By: Paulanne Simmons
May 31, 2019: When Joseph Stein (book) and Stan Daniels’ (score) So Long, 174th Street opened at The Harkness Theatre in 1976, it ran for only two weeks. The musical was based on Stein’s play Enter Laughing, which had been adapted from Carl Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Reiner also directed a film version of his book that featured such notables as Shelley Winters, Elaine May, Jose Ferrer, Jack Gilford, Don Rickles and Rob Reiner. The cast alone calls for a screening.
This season The York Theatre Company has given the musical new material by Stuart Ross, restored the original title and returned Enter Laughing to the stage. Watching The York’s revival, directed by Ross, one can’t help wondering… What happened? Why were audiences so foolish in 1976?
Enter Laughing focuses on the foibles of David Kolowitz (Chris Dwan) a wannabe actor who has to fight the opposition of his parents (Alison Fraser and Robert Picardo) who want him to become a pharmacist; his employer, Mr. Forman (Ray DeMattis), who wants him to be a more responsible employee; and most important, his own lack of confidence. After all, it’s the 1940s, and everyone knows David is not behaving the way a nice Jewish boy should.
When David’s friend, Marvin (Joe Veale) shows him an ad offering acting lessons and stage time, he jumps at the chance. The impresario, a con artist named Mr. Marlowe (David Schramm), immediately recognizes David’s lack of experience and (perhaps) potential. But his daughter, Angela (Farah Alvin) falls for David’s good looks, and he is cast in the current production.
Indeed, David seems to have a way with women. He has already captured the heart of his girlfriend, Wanda (Allie Trim), and Miss B (Dana Costello), the secretary of one of Mr. Forman’s customers. A good deal of the comedy is devoted to David’s juggling his love interests.
There may be nothing particularly novel in this plot, but it did give Daniels the framework for crafting some of the funniest, most tuneful songs ever heard on Broadway. At least one of them, “The Butler’s Song,” has become a cabaret standard. Who can resists these lyrics: “He’s screwing Delores del Rio/That’s why he cannot speak to you/He’s screwing Delores del Rio/And may not be disturbed till he’s through.”
Schramm delivers this song with stony-faced rectitude. Alvin is equally sublime in the hilarious “The Man I Can Love,” in which that man proves to be anyone who has “a nose, no more than two eyes and about ten toes.” And Fraser is the perfect Jewish mother who mops the floor as she warbles “If You Want to Break Your Mother’s Heart.”
Opening night of Marlowe’s play is filled with pratfalls and botched lines. It makes The Play That Goes Wrong seem like a serious drama.
It well may be that So Long, 174th Street was not successful in 1976 because by that time, traditional Jewish humor was no longer of much interest to Jewish or non-Jewish audiences. The theater, like everything else, move on. But this excellent revival takes us back to a more innocent time when musicals were not asked to comment on the perplexities of people and politics.
The best thing about Enter Laughing is that you’ll leave the show in that same joyous state.
Enter Laughing runs through June 16, 2019 at The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s(entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue) www.yorktheatre.org.
Photography: Carol Rosegg