Sometimes Morrie Is Less

First, the accolades: Arizona Theatre Company's production of Mitch Albom's Tuesdays With Morrie is nearly perfect. Its actors turn in superb performances; its stage design is magnificent; its director, Samantha K. Wyer, brings subtleties to its simple, sad, two-character story. Which all leads to Morrie's working so beautifully on the stage that the audience's audible sniffling began before the third act commenced.

So why wasn't I, a man who weeps over shampoo commercials, also crying? My companion had the sniffles when Morrie died; the people in front of me were bawling their eyes out; why didn't I shed so much as a tear?

Probably for the same reason I get angry when Oprah starts handing out awards to Maya Angelou and Chaka Khan: Because it's all been done before, and by wiser people, too. Tuesdays With Morrie isn't just a worldwide best seller that has (according to its flap copy) "changed millions of lives"; it's now Mitch Albom's Tuesdays With Morrie, a play based on a book that's apparently become so important that it requires the author's name in its title. (So important, in fact, that I'm assuming you, dear reader, know that Tuesdays With Morrie is based on weekly visits that Mr. Albom paid to his former college professor during the final months of his life. During these visits, Morrie, who was dying from Lou Gehrig's disease, imparted the kind of Hallmark-greeting-card wisdom that most of us, even sentimental slobs like me, wouldn't dare mistake for meaning-of-life stuff.)

And no, I'm not bitter that it was Albom, a former newspaper sportswriter, and not me who wrote a best seller about his dying college professor that made him a millionaire. What troubles me is that Albom has built a cottage industry on a very nice little tale that should stop at entertaining us but stop way short of providing us with life lessons or anything approaching revelation.

What I'm bitter about is the importance we've come to give the kind of generic sentiments that are elevated in this script, which is by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher. Morrie's wisdom is useful, but not very interesting. Stop and smell the roses, he tells us. Don't sweat the small stuff. Love matters; money does not. Where have we heard these before? How are they new or truly meaningful?

Yet once Clayton Corzatte, who is a magnificent Morrie, starts spouting this stuff, the audience falls apart. And Mark Chamberlin, as Albom, perfectly captures the mundane qualities of a man who is less interesting than he is interested (almost certainly in making a buck, although his affection for Morrie seems real as depicted here -- and why wouldn't it be? Albom wrote the book and parts of the play!).

No matter. So long as we come to Tuesdays With Morrie with the same expectations we bring to a Lifetime made-for-TV movie; so long as we arrive looking for a good cry and hoping for some better-than-good acting but not much more, we'll be fine.

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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