The Wedding Singer Stage Performance Falls Way Short of the Flick

In the second hour of Bent, two men carry rocks, one at a time, from one pile to another. When all of them are stacked, the same stones are hoisted again, placed back in the space so carefully emptied moments before.

The repetitive action of men dressed in soiled striped pajamas, slowly toting big rocks back and forth across the stage does have a Beckett-like purity. It also serves as the perfect visual metaphor for this play. Bent is heavy lifting all the way around.

In Martin Sherman's drama, now onstage at Uptown Players, main characters Max and Horst are prisoners in Dachau. They work the rock pile under the gaze of SS guards who combine extreme physical punishment with exquisitely evil mind games. Max thinks he and Horst have "the best job in the camp," which says a lot about conditions there, but they clearly are suffering. Horst's pain is physical—he gets sicker as the play goes on. Max's wounds are psychological. Not only has he denied his homosexuality to pass as a Jew in the camp, he also has been forced by guards to prove himself by committing an unspeakable act on a young Jewish girl.

Speaking furtively as they work, Max and Horst, who is also gay but open about it, grow closer. Their shuffling around the rock pile becomes a sort of sad courtship dance. Knowing they could be shot for any reason at any moment, they try not to draw attention to their connection. Rarely do their eyes meet, even as they engage in the most intimate exchanges.

In 1979, when Bent was a Broadway smash starring Richard Gere as Max, the play was a shocker. Not much generally was known at that point about the Nazis' persecution of homosexuals, who were forced to wear pink triangles, the equivalent of yellow stars for Jews. Drawing research from many sources, including Bruno Bettelheim's The Informed Heart, Sherman made Max and Horst his symbols of Hitler's many gay victims. The pink triangle was adopted as a new emblem of gay pride because of this play.

What came after Bent was a surge of Holocaust-themed stories on stage, film and television. The play preceded Playing for Time, Sophie's Choice and Schindler's List, as well as cable's History Channel, aka the "Hitler Channel," all of which have helped us know a lot more about the Nazi camps and those who died in them.

Bent's witness to 20th-century gay history is indisputable, but 29 years on, as just one of many retellings of those terrible events of World War II, is it still a powerful piece of theater?

Sad to say, no. As a play about the will to stay alive against all odds, it resonates. But as a paean to the struggle of one gay man, Max, to embrace his identity at risk of certain death, it seems sketchy and unnecessarily abstract.

 Because of what we've seen in similar narratives on stage and screen since 1979, what then was disturbing about the play now fails to land a real emotional gut-punch. Even the verbal sex scenes—Max and Horst standing stiffly and apart, bringing each other to climax without ever touching—are tame by current media (and cybersex) standards. We're inured to this stuff—graphic sex, torture, Nazis—and that's bitter commentary in itself.

At Uptown Players, director Bruce R. Coleman has made one improvement on Sherman's script by increasing the stage time of "Greta," a drag character who sets a menacing tone in the first act. After singing in her dank gay nightclub, Greta warns Max and his whiny lover Rudy to get out of Berlin. Hitler's highest-ranking homosexual, Sturmabteilung leader Ernst Röhm, has been murdered and the SS are rounding up gay men. "Now you're like Jews, unloved, baby, unloved," says Greta.

Later Greta helps the pair escape the Gestapo temporarily, and that should be the last time she's seen. But Coleman reprises Greta, played with a beautiful snarl by Paul Taylor, for scene transitions. In a variety of lavish costumes (by Suzi Cranford), including a frilly Bo Peep number, Greta lip-syncs to Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya. Gradually, we see the deconstruction of Greta's glamour, until he/she too is dressed in the striped uniform and cloth cap of the prison camp.

That Greta's untold story becomes more intriguing than Sherman's central one shows how flimsy Bent is. The miscasting of the main roles in Coleman's production further undercuts whatever dramatic impact the play might still have. As Max, the coke-sniffing party boy given to inviting strangers home for "twelvesomes," David Plunkett is too reedy, too brittle to make a believable gigolo. The actor is just not sexy, and Max has to be in order to seduce us and Horst into forgiving his considerable sins. That's what made Gere, who built his career playing morally and sexually ambiguous characters, such a terrific Max. Clive Owen, ditto, played him in the 1997 film.

Opposite Plunkett, Kevin Moore makes a fine Horst. Moore, who's as handsome and flat-abbed as a calendar boy, has appeared at Uptown in some good comic leading roles—Valley of the Dolls, Valhalla—but Bent is his best work in a drama. If only he'd played Max.

Making his Uptown debut as Max's dancer-boyfriend Rudy, Andrew Phifer starts out shaky in the early scenes and gets more surefooted as his character starts to break down in the presence of the Gestapo. Stan Graner, Josh Hepola and Clayton Younkin get to strut around in shiny jackboots and throw fake punches as the Nazis. Ted Wold has a nice small role as Max's rich gay uncle, who's off to Amsterdam rather than face arrest for being a "fluff."

Lots of plays lose their edge over time. The great ones don't; they take on more universal meanings the further they get from the events that inspired them. Bent had its place in time by being ahead of its time, and that's more than most plays can claim.

The makers of The Wedding Singer have taken a sweet 95-minute movie rom-com and bloated it up into a 140-minute musical theater flop-bomb. The non-Equity road company is now at the Music Hall at Fair Park, the first of 17 Dallas Summer Musicals to hit town between now and the State Fair in September.

Let's hope none of them are worse than this.

All of the offbeat charm of the 1998 film starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore has been siphoned off to allow room for 18 generically modified musical numbers (by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin) and enough dirty words to make the show unsuitable for kids. (The only two songs that stand out were written for the movie by Sandler and Tim Herlihy.)

It's a cheap-looking production to boot. The scenery by Scott Pask seems designed for much smaller houses, with the top and sides of the Music Hall stage masked off, giving the set the illusion of being small and far, far away.

In the leading role of Robbie Hart, the failed rock musician turned wedding and bar mitzvah crooner, Merritt David Janes is so lackluster he appears to be bored in the show, maybe even slightly embarrassed to be in it. But who wouldn't be, having to sing these lyrics: "Love's a trick, love's a trap/ Love's a hot chick with the clap."

Rare is the musical comedy that gives a nod to gonorrhea.

As Julia, the waitress played in the movie by the luminous blond Barrymore, brunet Erin Elizabeth Coors is flat instead of frothy (come on, had to go there). Coors recently toured in Barbie Live! In Fairytopia, the gayest sounding title of any show ever. Compared to that, The Wedding Singer must feel like La Traviata.

The best turns come from supporting players. Andrea Andert lends a slutty, bendy allure and a big voice to the role of Linda, Robbie's rocker-chick ex who makes one last attempt to win him back. And as Julia's sleazo Wall Street fiancé Glen, Mark Raumaker has a killer dance solo. Why the junk-bond-selling philanderer has a knockout dance number is one of many odd aspects to The Wedding Singer.

 Full of more bad 1980s jokes than Celebrity Fit Club on VH1, The Wedding Singer also features a tune called "Come Out of the Dumpster," sung by Julia to Robbie: "So come out of the dumpster/Don't leave me standing here/Come out of the dumpster/It's OK; the coast is clear."

Rare is the musical comedy that gives a nod to industrial waste.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner