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NY Theater Reviews

Stockard Channing and Matthew Risch/Ph: Joan Marcus



Our reviewer doesn't mince words. He takes umbrage with Richard Greenberg's reworking of John O'Hara's book for the revival: "A Pal Joey without John O'Hara's original book is not Rodger's and Hart's Pal Joey."

John O'Hara was a mean drunk who loved to punch people out. I haven't a scintilla of a doubt that if O'Hara came back from the dead he would clock Richard Greenberg. With good reason. Greenberg's preposterously misjudged, mangled revision of O'Hara's glorious book for Pal Joey makes this, despite all its professionalism, the single worst Broadway revival of a great classic musical I have ever seen.

Mr. Greenberg misunderstands and misadapts fundamental pillars of the spine of the original. He (and director Joe Mantello) makes Joey a commanding antihero instead of a contemptible piece of sleaze too stupid to know he's small- a much less interesting character than O'Hara's. Greenberg bafflingly enlarges and alters the role of sweet dopey Linda English (Jenny Fellner) , making her a canny girl whose attempt to reform Joey almost takes over the plot. It eludes Greenberg that Lorenz Hart's lyrics are designed to play off a script constructed in understated, staccato naturalism, and that they lose their set-up and punch when he gratuitously expands the dialogue around them. And he is tone-deaf to the subtle music not of Richard Rodgers but of O'Hara's unparagoned ear for the argot of his time. O'Hara's Joey Evans is a low-life hustler who garbles English trying to sweet-talk women: "Mother breeded dogs for a hobby," Joey ungrammatically prates in O'Hara's script. Greenberg's Joey describes himself with the Edward Everett Hortonish phrase "humble practitioner" in the very opening scene with the nightclub owner. It goes downhill from there.

Greenberg inexplicably jettisons the pet store scene where Joey first snows Linda, and along with it the guttersnipe's view of society that inhabits every word of Joey's patter- essential to understanding Joey's character and the play as a whole. Instead he has Joey and Linda meet cute in a coffeeshop like 90s yuppies in a sitcom, and Joey's opening flirt line to her is "do you know the meaning of the word convalescent?"- a word Jay Gatsby might use, but not Joey. Then he has Joey refer to opera soprano Luisa Tetrazzini, a reference inconceivable in his lexicon. (Later in the adaptation, his Joey says "You might as well be talking Swahili" when Vera Simpson mentions Linda. Does Mr. Greenberg really think Joey ever heard the word "Swahili" in his life?) Joey's never even read a book, let alone attended an opera - that's why his singing "I Could Write a Book" is so in character and so scathing.

Greenberg turns O'Hara's passive Linda into an aggressive transplant of Sister Sarah Brown from Guys and Dolls, the Good Girl who's going to improve the Bad Boy. There's no such suggestion in O'Hara's original book, nor anywhere in the Lorenz Hart lyrics - none of the characters undergo any redemption. As a result the "I Could Write A Book" here plays like a sugarcoated pre-echo of "If I Loved You" from Carousel - O'Hara's corrosive portrait of cynical manipulation in this scene is nonchalantly erased.

Many of the show's other songs don't land for the same reason: Greenberg carelessly dismantles their original script cues. He resets the lead-in to "Do It the Hard Way" as a spat between Linda and Joey, losing the subtlety of the original cue: Mrs. Simpson's sotto voce hint that Joey's working too hard at telling his tall stories gives him away, but that he's too dumb to realize this himself. As a result of its new script placement, the song loses its intended irony (that Joey thinks the song rebuffs Vera).<