Norman, Is That You? at TCRI – That ’70s Play

In TCRI’s Norman, Is That You?, Ben Chambers (Steven Taschereau), a dry cleaner from Dayton, Ohio, who is just past 50 years old, arrives at the Manhattan apartment of his 23-year-old son, Norman (Michael Capalbo), to tell him that 49-year-old Beatrice (Lisa Scotti-Johnson), Ben’s wife of 26 years and Norman’s mother, has run off to Canada with Julius, Ben’s brother and business partner. Ben is surprised to discover that Norman is, as Ben phrases it, “light in the loafers” and has been living with – and sharing a bed with – Garson Hobart (Michael Thurber), who is a swish 1970s collection of gay stereotypes down to his red velvet pants and satin kimono wraps. Ben hires prostitute Mary (Sarah Keable) at the McDonald’s near the 59th Street station on Lexington Avenue – the ultimate out-of-towner move – to seduce and convert first Norman and then Garson to heterosexuality.

La Cage aux Folles this is not: Ben and Beatrice (who shows up only in the final scene) unite in disapproval of their son’s sexual orientation despite his articulate defense that he is happy and they should accept him as he is. The script is dated by its references to obscure historical matter that might conceivably have been funny, or at least recognizable, in the 1970s, such as when Ben buys a bunch of books on homosexuality to educate himself on the subject and mistakenly ends up with All the President’s Men, the Watergate exposé whose title in this context suggests something rather different. Because the play was originally on Broadway in 1970 and that book was published in 1974, it must have been one of many later additions to the script.

The jokes in the play about Spiro Agnew, the now-almost-forgotten vice-president in the administration of President Richard Nixon before being forced to resign after pleading guilty in a bribery scandal, are beyond obscure and run into extreme bad taste: Agnew’s son was effectively outed by syndicated columnist Jack Anderson in 1970, reporting that the 24-year-old James Rand Agnew had left his 22-year-old wife and their 3-year-old child, and had for six months been living with a 27-year-old male hairdresser named Buddy. Anderson quoted James as denying the clear implication that they were in a homosexual relationship, saying, “Buddy is a friend of a friend… and I just stopped here to use the bathroom because the plumbing in my new place isn’t hooked up yet.” This is literally the same excuse in the play that Norman supplies to explain to his father why Garson is in his bedroom.

This was no joking matter: Anderson made it onto Nixon’s notorious “Enemies List” because of Anderson (and his mentor Drew Pearson, who died in 1969) exposing a long series of scandals beginning in 1952 when Nixon was almost dumped as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate until Nixon gave his “Checkers Speech.” People forget that Nixon was an evil sociopath who makes Donald Trump look like a choir boy. Nixon aides had long tried to plant fake news stories that Anderson, a devout Mormon, was a secret homosexual, and as a result, Anderson’s outing of James Agnew, regardless of how we might view the morality of it today, was a kind of hardball payback. Spiro Agnew was notorious for obliquely suggestive anti-gay statements, such as attacking the “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” The last straw for Nixon was Anderson’s exposure of CIA efforts to overthrow Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, which led to White House operatives E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy working with the CIA under instructions, they later testified, from Charles “Chuck” Colson, special counsel to the president, to neutralize Anderson by any means necessary. Mark Feldstein recounts the sordid affair in his 2010 book Poisoning the Press, reporting that Hunt and Liddy worked with a CIA doctor to consider assassinating Anderson by putting poison in his prescription medication, by putting LSD on his car steering wheel causing him to hallucinate and crash, and by staging a mugging where he would be fatally stabbed. Eventually, Hunt, Liddy and Colson would all be criminally implicated in the Watergate break-in that brought down the Nixon presidency.

If you so miss the 1970s that you want to spend an hour and a half reliving them, the Theatre Company of Rhode Island sure has the play for you. Norman, Is That You? from the writing team of Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick is a largely unfunny script with cartoonish characters reminiscent of the 1970s television sitcom All in the Family; indeed, at one point in dialogue the lead character is explicitly described as a mix of Charlie Chaplin and Archie Bunker, the latter of whom did not appear on television until 1971, the year after Norman was originally on Broadway. (If you don’t know who Archie Bunker is, you definitely should not be seeing this play.) There are a ton of in-jokes that will prove entertaining to an archaeologist excavating 1970s culture: For example, Ben says that Norman’s sister has joined “some new religion,” which the audience is expected to understand means Esalen.

Norman is the first product of the Clark-Bobrick collaboration that eventually included the even worse Broadway flop Murder at the Howard Johnson’s, although Norman survived 12 performances after opening night while Murder lasted only four. A different version of Norman, with the Ohioan white (and implicitly stereotypically Jewish) Ben and Beatrice transposed to Arizonian black and New York transposed to California, ran for seven years in Los Angeles, and it was this version that was made into a film in 1976 starring Redd Foxx.

Ben says that their dry cleaning business netted him and his brother $15,000 each in the last year (roughly $100,000 today), and he is preoccupied with business to such an absurd degree that his biggest worry about his wife running off with his brother is who can replace them in the store. Maybe playing Ben much more like the ignorantly self-assured Archie Bunker would have been a wise artistic and directorial choice, but Taschereau doesn’t do that – and I have serious doubts that anything could have saved this script that is, arguably, the first Broadway play to treat leading gay characters as perfectly normal rather than as objects of either sympathy or opprobrium. Keep in mind that the brief Broadway run of Norman was only eight months after the Stonewall Riots. Even as historical curiosity, however, the gay characters are not driving the plot, and instead it is Ben who is the main character. Garson is Ben’s principal foil: Thurber is a gifted comic actor and he has some hilarious scenes, especially where he practically makes love to Mary’s luxurious fur coat, but he is of an age to be utterly miscast as the stay-at-home lover of a 23-year-old. The totally bald Thurber somehow even pulls off elaborately wrapping his head in a towel to dry his non-existent hair.

Capalbo as Norman is stuck with a character who is by design so totally normal that he has no business trying to be the fulcrum of a farce, and he runs off to Philadelphia for much of the play because, well, what else is there for him to do? Scotti-Johnson as the clueless Beatrice, whom Ben early on describes as “not the smartest,” gets very little stage time, but she has the privilege of delivering the title as a line of dialogue that in context is probably the funniest of the whole play. Keable as Mary, although far too attractive to be a convincing prostitute at $35 per trick (roughly $235 today), manages exactly the right look and nonchalant attitude for a working girl, the sort of woman who keeps her high heels on in bed.

There is a place for a half-century-old gay farce, but that place is not on the stage. Nor is this particular play helped by an implausible deus ex machina ending.

The Assembly Theatre in Burrillville, despite being a 40-minute drive from Providence, is a charming venue with real dark wood that would be at home in the 1940s but is comfortable, well-maintained, and attractive, with a genuine proscenium stage rather than a black box. The baked goods offered as donation-optional refreshments were remarkably good, a selection of cinnamon muffins, blueberry muffins, brownies, and apple crisp cakes, eliminating the traditional Rhode Island need to pack a lunch for the long drive.

Norman, Is That You?, by Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick, performed by the Theatre Company of Rhode Island at Assembly Theatre, 26 East Ave, Burrillville. Through Apr 14. About 1h45m including 15-minute intermission. Free off-street parking. Refreshments available. Tel: 401-568-2929. Web: tcrionline.com Facebook: facebook.com/events/827097334292302

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