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Playing Through

An open letter to the man in seat E-103 on opening night of Phoenix Theatre's production of Golf With Alan Shepard: Dear Sir, You seemed awfully unhappy the other night. I was sitting just behind you, and I could hear your disgruntled sighs; I could see you fidget and shake...
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An open letter to the man in seat E-103 on opening night of Phoenix Theatre's production of Golf With Alan Shepard:

Dear Sir,
You seemed awfully unhappy the other night. I was sitting just behind you, and I could hear your disgruntled sighs; I could see you fidget and shake your head and yawn. I saw you fall asleep halfway through the second act. When you were awake, you looked like you were pretty miserable.

I'm writing because I'm afraid you'll base your opinion of theater on this one production and return to watching television or whatever you did for fun before. I promise, it isn't always this bad.

Like me, you were probably bored with this poky play in which a bunch of old guys roam around a golf course arguing about mortality and cracking fart jokes. Who can blame you? Despite some really wonderful performances by some of the best actors in town, Golf With Alan Shepard wanders like a weak putt from hillock to hole. The nicest thing I can say about this show is that it's a triumph of talent over material.

Then again, I don't imagine most people go to the theater to watch actors transcend their scripts. For the audience, the story's the thing, isn't it?

Unfortunately, Golf With Alan Shepard is a one-joke comedy, with teeny revelations about life and death and the existence of God. There's nothing resembling character development here; not one of these grumpy old men budges an inch after we meet him. Playwright Carter W. Lewis writes comedies with great titles (Picasso Does My Maps; Longevity Abbreviated for Those Who Don't Have Time) but not particularly memorable characters.

You might well be one of those fellows who can't separate wheat from chaff. Maybe you don't care that there were some darn good actors up there, doing amazing things with very little help from their scripts. Or did you--I did--marvel at Nicolas Glaeser's transformation from dark-haired, middle-aged leading man to the crotchety, white-haired relic he became up on that stage? Glaeser was so convincing, in fact, that he was onstage for a couple of minutes before I recognized him. Lately I'd been wondering if he could play anything other than wisecracking comic roles, if he'd ever break out of the rut he's been in. Glaeser's done that with his portrayal of Griff, a cranky seventysomething whose best friend has died and whose last joy is tormenting his pals.

There's no denying that Kim Bennett is a splendid actor of impressive range. I think you'd have to have seen him play another old man--the surly socialist grandpa in Neil Simon's Broadway Bound last year, or at least know that he's a full 20 years younger than he's playing here--to fully appreciate his performance in Golf. He's so good as Larkin, a former priest, that he almost rescues those execrable scenes where Lewis has him fall to his knees and talk to God about faith and humility. Almost.

What'd you think of Gerald Burgess? His takes belong to the ages, as Frank Rich might say. Did you notice that people laughed at him even when he was just standing around? Burgess is tough to steal a scene from in any play, though he had stiff competition from Richard G. Glover, whose fidgety take on Clarence Darrow in Never the Sinner drove me to distraction. Glover's performance here, as an old guy whose wife and son have died and who wants nothing more than to join them, is by far the best of the lot. He sings a little, cries a little, and snags some pretty fine laugh lines--his denture jokes even got a smile from you.

I wanted to tap you on the shoulder and ask you if it bothered you that the sets were so ugly and cheap-looking. I sit in dark theaters several nights a week, scribbling notes about blocking and sightlines and set pieces, and I suspect I'm the only one in the house who cares. But this set is so crappy that I figure even the kids in the audience (assuming anyone under 70 sees this show) will snigger at the paperboard cut-outs that are meant to represent a grand golf course.

By the way, did you know who Alan Shepard was before that last, long scene where the guy in the funny suit shows up? I'd be embarrassed to admit that I thought Neil Armstrong was the guy who dragged a six-iron along on Apollo 14, except there's that exchange in the first act where none of the characters can remember the name of the astronaut who played golf on the moon. Someone just told me that Alan Shepard died a few months ago. Bummer.

It's sad (and more than a little ironic) that you didn't seem to like this show, since you're a member of its target audience. I'm certain that Phoenix Theatre's artistic director, Michael Mitchell, selected this ersatz comedy to please his senior subscriber base. You looked to be in your middle 60s, yet I never heard you laugh once. You perked up whenever one of the characters uttered a line about the Phoenix Cardinals (Mitchell and company are also hoping to attract sports fans with this show), but you always returned quickly to your stupor.

Speaking of Mitchell, what'd you think of the farewell speech he gave before the curtain went up? Were you even aware, before that night, that he'd been artistic director of Phoenix Theatre for seven years, and that he is leaving to go operate a playhouse somewhere in New England? (Maybe he's leaving because he's tired of trying to please thankless theatergoers like yourself. Or maybe, given your discontent, it's high time he left.) Well, his pending departure was in all the papers. Anyway, it was nice of Mitchell to ask all the actors and other theater workers in the audience to stand, even though it revealed just how many tickets he'd given away to his cronies that night (in show business, that's called "papering the house").

I hope that Mitchell's replacement will try courting a hipper audience than Phoenix Theatre has in the past. If we're lucky, they'll hire actor/director Matthew Mazuroski, who I hear is interested in the job. Mazuroski's in town right now, directing a stunning production of a play called Before It Hits Home for the Black Theatre Troupe. At the matinee performance of Before that I attended, people were crying as they left the theater.

Maybe you should have gone to see that show instead. In any case, I hope your experience the other night won't cause you to give up on live theater altogether. You had a lousy time at this show, but you might enjoy, say, Blithe Spirit. Or The Big Radio Broadcast of 1941. (Steer clear of any adaptation of a Disney cartoon, and, remember that if it says "revue" in the title anywhere, there's no story, just a bunch of songs.) Theater probably won't ever excite you as much as a Suns game, but chances are pretty good that it won't bore you as much as Golf With Alan Shepard did, either.

Robrt L. Pela

Golf With Alan Shepard continues through Sunday, January 31, at Phoenix Theater, 100 East McDowell.

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