nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
March 8, 2011
Boy, the '60s had great music. The Beatles, The Monkees, Tom Jones, Petula Clark…Just thinking about “Downtown” and “I’m a Believer” makes me want to have a listen and sing along at the top of my lungs. You can spend a pleasant night at home doing just that, for free, or you can spend a few bucks and see Michael Bush’s painfully unfunny revival of Abe Burrows’s play Cactus Flower at the Westside Theatre, which uses these tunes as its soundtrack. In fact, it’s a veritable concert—and in stereo!
Those who know Cactus Flower know it either from the original production, which starred Barry Nelson, Lauren Bacall, and Brenda Vaccaro, or from the film, which featured Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn, who went on to win an Oscar. Based on a French play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gready, it is the story of a swinging bachelor dentist who tells his very young ladyfriend that he’s getting divorced from his wife and three children. She, of course, wants to meet them, and he must enlist the help of his spinster nurse to play his wife. You can probably figure out where it goes.
With the exception of one performance, Bush’s revival, which stars Maxwell Caulfield as Julian (the dentist), Lois Robbins as Stephanie (the nurse), and Jenni Barber as Toni (the young thing), is completely colorless. The production smacks of amateur quality, which, given the caliber of talent involved, is all the more distressing.
Caulfield—his looks notwithstanding—lacks any sort of flavor, energy, or comic timing. Barber tries valiantly but doesn’t have the charm or sexuality suited for the role, and it’s awfully hard to escape the memories of Hawn. The supporting players—Jeremy Bobb, John Herrera, Anthony Reimer, Robin Skye, and Emily Walton—either push way too hard or not enough.
Only Robbins’s performance works, and she’s quite marvelous. She mines the role for all its nuances (and then some), creating a fully three-dimensional character that’s actually human. The only human on that stage.
That Burrows’s play is very, very dated (and loaded with campy expressions like “I fizzled it") is the least of the problems. Anna Louizos’s kitschy, un-automated set takes far too long to change, though the longer it takes, the more we can sing along with “What’s New, Pussycat?” Karen Ann Ledger’s costumes seem inspired by the frumpier designs seen on Mad Men. Philip Rosenberg’s lighting and Brad Berridge’s sound design are the strongest design elements, the latter giving us those top 40 hits of yesteryear with great balance.
Bush’s staging stalls from the opening scene, when it’s apparent that there isn’t much chemistry amongst the actors and that there’s absolutely no humor. Even Just Go With It, the not-so-great film with Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston, and Brooklyn Decker that gets its plot from Cactus Flower, had at least a few laughs.