on stage and screen in the 1980s, the same decade that produced Steel Magnolias, a similarly maudlin piece of schmaltz that local theaters, including CTD, keep trying to call a classic. On Golden Pond sags under a litany of misty water-colored memories that go on and on. Full of Hallmark card homilies and lingering hugs, it doesn't try to pluck lightly on the heartstrings—it grabs on and holds them hostage for two hours.

A long two hours. Scenes with the village mailman are interminable. The quaint bickering between Norman and Ethel is only cute for the first 15 minutes. The awkwardly constructed reconciliation between Norman and his estranged 42-year-old daughter Chelsea (played by CTD artistic director Sue Loncar wearing hippie chic outfits and a ton of turquoise jewelry) comes out of nowhere to interrupt an otherwise thin-but-charming story of the old couple spending what is probably their last fully ambulatory summer together on the lake they love.

Maybe it's because Russell is so good at playing a man at the end of life, but CTD's On Golden Pond also feels oddly haunted by the specter of death. The play itself is morbidly verbose, but many aspects of the production, directed by Michael Serrecchia, reinforce a funereal tone. The interior of the Thayers' cottage, designed by Rodney Dobbs, is a dreary two-story wood-paneled box crowded with a stone fireplace, heavy furniture and more knickknacks than a 99-cent store. Loncar is credited with "set dressing," and she's taken decorating cues from the ancient Egyptians, loading more crap into the Thayer house than King Tut's tomb.

It all gets to be a mite musty and claustrophobic. Long before Norman hits the floor clutching his chest, the play seems to be gasping for one last gulp of good air before the coffin lid slams shut.

Imagine a Republican candidate elected for standing up for working stiffs and sweeping money-grubbing crooks from office. A fairy tale? No, Fiorello! The 1959 musical recounts the rise of Fiorello H. LaGuardia, elected to Congress before World War I and then to the office of mayor of New York City, which he wrested from the control of the corrupt Tammany Hall Democratic political machine.

In the roisterous production directed by Cheryl Denson for Irving's Lyric Stage, we see why this rarely revived show earned its Tony and Pulitzer (besting Gypsy and The Sound of Music). Here is a masculine musical about big men doing big things. And it needs a big talent to play its short, wide title character. Lyric has that in Brian Gonzales, who returns for this production after taking over a main role in the Broadway hit 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Gonzales plays Fiorello as a passionate firebrand full of good intentions and boundless energy. He has a magnificent singing voice and the presence of a bona fide star. Physically and vocally, Gonzales resembles Jason Alexander, especially in LaGuardia's Costanza-like tantrums.

With similarities to a certain Runyon-esque musical, Fiorello! sets its idealized political biography against a bittersweet love story. One of LaGuardia's loyal employees, Marie (Noelle Stanley), falls in love with her boss but keeps her feelings hidden until after the death of the mayor's pretty wife, Thea (Connie Kegg). The secondary plot follows the sweatshop-to-penthouse journey of Dora (the delightful Megan Woodall), a garment worker who grows disgusted at the dirty dealings of her underworld-connected husband (Brian Patrick Hathaway). Singing "I Love a Cop"—"If I loved a dentist or a doctor, I'd be on top... but I looooove a cop"—Woodall affects a comic nasal squeak not unlike Miss Adelaide's in Guys and Dolls.

Fiorello! boasts a tight, witty book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, and a score of good, loud tunes by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock. "Politics and Poker" and "Little Tin Box" haven't become standards the way "Luck Be a Lady" has, but maybe that's just a bad roll of the musical comedy dice.

Lyric has a winner with Fiorello!

Here's what happens in Look What's Happened to Pixie DeCosta, the new two-act comedy written and directed by Bruce R. Coleman at Theatre Too: A guy (Paul Taylor) plays female twins, Margot and Pixie, reclusive B-movie stars from the 1930s who drop out of sight for 25 years until murder brings the press and police to their Hollywood apartment.

There's good drag acting and great drag acting. Good is Uptown Players' recent spoof of the silly schoolgirls of TV's Facts of Life. Great is the same company's en traviste take on James Kirkwood's movie siren comedy Legends (still playing starring drag specialists B.J. Cleveland and Coy Covington).

Bad drag acting is Pixie DeCosta, which leaves no question that Taylor's a man—his chest hair peeks out of his décolletage, and heavy makeup doesn't disguise a 5 o'clock shadow—and thus adds confusion to a script that never decides if the DeCosta sisters are two eccentric women or one extremely weird dude.

Tough sometimes for a playwright to direct his own work. Instead of stepping back to edit and rewrite, Coleman has indulged his play too liberally and ended up with an overlong, unfunny Whatever Happened to Baby Jane with Norma Desmond on Sunset Boulevard. Starring a skinny, hairy man in a dress.

Nuts to that.


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