A Naked Girl on the Appian Way
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 13, 2005
The plush red velvet curtain rises to reveal a gorgeous John Lee Beatty set: a fabulous airy kitchen / dining room / living room / staircase-to-the-second-floor, lined with floor-to-ceiling windows and with a glimpse of lush greenery outside ("a beautiful house somewhere in the Hamptons," the program says). We get a moment to take it all in, and then enter our leading lady, Jill Clayburgh, looking mighty fine in upper-middle-class casual (courtesy of costumer Catherine Zuber); can it really be almost 30 years since she got famous as An Unmarried Woman? Shortly thereafter, our leading man, Richard Thomas appears: yes, John-Boy Walton, all grown up but just as amiable and eternally youthful (and don't get me wrong, both of these movie/TV stars can hold the stage and deserve to be on it). A few minutes more, and here comes Ann Guilbert, once Millie Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show, the high-pitched slightly whiny voice and kooky stooped walk intact.
I was delighted to be in this lovely room among such old friends. How is it possible for A Naked Girl on the Appian Way to squander all of that goodwill so quickly and completely?
Leave it to Richard Greenberg to pump in the highfalutin' upper-crust mean-spiritedness and pump out anything resembling charm or reality. The Tony-winning playwright who hypothesized a baseball star coming out of the closet for no reason whatsoever (Take Me Out) and a prominent black entertainer involved in a public interracial romance in pre-World War I America (The Velvet Hour) here trumps his own facility for devising spectacularly implausible scenarios with a story of a Martha Stewart-ish cookbook author/TV celebrity, her wildly successful and rich businessman husband (now semi-retired and writing a book of his own), and how two of their multi-ethnic adopted children fall in love during a European trip and decide to get married.
Now, there's certainly a provocative social issue worthy of exploration in all of this (just as there was in Take Me Out), but Greenberg, true to form, eschews that opportunity and devotes himself instead to exploiting stereotypes in as broad and nasty a fashion as possible, and to piling up sensational detail upon sensational detail without regard for what life is actually, or even sort-of, like.
So the old lady played by Guilbert is a discontented ex-Bohemian who carries on endlessly about how much she hated her (dead) son and still hates his wife (whom she calls, not so endearingly, a "dumb bitch," over and over again); she uses even fouler language to talk about sex and other body functions, like an uncensored Sophia from The Golden Girls. The three adopted children—who are of Japanese, German, and Dominican descent—spew racial epithets at one another (Bill, the Japanese kid, compares his brother Thad to the Nazis and makes vulgar sexual jokes about his sister Juliet). Bill is revealed to be bisexual; Thad fooled around with a boy in high school; their mother is revealed to have had a lesbian affair. The next-door neighbor (the old lady's daughter-in-law) is a has-been pretentious author who is writing a two-volume study of menstruation.
Greenberg gives them all inflated vocabularies as if that will make these people seem somehow smarter or more dear to us. (They use a number of words that I didn't recognize; even Thad, who is otherwise presented as pretty much the Village Idiot, has prodigious word power.)
I didn't believe a word of it and I didn't find it funny. To be fair, the audience around me mostly did seem to be having a pretty good time: I wouldn't want to spend $86.25 to watch what amounts to three episodes of a coarse and dirty-minded sitcom on stage—but having spent it, I guess you may as well relax and enjoy yourself.
Director Doug Hughes has done nothing particularly wrong in staging the play, but he hasn't done anything especially right either. Clayburgh, Thomas, and the rest of the show's very attractive cast do pretty much what they need to in order to put over the thing, which is to say that they play in the broadest possible manner. Thomas nevertheless manages to be centered and immensely likeable, while Clayburgh's pizzazz and chic elegance remind us (when we stop to think about it) that she deserves something SO much better for her return to Broadway than this. The kids are played by Matthew Morrison, James Yaegashi, and Susan Kelechi Watson, and they're really terrific in thankless roles (especially Yaegashi, who proves himself—after his all-Japanese and occasionally naked stint in Take Me Out—a really fine comic actor; he deserves something better too).
This kind of frivolous comedy of manners is of course a staple of theatre; in the '50s and '60s, writers like Harry Kurnitz, Samuel Taylor, and Norman Krasna built entire careers on this sort of thing. But those guys tended to ground themselves in reality and when in doubt they usually went for good taste rather than bad. Times have changed, I guess.
And oh yes, a naked girl on the Appian Way is mentioned in the script (twice), but I have no idea why this particular phrase has been chosen as the title of this play. Unless the folks in charge are hoping that we'll suppose an actual naked girl will turn up on stage (none does). Could they be that crass?