Bummer of '69

The kindest comment I have for Stagebrush Theatre's production of Butterflies Are Free is that it's mercifully short. I was out the door (and practically running to my car, I was so anxious to put this performance behind me) before 10 p.m. -- and not a moment too soon.

Butterflies Are Free is a terrible play, and terribly dated. Why any theater company outside of a nut house would attempt this tired time capsule is beyond me. Director Thomas Connick Jr. apparently had trouble convincing actual actors to appear in Leonard Gershe's once-daring comedy and, with a single exception, resorted to hiring awkward apprentices. When sharp-tongued Barbara McGrath isn't braying insults at the assembled amateurs, the acting is as low as Gershe's idea of comedy.

In fact, my only laugh came courtesy of the audience, a rowdy bunch of oldsters who just couldn't keep their traps shut. At the end of the first interminable scene, as the two principals were climbing into bed together, one old codger shouted, "They're gonna do it!" Yee-haw.

The rest of the time, we theatergoers had to make do with the mishmash up on stage. Gershe's time capsule is one best unopened, a dated trifle that was a surprise hit on Broadway in 1969. This is the one about the young blind man who strikes out on his own, declaring his independence from his wealthy, overbearing mother by moving into a New York apartment. Minutes before Mom swoops in to rescue her son from self-sufficiency, he shacks up with his next-door neighbor, a fickle hippie chick who fancies herself an actress.

So do the young people who've gathered to read this creaky comedy. In their defense, these youths have been badly misled by their director, who allows Dean Ronalds, in the lead, to enact blindness by staring directly up into the flies. Ronalds' Don Baker is certainly the most cheerful blind person we've ever met, never once wiping the sweet smile from his face, which registers other emotions (sorrow, anger and -- like his audience -- boredom) alongside this gaping grin. Michelle Thiel, on the other hand, registers no emotion whatsoever as Jill Baker, the love-generation gal with a past.

It isn't until Act Two that any acting occurs, courtesy of Barbara McGrath, who spits nails as Don's meddlesome mother. McGrath is perfectly cast as a woman whose every utterance is a sharp retort, although Connick doesn't allow McGrath much range, often plunking her onto a sofa or standing her stock-still upstage to read her lines. Connick's playbill bio claims he's an award-winning designer for various theaters and, judging from the goings-on in this production, this is his first directorial assignment. Here's to hoping that Connick will return to designing shows.

My evening was made all the more excruciating by my nearest seatmate, a chatty septuagenarian who plied me with nonsensical questions about what was happening on stage. I didn't know, I assured her, whether the set designer was Hispanic, or whether the actors were wearing their own clothes (although McGrath's navy dress looked suspiciously like one she's worn in her last several roles). My new pal was untroubled by the hippie-dippy dialogue or the flower power setting of this unhip heap of malarkey, but I left longing for the days when the Catholic Legion of Decency would have pounced on claptrap like Butterflies Are Free, thereby sparing us all.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela