HCC tackles controversial 'Falsettos'

March 18, 1994|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

It's not exactly a classic love story -- a man leaves his wife and child for another man.

And with songs such as "Four Jews in a Room Bitching," and a production number where male characters dress like condoms, "Falsettos" isn't quite dinner theater material, either.

So Toby Orenstein, owner and artistic director of Toby's Dinner Theatre, embraced the challenge of directing the unconventional musical about homosexuality and family relationships in a venue outside her theater.

"I was moved when I saw it [two years ago in New York]," Ms. Orenstein said. "The piece says a lot. But I wasn't sure if I ever would do it in my dinner theater."

Produced by Howard Community College's Rep Stage Company, "Falsettos" will be presented at 8 p.m. today, tomorrow and March 25 and 26, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, in the Smith Theatre.

The 1992 Tony Award-winning musical has no dialogue; with humor and pathos, it speaks only in song on issues of love, sexuality and death.

"Earlier musicals were very sugar-coated," Ms. Orenstein said of the typical Rogers and Hammerstein productions that have been mainstays of dinner theater for years. "They didn't deal with intense scenes or psychological issues."

In an age of lavish scenery and special effects, the production also stands out with its bare background and minimal props. Simple ballads, intricate harmonies and compelling lyrics become the focus.

"The hope is that it will make you think," Ms. Orenstein said.

Interest in the play has already extended outside the county. Because the Rep Company is the first in the region to land the rights to the production, general manager Kasi Campbell said she has been inundated with requests from Washington and Baltimore newspapers such as The Washington Times, The City Paper and The Gay Paper to review the play.

Written by William Finn, "Falsettos" is a trilogy of three short musicals. The first, "In Trousers," opened in 1978, followed by "March of the Falsettos" three years later and "Falsettoland" in 1990.

Set in the late 1970s, "it's definitely a period piece when gays weren't out of the closet," Ms. Orenstein said."

The play -- in which all characters are known only by their first names -- revolves around Marvin, who has left his wife Trina and 12-year-old son, Jason, for Whizzer, a self-centered "stud."

As the on-again, off-again relationship of Marvin and Whizzer is explored, Marvin's psychiatrist, Mendel, falls in love with the despondent Trina.

Amid the dual romances, the precocious Jason questions his own sexuality and abysmal relationship with his parents in "My Father's A Homo."

He is later offered keen psychiatric advice in "Everyone Hates His Parents," a comic soft-shoe number where Mendel assures Jason that one day, he, too, will be hated by his children.

Jason's impending bar mitzvah further disrupts the family. Marvin and Trina kvell, or gush, with parental pride, but Jason is ambivalent.

The group is soon joined by loveable neighbors, Dr. Charlotte, and her companion, Cordelia, a kosher nouvelle gourmet who prepares low-cal knishes. They declare themselves -- in boisterous song -- as the "lesbians next door."

Frustrated at how "men rule," Trina observes in a surreal dream sequence, "The March of the Falsettos," that men are children, always playing. "They grow, but they don't mature," she says.

In Trina's interpretation, men think with their genitals, so they will be dressed as condoms, Ms. Orenstein said.

On Dr. Charlotte's return from a day at the hospital, she sadly sings of how "something bad is happening, seems a virus,

something bad is spreading."

As Whizzer becomes ill with the unnamed disease, he evolves into a more sympathetic character. He accepts his illness in the bitter, "You Gotta Die Sometime," declaring he will "go out" in dignity.

In a poignant hospital scene, it is Jason's bar mitzvah that finally brings the characters together. The four leads sing to each other in the climactic "I Never Wanted to Love You."

The production is also permeated by the characters' Jewishness.

In the opening number, "Four Jews in a Room Bitching," the males ponder the seemingly universal neurosis of Jewish men.

When Jason plays Little League, the entire group sits in the bleachers cheering him on as they sing, "Watching Jewish Boys Who Cannot Play Baseball Play Baseball."

It also takes jabs at parents who become overly involved with the bar mitzvah. "Marvin and Trina forget it's for the child, then finally allow him to decide," Ms. Orenstein said.

Obsession with food is played like a running gag through the character of Cordelia. "[For her], if you have a problem, sit down and have a meal and it will make everything OK," Ms. Orenstein said. "That's why they're constantly talking about food."

The story also parallels the roles of Whizzer and Cordelia. "Cordelia is the kept woman for the doctor in a relationship, like Whizzer," Ms. Orenstein said. "She does the cooking; he does the cooking."

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