Before his death last month, Dale Wasserman was among a handful of Americans to whom the title "Broadway legend" applied — although it seems likely that the famous (and famously grumpy) playwright would have disdained that title. Yet it was true. Wasserman wrote more than a dozen plays and musicals, scored nine Tony Awards, and capped his stellar career with a pair of colossal triumphs: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1963, and Man of La Mancha, 1965's Tony winner for Best Musical.
I'm pleased that Wasserman, who died at 94 of heart failure on December 21, will be remembered for those magnificent plays, and not for Premiere, the limp comedy that was his final offering. I had the misfortune of witnessing a rather terrible production of this flaccid play this past weekend at Theater Works in Peoria, where it was making its debut, and I'm sorry I did.
I say as much with neither apologies nor disrespect for Wasserman, who moved to Scottsdale in 1992 and was as famous for being a curmudgeon as a (usually) very talented playwright. He expected, he often told journalists and friends, no more praise than his work merited.
"Why on Earth should they be kind?" the late author is quoted as saying on www.dalewasserman.com about theatergoers and critics. "But if I've done my job successfully (it happens sometimes) . . . they're on a trip according to whatever itinerary I've laid out . . . And if I fail to make the trip worthwhile, there will be no kindness toward me, nor will I have deserved any."
When I interviewed Wasserman shortly before his last local world première, a Stagebrush Theater musical he wrote and had staged here in 2000, he startled me with his candor. I started off with a softball question about how different it must have been to work with a nonprofessional cast at a small theater in the Southwest after a successful Broadway career. I expected polite gushing in response, but Wasserman delighted me with his rancor and disdain.
"I'd be a hypocrite if I said mounting this show was harmonious and easy," he griped. "There is a profound difference between professional and amateur theater, and those twain never do meet."
Wasserman's blunt sincerity was as rare a gift to the theater world as were his two best-known plays. I wish I could say the same for his farewell contribution. Premiere sags under the weight of a preachy, underwritten script about a famous playwright who's tired of having hit comedies and wants to branch out into more dramatic fare. He, an obvious doppelganger for Wasserman himself, forges a "lost" play by William Shakespeare to prove that he can, in fact, write something other than comedy.
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The main characters — the playwright, his wisecracking wife, her brother the producer — each have monologues, most of them slender excuses for Wasserman's commentary on the business of theater. These people appear alternately banal and preposterous until we meet a Central Casting gangster named Lefty who makes forgeries of 400-year-old books. The story is jammed with insider jokes about theater — cracks about Clifford Odets and contemporized Shakespeare; an overlong and unfunny riff on the word "bard" — a snobbish conceit that makes the unsophisticated story seem all the more artless.
The directing, costuming, and set design — especially the set design — are strictly amateur hour. The tall, shiny suit of armor displayed center stage (a rather unsubtle homage to Man of La Mancha's Don Quixote) emotes more convincingly than most of the "talent" assembled here. As the playwright's blustery father-in-law, Fred Bornhoeft is quite good, although it isn't until Sharon Collar shows up at the top of Act Two that anything exciting happens. Collar is magnificent; a roaring, comic mash-up of Marie Dressler and Lucile Watson, she trumps every attempt at acting by her castmates simply by crossing the stage.
Sadder than the production itself was the fact that, by its second night, it was playing to a house less than a third full — hardly a fitting tribute to a recently deceased theater legend. I expected greater interest in the man's final work, regardless of its quality.
But, as Wasserman's fictional twin asks in Premiere, "Why shouldn't I be entitled to a flop?" You were, Mr. Wasserman. Fortunately, you left behind some gorgeous work, as well.