Two Yanks in One Old British Comedy
by Jan Stuart
Good evening. Robert Sean Leonard and Frank Whaley star in Dudley Moore and Peter Cook's comedy revue. Directed by James Waterston. Designer Douglas E. Huston. At the West Bank Cafe, 407 W. 42nd St., Manhattan.
Seen Wednesday evening. Other shows this Wednesday and Thursday at 8 and 10:30 p.m.
One of the more promising New York theater developments since the closing of "Aspects of Love" has been the quiet emergence of the Malaparte Theater Company, a dead playwright's society featuring such postgraduate matinee idols as Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Frank Whaley and Josh Hamilton.
The facetious program for "Good Evening," their current show at the nicotine-intensive West Bank Cafe Downstairs Theater, neglects to state Malaparte's artistic agenda. If this middling Dudley Moore and Peter Cook revue is any clue, the company is bent on legitimizing Oxbridge amateur theatricals with a Harvard Hasty Pudding Club twist. "Good Evening," starring the intrepid Leonard and Whaley doing the Moore and Cook duties, is such an oddball choice for revival that one hopes these guys have a revelation up their sleeves. First presented in England under the title "Behind the Fridge," this 1973 comic grab bag was Cook and Moore's attempt at repeating the Broadway success of "Beyond the Fringe," the pair's hit collaboration with Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett.
To judge from the Leonard-Whaley version, however, Cook and Moore minus Miller and Bennett are like Ringo Starr and George Harrison bereft of Lennon and McCartney. This not-so-good evening of brief encounters is missing the topical snap of "Beyond the Fringe," contenting itself instead with the tamer, less localized absurdities of a pathological cab driver and a senator, a lawyer and his dizzy cleaning man, a crotchety septuagenarian dad and his visiting son. You can't fault the actors entirely for material that is wildly inconsistent and, in the case of a one-legged actor auditioning for Tarzan, tasteless and unfunny. We do question the decision to eschew British accents altogether. Hearing two Yanks greet one another with "I'm terribly well" is terribly wrong; it reminded me of the time I turned on a TV set in Munich and found a troupe of Oskar Werner look-alikes making like Nell Carter in a Bavarian production of "Ain't Misbehavin.'"
As directed by James Waterston and reconceived by straight-man Leonard and Whaley, the duo's wild card, there are only one or two sketches that require a British specificity. What's lost with the accents, however, is a dry undercurrent that lends this '60s generation of goon humor its smart-alecky bite.
The actors, flat Americanese and all, are always game and thinking on their feet. Leonard, who blew everyone off the stage with his joyously robust Marchbanks in Roundabout's "Candide," has the poised comic presence of a gentleman class clown. Whaley, known mostly for earnest turns on TV (Lee Harvey Oswald in "Final Deception") and in film, demonstrates a footloose improv sensibility, especially in a wigged-out dance that closes the show on a welcomely deranged note.
Should their Malaparte gang continue along the frat-house route, that's cool. We can all use the laugh, cheap or otherwise. They'd do better, though, to revive the Marx Brothers. Leonard, all fool-for-love posturings and circus-tent eyebrows, could do Groucho and Zeppo rolled into one.