If hell were a musical

There's good news and bad news from the Great White Way. The good news is that, after years of premature closings, skyrocketing ticket prices, and dismal press, Broadway is enjoying its best season in years. The massive crossover success of Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk and the ubiquitous Rent have proven that new ideas and commercial appeal aren't the Brother Sun and Sister Moon of Broadway, condemned to separate lives though longing for one another anew with each big-budget gamble taken by producers.

The bad news is that multimillion-dollar revivals like A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, video-to-stage translations like Big and Victor/Victoria, and bloated star vehicles like Damn Yankees have been Broadway's life-support system for so long, they're not likely to be switched off any time soon. Dr. Kevorkian, your tickets may be picked up at will-call 30 minutes before curtain.

A Faustian ode to marital love and sports fanaticism written in 1955, Damn Yankees opened its national tour in Dallas with a professionally executed, high-energy show that deserved a better script and a more resourceful star. Jerry Lewis plays Mr. Applegate, the devilish deal maker who turns a middle-age real-estate agent (Dennis Kelly) into the world's best ballplayer (David Elder) so the man's favorite team, the Washington Senators, can defeat the legendary New York Yankees. A flash of male nudity and references to J. Edgar Hoover's sexuality and the 1994 baseball strike serve as an "update" for a trifle whose calcified comedy would seem to make a rewrite, not just a revival, mandatory. Jerry Lewis' grave voice and stiff back only reinforce the impression that we are witnessing a revue by talented funeral-parlor employees.

Granted, one can hardly expect a 70-year-old man to maintain Savion Glover's pace, which probably explains why Lewis' two "big" numbers are buried after intermission (although the even older, eerily preserved Carol Channing rattled her dentures during every performance of the recent Hello Dolly! revival, according to most press reports). And there's only so much character nuance that can be wrung from the endless procession of devil and damnation puns in George Abbott and Douglas Wallop's book.

But all those factors don't explain the comatose delivery--the blank expression on Lewis' face as his fellow performers act and react with sweat-dripping conviction around him, or the edge of contempt which can't be explained away as being part of the Beelzebub persona. When Lewis walks into the suburban home of the protagonist's wife dressed as a fire inspector and asks, "Is this your house, LAAAAY-DEEEE?" in a gravelly imitation of his Cinderfella heyday, it's a lazy grab for a familiar laugh that the audience heartily supplies. It's amazing the state of denial a $50 ticket price can induce.

"Jerry Lewis is legitimate at last," crows Vincent Canby's oft-quoted New York Times blurb about Damn Yankees. No matter what you think of the comedian's goofball style, this statement is patently untrue and redolent of the self-delusional hubris that many New York critics have clung to pathetically through Broadway's lean years. As a writer-director on many of his own projects, major box-office draws of the '50s and '60s, acknowledged grandfatherly muse to Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey and latter-day serious actor in haunting films like The King of Comedy and Funny Bones, Lewis hardly needs the Broadway imprimatur to polish his reputation.

Indeed, a vacuous boondoggle like Damn Yankees looks like a trip through the slums for Lewis--if only because it throws into harsh relief the cynicism behind big-budget New York City musical theater. In order to justify exorbitant ticket prices, a theatrical nonentity like Lewis is invited to stroll across the stage, pause long enough for one tepid hat-and-cane number, then exit with the wild applause of (mostly) rich people still ringing in his ears. Nobody works too hard, so everybody's happy.

As someone who didn't have to pay $50 for a ticket, I couldn't help but be amused by Lewis' vaguely hostile lethargy through three-quarters of Damn Yankees. Perhaps it's finally dawned on a man notorious for his dogged work ethic just how little he must do to create an entirely new career on Broadway. This production of Damn Yankees offends because of the conspicuous extremes at its core--so much money, so little thought.

God bless Gretchen Swen. Somebody has to--the woman doesn't possess a commercial bone in her body.

Since founding the nonprofit Extra Virgin Performance Cooperative four years ago, artistic director Swen has mounted 12 singular, visionary, if not always successful productions. Like Dallas' late, lamented Classic Theatre Company, Extra Virgin specializes in blowing the dust off the Dead White Males of World Theater by presenting their works in conjunction with original pieces that update the favorite themes of those literary forefathers.

All that would be simpatico with Dallas audiences if Swen were working summers in Samuell-Grand Park for the city's Zinfandel crowd, offering Shakespearean productions whose "updates" were polite but inane recostumings of the same old texts. But this 20-year theatrical veteran who, upon coming to Dallas nine years ago, studied and staged masterworks under Robert Corrigan at the University of Texas at Dallas, would much rather fiddle with the literature she so clearly loves. It takes a craftsman to mount a truly exciting classical production; nobody but an artist, however, would have the nerve to try and find herself in centuries-old plays. And artists sometimes make the mistake of confusing their own enthusiasm for a project with an audience's.

Playwrights from Brecht to Odets to Osborne have transformed the stage into a political podium, although each labored in a time of great social and cultural upheaval. People lined up to watch because their very livelihoods were being threatened by forces larger than themselves. It's easy to dismiss the compulsive craving for comfortable escapism in Dallas audiences as a Bible Belt thang, but really, it's a nationwide problem for any woman who takes her responsibility as a rabble-rouser seriously. Like the little kid who draws a line on the plate to keep the peas and mashed potatoes separate, people nowadays just don't like the taste of entertainment and politics mixed together.

Don't tell that to the ticket buyers who packed the house for the performance of Sappho's Symposium. The title of this program--"seven quick, sexy new plays by female playwrights"--drew a large lesbian and gay crowd, as might be expected. The audience by and large seemed to enjoy the plays' overt jabs at gender roles, especially the comic pieces that invited raucous laughter for their (unfortunately, rather obvious) inversion of longstanding sexual cliches. To this end, Swen and her troupe of five actors have fulfilled their Brechtian mission of addressing those who experience an urgent, deeply personal need for political change every day of their lives. When this results in theatergoers wanting to transform the status quo, it's called inspiring the troops. However, when easy laughs are pursued from broad targets, it's called preaching to the choir, and there's unfortunately too much of that in comic plays.

Carey Martin's Alternate Family Values is a stellar example. It's not a play so much as a Saturday Night Live-style skit in which Son (the versatile James Venhaus) comes home from college with a terrible confession to make to his Lesbian Parents (Emily Vail and Julie Plumettaz): He's straight! Vail and Plumettaz have the '50s nuclear-family shtick down cold (the former is June, the latter Ward). But there's a stale stench emanating from this heedless swapping of sexual cliches. Ditto with Charlotte Robinson's Bruce 'n Barbie, although Venhaus and Kalin Burke Piraro have a hell of a time as a baby brother and sister finally overcome by a burning fascination with each other's toys.

Still, nothing that comes before prepares us for the last and longest play in Sappho's Symposium, Linda Eisenstein's Names of the Beast. Ostensibly a kvetch-a-thon among four staunchly feminist writers, Names of the Beast evolves into something more disquieting--an epic struggle among disparate camps for ownership of one community's voice. Three friends (Piraro, Plumettaz, and the deliciously arch Evette Perry-Glass) have reluctantly gathered to participate in the ritual burning of the written works of Alicia (Gretchen Swen), a high-strung college professor for whom words like "feminist" and "writer" have become burdens to bear. Anyone who thinks contemporary American feminism is a faceless monolith should check out Names of the Beast and absorb the profound philosophical differences these women espouse toward creativity, leadership, and political responsibility. Playwright Eisenstein plants a witchy ritual at the center of the piece which is by turns supportive and sadistic.

You get the sense from Swen's work that she really is attempting something radical--the union of progressive politics and a classical aesthetic. Extra Virgin's last production, The Bargain, was a culmination of this project, the Faust legend rewritten as one woman artist's struggle with whether to "sell out" or follow her muse. A deadly earnestness dragged that one down to Neptune's lair.

The first six plays in Sappho's Symposium are free of that liability, and brief enough to make their periodic clumsiness a fleeting impression rather than an indelible mark on the evening. But Swen and company have really hit their stride with the remarkable Names of the Beast, so much so that you leave the theater fired up--although not, unfortunately, in the way Extra Virgin might have wanted. This play casts a shadow that reveals the crushing superficiality of the others. Let's hope next time around Swen shows the discipline to put out what she promises--a complete evening of mind-blowing political theater.

Sappho's Symposium runs through July 14. Call 941-3664.

Damn Yankees runs through July 7. Call 373-8000 or 647-5700.

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Jimmy Fowler