A Quaker schoolboy summed it up neatly when he misspelled Dutch-born playwright Jan de Hartog's name in an essay titled "The Long Works of Yawn de Hartog." The error fits I Do! I Do!, the musical version of de Hartog's play The Four-Poster, beautifully. It's supposed to be heartwarming, but it's just dated.
The original 1952 play starred Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. In 1966 Tom Jones (not the singer, a different one) and Harvey Schmidt made de Hartog's one-set play about a couple who hang together through everything into a musical for Mary Martin and Robert Preston. While apparently the Martin/Preston combo was delightful, that probably has everything to do with them being strong performers, and a small, unflashy Broadway musical being a novelty. Because the story is weak and predictable.
It is hard to imagine a script or characters more devoid of charm or surprise than these. These are Cliffs Notes for every hackneyed script that purports to tell the story of how "marriage really is," boiling down all the hoariest clichés into lowest-common-denominator pablum. Marriage is difficult but worth it? A man will cheat if he feels neglected? Children are expensive? People can love each other and still irritate the heck out of each other? Say it ain't so!
But it is, it is. Especially at the Chanticleers in Castro Valley, where from the first stiffly blocked duet it becomes clear that two-handers are not good community theater fare. Michael Sally and Charlotte Jacobs play Michael and Agnes, a young couple we follow from their wedding night through five decades of for better or worse. He's a writer, as he tells the audience in an stultifying soliloquy clearly built to lead into a squabble over the noise Agnes is making in the background cleaning up after him. The titles of his books are funny/awful: Burnt Corn: A Rural Love Story. Hot Snow: The Story of Lewis and Clark. Clearly he's a hack. She's a stay-at-home mom, and we learn little about her, except that she'd never seen a man naked before her wedding night. There are eventually two children, whom we never see and whose characters are never described. The costumes and wigs change with blinding speed, the scenes far more slowly, and the message is delivered tied around a brick: Marriage is a very good thing, even if it isn't easy, sings the happy seventysomething couple as they prepare to leave their house for the last time.
Did this script fail the actors, or vice versa? To keep the story "universal," the writers neglected to make much of the characters, unless being pompous and self-absorbed on the husband's part counts. He's a real gem, saying loving things like "Women are different from men. ... Men of forty go to town, women of forty go to -- pot," when he's trying to justify a midlife infidelity.
Agnes is completely inexperienced with men, and it looks as if she didn't have a female relative take her in hand to explain what she was in for. "I didn't ask you to undress me; I can do that by myself!" she snaps at her new husband, cowering against the embroidered "God Is Love" pillow her mother has thoughtfully placed on the bed. But who she was before the marriage -- who either of them were, or loved, or were related to -- is barely addressed. Where are their parents, friends, neighbors? These are people without context. The image is one of marriage as a small box with no airholes. And while the music is cheery and the lyrics occasionally shine, they aren't up to the twists and turns of other Jones/Schmidt collaborations. The repetitiveness of the songwriting becomes gruesomely clear in "Nobody's Perfect," as the no-longer-newlyweds trade insults and Michael keeps singing about a piece of "paaay-pur" upon which he has written a budget.
But the actors also fail the script. Michael Sally hams it up, inexplicably playing Michael with stereotypically gay clipped diction and vocal flourishes; so much so that it's surprising, when he announces his affair, that it's not with the pool boy. He is also far more enthuasiastic a singer than a skilled one, sinusy and off-key. Charlotte Jacobs fares better as Agnes, especially when she sings alone and doesn't have to harmonize with him, and her acting is a little more restrained. The chemistry is that of roommates, not people who start out passionate.
There are genuinely sweet moments -- the two waltzing on the bed in the first act, or being gentle together in the second. And some funny ones: As the two imagine their lives after the children have moved out, they bring out the musical instruments they've been meaning to learn to play -- and play them very badly. Michael complaining about their daughter marrying "the stupidest of men" is funny, as is Agnes maneuvering around her very pregnant belly or dancing around in a saucy red dress singing, Who's that racy middle-aged lady? Some of the fourth-wall breaking is cute, such as having them go through the last age transition with makeup and wig change onstage. Less cute was the decision to have chunks of time pass with the actors offstage yelling their lines. One scene change was apparently designed to mimic the experience of Agnes' first pregnancy by keeping the audience sitting in the dark for nearly as long.
In the program, director Al Fink evokes the mythical "simpler time" when "family values may have taken a beating every now and then, but the family remained intact." How is this marriage better than modern ones? He cheats on her and throws her around. Upon her daughter's marriage, she gets anxious because she has always been someone's wife and mother, and doesn't know who she really is, and his best response is that she exists because he needs her. Although the last few scenes, as the two characters mature into love, are tender and not as superficial as the first act, overall the Chanticleers production of I Do! I Do! is a strong sales pitch for "I Don't!"
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