At Contemporary Theatre, Paul Zindel's Mildred Wild Stumbles Through Scenes of Cinema Dreams

For some playwrights, winning the Pulitzer Prize for a first or second play marks the end of a promising career as a dramatist. It happened with Margaret Edson and her 1999 Pulitzer winner W;t (she's never written another play). With Charles Fuller and A Soldier's Play (1982). And with Paul Zindel, whose first play, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, won the 1971 Pulitzer. Zindel wrote a few others after that, but he never had a follow-up stage hit. He found more success as author of young adult novels, publishing 53 of those, including My Darling, My Hamburger and the popular Pigman trilogy, before his death in 2003.

Zindel's best play was Gamma Rays, made into a so-so film starring Joanne Woodward. But it's one of those Pulitzer winners (and there are more than a few) that hasn't held up over time. It's never been revived in New York and rarely turns up in regional theaters. It focuses on fractious people in a bleak environment. Most of Zindel's plays - others were And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little and Ladies of the Alamo - were like that, revolving around two or three shrieky women characters who make life miserable for everyone around them.

The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild, which played only 23 performances on Broadway in 1972 and is now at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, is such a play, two hours of noisy bickering, a tragedy pretending otherwise. The title character is a frowzy Greenwich Village housewife in her 60s, married for 40 childless years to Roy, a spineless twerp in a too-obvious toupee. They live in a squalid apartment above a failing candy store that's due to be wrecking-balled, leaving them homeless.

Instead of packing and planning for the move, Mildred escapes into the old movies she adores. In the play, set in the pre-cable days of over-the-air television, she watches one of those dialing-for-dollars afternoon movie shows, then heads out for back-to-back classic flicks at the neighborhood cinemas. Though Roy, his sister Helen, landlady Bertha and a real estate monster named Miss Manley try to snap Mildred into reality, she refuses. At night, asleep among cartons of Necco wafers and shelves of movie magazines that line the walls of the doomed flat, Mildred dreams her troubles away, landing in the arms of Rhett Butler and Fred Astaire, grabbed up by the hand of King Kong. (Scenery by Clare Floyd DeVries is nicely detailed and heavily prop-laden, if short on creative twists.)

The fantasy sequences are the only light bits of fun in Mildred Wild. With imaginative staging, they can surprise the audience, taking us into the Golden Age of Hollywood and out of the Wilds' gloom. Actors we've seen as the irritating Mildred and Roy suddenly transform into iconic movie characters, wearing Gone with the Wind costumes and spoofing iconic moments in film history. Or that's how it should go.

Contemporary's production is directed by Frank Latson, new to a Dallas stage after many years as full-time director at The Playhouse in San Antonio. Whether he didn't like Mildred Wild or just didn't comprehend its characters' quirks or the playwright's swerves into the surreal, he's taken what's already a mediocre play and made it worse with sloppy blocking and questionable casting.

It makes little sense to put a pretty actress like Marcia Carroll into the role of Mildred. Decades too young to play a blowsy hausfrau in her 60s, Carroll, not good with a New York-y vocal cadence, has to try to ugly up her lovely mug with a bad Baby Jane makeup job and a silly wig that droops curls into her eyes. Maureen Stapleton played Mildred in the brief Broadway run; Doris Roberts (the mom on Everybody Loves Raymond) was her understudy. Get the type? Carroll's more like Calista Flockhart, a wisp so tiny she's constantly tying the sash on Mildred's silk dressing gown to keep it from sliding off her slim shoulders. (Costumes are by Michael Robinson, who didn't spend quite enough time finding clothes that fit. Two words about the awkward tailoring of one guy's pants in this show: moose knuckle.)

Latson and the cast also have settled on the wrong tone for Mildred Wild, playing it all as a wacky romp. It's anything but. Zindel's writing is dark, taking jabs at the buzzwords of the late '60s and early '70s, the self-enlightenment era that had people primal screaming and going to "encounter groups." But the characters are the opposite of hip and self-realized. They are aging sad-sacks whose dreams are so polluted by pop culture, they don't see their lives disintegrating. Zindel's also not Neil Simon, though his Pulitzer came at the height of Simon's Broadway output. The punchlines lack zing. "It's Betty Crocker or me!" Mildred yells to Roy as he fills pastry cups with cream. Oscar and Felix, they're not.

Only Marisa Diotalevi, one of Dallas theater's top comic actors, comes anywhere near a meaningful blend of laughter-through-tears in her performance as Roy's sister Helen. She gets close to the bitter undercurrents in a confrontation with Mildred, but she can then bursts giddily into song in a final dream sequence that has her gingham-pinafored as Dorothy in Oz.

The rest of the ensemble sags under the weight of Latson's artless direction. Stefany Cambra affects a dopey accent as an Italian nun. Jeff Burleson does nothing much as the TV host who leads Mildred through a game of movie trivia. Greg Hullett has little dialogue as Mildred's movie-loving pal Carrol, so he doesn't do much with the part. Lorna Woodford stomps and shouts as Miss Manley. Mary Ann Morrow is stuck under some distracting wig action as Bertha, the landlady who's sleeping with Mildred's husband, Roy. Roy is played by Scott Latham, but he's not played well.

It's no secret that in recent seasons, CTD's productions have varied wildly in terms of material and production quality. With The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild, this East Dallas theater has lowered the bar several more notches.

The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild continues through May 10 at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, 5601 Sears St. Tickets, $22-$32, 214-828-0094.

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