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Diner — Delaware Theatre Company

diner -- interior 2Of all of the shows to open in the Philadelphia area this season, none is as important or has the far-reaching ambition of “Diner.”

This is a piece that brings two lights from other arts, movies and popular music, to the theater with a property that, by their luster, is automatically stamped “Broadway Bound!”

To a critic, that means the show has to examined and thought about more thoroughly than most. Commercial chances have to be assessed along with the normal elements of a show, such as writing, direction, music, choreography, and execution. “Diner” has the potential to move from Wilmington, where it’s currently ensconced at the Delaware Theatre Company, to New York. Questions loom about whether it’s ready, worthy, or in need of another draft, another staging. “Diner” is not just another show being mounted by a local theater. It is a show with potential destiny and needs to be looked at such.

As the show stood on the night I saw it, writer Barry Levinson and composer Sheryl Crow have lots of rewrites, rethinks, and coffee ahead of them, especially Levinson, who, in this theater venture, somehow misses the essence of what made his 1982 movie about Baltimore friends on the brink of adult responsibility so poignant and beloved.

Levinson thinks like a screenwriter and film director as he crafts “Diner’s” scenes. They remain cinematic in style and in movement when they need to be translated to the pace and language of plays. Conversations and exchanges seem too much like set pieces. They don’t have the feel or the energy of people being together in one space and talking naturally. The closeness of Levinson’s intimate byplays limit the animation director Kathleen Marshall, the one solidly credentialed theater person involved with the production, can give the characters who seem static and caught in a frame instead of loose and at home in their houses and hangouts, including the diner that is so iconic to the five guys whose story is being told.

Levinson and Marshall both mistake closeness for intimacy. Characters are usually knee-to-knee or shoulder-to- shoulder when they have something to say to each other. Theater requires more breathing room. Levinson may be unaware of that. He needs to capture a scene through a lens. Marshall should know that the eye from the audience takes in the whole stage. She needs to use that stage, and its expanse, more liberally for “Diner” to feel more authentic and less claustrophobic.

Marshall’s work may be the most disappointing in a production that is not so much “bad” as it is “wrong.” She is the one who should know to move people from metal platforms that serve as porches, stoops, and living rooms, and are set far stage left and right, and let them tale with space that leaves room for a reaction or an emotion. She is also the one who should have recognized that neither Levinson nor Crow is, as yet, comfortable with the theatrical and suggested changes that might bring “Diner” more felicitously from the page to the stage or, more pointedly, from the screen to the stage.

Crow’s work is more finished and satisfying than Levinson’s. He has to recraft dialogue in a way more suited to theater ears than movie ears. Even the first scene of the five primary guys congregating, one right up my alley as Hitchcock films are discussed and mistakes — ignorant, almost unbelievable mistakes — about Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Grace Kelly are made, sounds too contrived and unnatural to take place between friends who are all so generally unenlightened. I, who adore Hitchcock and knew all the right answers, was more annoyed that fascinated or involved in the discussion. The same idea needs to be crafted with a different rhythm and sound as if it depicts a conversation among guys who know each other instead of as a long, self-conscious, unrealistic, unengaging bit that tells us more about Levinson’s knowledge and regard for Hitchcock — and Grace Kelly — than it does about the guys having the “argument.”

Crow doesn’t have nearly as much rewriting to do. Her songs, in general, are good. They tell stories and express appropriate emotions. That have lyrics that convey perception and some wisdom, or at least some keen observation, about life. Crow’s score for “Diner” will make a fine CD and find its way to iDevices.

What Crow has to think about is period. “Diner” is set in 1959, a year that resonates in the context of Levinson’s story and in American history, more than just being another decade-ending date on the calendar.

In several songs, Crow catches the ’50s style, especially in “Diner’s” more focused second act. She often find the blend that leads Sinatraesque pop to Presley rock ‘n’ roll. She can craft number that have contemporary sentiments but make you think of Buddy Holly, Sinatra, or Brenda Lee. There doo-wop and close harmonies going on in the background. Crow, in general, did a fine job, an eye-opening job. Her task will to be re-examine the numbers that don’t have the ’50s sound of “Last Man Standing,” “Don’t,” “Darling, It’s You,” and “Gotta Lotta Woman,” all from the second act, the last being the number Levinson, Marshall, and Crow should learn from in terms of taking its tone and verve and making it the objective for their entire show.

Numbers that don’t have either the beat nor the sentiment of the pre-Kennedy era are the ones that jar. Most of them are good songs. I don’t think I heard a clinker in any of Crow’s work, But they do not capture the period, and they don’t express the sentiment of the times in the right way. They are standard Sheryl Crow, a taste that is not hard to acquire but can’t readily be used for songs that have a special purpose and recall a particular time. Half of “Diner’s” score has a ’90s or millennial sound and structure to it. The lyrics are germane enough that I don’t think we’re hearing any of Crow’s trunk material, but we see a composer going back to the roots that earned her a following and made her a success.

If the only songs we heard were the ones that sound as if they come from the Crow canon, damn the context, I’d say the music was admirable but unsuited to the chore at hand, which is finding the music the characters in “Diner,” and especially Shrevie, the guy who loves music and records so much he tortures his wife over their treatment, would listen to, dance to, and sing in their a cappella moments.

Crow thwarts such criticism by showing on several occasions she can wrap her talent around ’50s beats, which are, because they begin with Sinatra, Christy, and Clooney to Elvis and The Platters, varied and open to many styles and tones. It’s because Crow can go ’50s that it’s disconcerting when she reverts back to the comfort of her sound and forgets the show’s.

Levinson and Marshall just make you wonder exactly what they trying to do and why “Diner” plays well enough to entertain but is chock full of so many obvious and fixable glitches.

I need to pause my diatribe here to get to the overall experience of the Delaware Theatre Company production.

For all of its flaws, and they are legion, it’s enjoyable. While Levinson and Marshall don’t absorb you in the way that made the movie “Diner” a lasting favorite — Heck, Levinson deleted Fenwick’s “College Bowl” scene! — there’s enough story and character development to keep you going.

The current “Diner” doesn’t always engross and often leaves you more curious than caring or sympathetic about one of the lead guy’s fate, but is has enough going on in the corners, especially with the women characters, the also-rans of the movie, to hold attention. In spite of dry or overwritten spots, the show is not boring.

It also isn’t satisfying. Everything seems discussed too much and is too elongated to be dramatic, even when a situation is fraught with intrinsic drama.

Then, and most damagingly, there’s the way the lead guys come across, all but one of them negatively and he too lurks on the brink of being despicable.

The guys in “Diner” are guys. They have foibles. They have human traits, some comic, some neurotic, some loathsome. Take everything as equal, quirks included, they are just guys.

And just young guys. Though all are out of school and embarked in jobs or college or something that smacks of or leads to adulthood, they are callow, full of themselves, and not quite shed of the mixture of braggadocio, confidentiality, pranking, and serious consideration that comes with being around the age of 21. Especially in 1959 when someone of that age was expected to be settled and beyond most of the juvenile ideas of their high school days.

In Levinson’s movie, Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, Dan Stern, Timmy Daly, and the interesting, interesting Mickey Rourke were typical oafs with some redeeming qualities.

Most of all they were likeable. Guttenberg’s Eddie could subject his fiancée, Elyse, to a test about the Baltimore Colts the week they about to get married, Stern’s Shrevie could be too puerile to be Beth’s husband while remaining a guy who hangs at the diner, Rourke’s Boogie could trick a girl into touching his cock by protruding it through the bottom of a popcorn container, Daly’s Billy could impregnate the one person in “Diner” who has mature substance, and Bacon’s Fenwick could be a first-class screw-up, and we loved them. They were nostalgic and derivative of a period before JFK was killed and the 50s crashed headlong into the tumultuous, culture changing ’60s.

There was a humanity to the guys that made them seem like the friends in the ’50s song, “Heart of My Heart,” — “when we were kids on the corner of the street, we were rough and ready guys, but oh how we could harmonize!” They had flaws, but you understood those flaws and cheered Eddie and company on because they were decent and likeable beyond them.

Hey, what’s the matter with being ordinary? Or have a need to grow up some when you’re in your twenties?

The answer to both questions is “nothing,” and the Levinson’s movie “Diner” made that clear. I harp on the absence of Bacon’s “College Bowl” scene from the musical, but I do so because that sequence showed you something essential you didn’t know about Fenwick and couldn’t know from the persona he copped when hacking around with the guys. I have a feeling the opening gambit about the Hitchcock movies, one in which Fenwick, played on the DTC stage by Matthew James Thomas, corrects all of his friends’ boneheaded mistakes about Grace Kelly, etc., was meant to stand in for the “College Bowl” elision. It doesn’t though, because Fenwick has not established himself as an iconoclastic rebel who has little regard for life and its serious parts and because the Hitchcock passage doesn’t play smoothly. If anything, it makes Fenwick look like the stable, sensible member of the “Diner” crowd.

I harp on several scenes in this musical version of “Diner” because one thing they have in common is to made all of the guys look bad and wrong, even Billy who is trying to suggest a decent thing but is never given the chance by Levinson to do it.

For “Diner” to work, you have to accept the guys for who they are and feel affection for them in spite of it. They should be all the just-out-of-teenage boys you lecture and then say, “Oh, you,” and call them over for a reassuring hug or tousle of their hair. These should be guys about to mature out of their idiocies, not jerks who cling to their dopey ways and thrive on them.

diner -- interiorYet, that’s who you see in this musical of “Diner.” Two of the guys escape total disdain. One elicits a scooch of sympathy because he has a point even when he’s wrong or doesn’t understand all of the ramifications of a situation because he doesn’t see all points of view. Three, and the three you see most and are supposed to key into with interest, are contemptible. Levinson has left them nothing redeemable, and the poor actors Marshall cast to play the, while they all do good jobs in context, can’t raise the schnooks from being abrasive, immature, and dismissible to being cute, entertaining and forgivable. Ari Brand, as Eddie, and Noah Weisberg, as Shrevie, play their parts well and dance up storms, but for all of their work, they can’t Eddie or Shrevie a mensch or anything you’d care about. They both seem as destined for jail as they do for marriage. “Diner” collapses because the people you’re supposed to love are people who you can only despise. Eddie, though clean-cut and well-dressed, comes across as such a first-class creep, you think you’d speak up if Levinson gave the rabbi who marries dialogue that asks if anyone knows why he and Elyse should not be joined. Shrevie is about as worthy of Beth as Mike Huckabee is to be President of the United States (or any of the candidates for that matter).

That can’t be. You have to appreciate Eddie on some level and want Elyse to pass her Colts test so they can be happy together. You need Beth to see something in Shrevie that doesn’t force her to pack one of their bags and call their marriage a fiasco. On the DTC stage, that doesn’t happen. You want to slap Eddie silly and let Shrevie be a perpetual juvenile away from the deserving, empathetic Beth.

It isn’t that makes you scorn Eddie and Shrevie so thoroughly. Brand and Weisberg are splendid performers. It’s the way Levinson and Marshall fashioned their characters. They left two of their leads to wallow as skunks who rate no sympathy instead of as average guys who have some learning about life to do.

The Colts quiz is a perfect example of much that is wrong with this musical rendition of “Diner.”

In the movie, the quiz was played for fun. Guttenberg’s Eddie was just as intent about Elyse passing his test and just as mean when she doesn’t, but there’s an attitude of, “Oh, that Eddie. Such a dope and such a priss about his stupid Colts.” The gambit becomes a joke, and one that involves you. You are as interested in the result as the characters in the movie are. You can’t wait to see the actual quiz, and you await the result with some tension while taking the whole idea of a woman having to pass a football test to marry a man who purports to love her in stride.

You can’t do that in the musical. All becomes too serious. And smarmy. Brand’s Eddie only obsession is whether Elyse passes his quiz, and he works to make it increasingly hard. As opposed to being a humorous quirk, like in the movie, Eddie’s attention to test in off-putting. You don’t want Elyse to marry him. You don’t want Charlize Theron’s “Monster” to marry him. You want him sent to reform school and beat up by the other inmates.

Levinson has taken all of the fun out of this sequence, the main plot line that establishes Eddie’s or Elyse’s character. Suspense is built around the results, but it’s not joyful suspense, as if you’re saying, “I can’t wait to hear the questions. I wonder how she’ll do. I wonder how I’d do.” It’s begrudging curiosity. Everything about the quiz seems tainted and putrid. Maybe Levinson, writing in 2015 rather than 1982, wants to make more of a point that young folks in the ’50s didn’t marry as much for love as because marriage was expected by a certain age and you just wed the girl you were dating. If for nothing else, relief. (Unless you’re like Boogie, who wouldn’t let a little thing like being single stop him from having sex, even in 1959.)

The scenes leading to the quiz, and the quiz itself, set tightly in the stage left corner in a place that so’s wrong for a sequence so important, are as creepy as you find Brand’s Eddie. They’re mean instead of fun, earnest instead of jokey. They have no spark to them. They seem like a labored chore instead of as a plot climax. Levinson doesn’t even generate humor by having Elyse’s parents call Eddie’s house to see how their daughter is doing. (The inclusion of the parents makes for confusion later. The quiz is at Eddie’s house, on an industrial looking perch that’s supposed to convey a living room in an idiotically remote corner of the stage. Eddie’s father is present, and his mother answers the phone. You see the actors playing Eddie’s Mom and Dad and associate them with him. Then, in the scene in which Elyse and he marry, the same actors pose as Elyse’s parents while Eddie has no one but his diner friends as groomsmen standing with him on his side of the chuppa. Some consistency would be nice, but the mix-up shows how careless this production is.)

Scenes involving Billy, well played by Aaron C. Finley, and Barbara, an excellent Brynn O’Malley, go awry for a different reason. In the musical, this pair registers as the far-sighted, mature couple that has a plan for their individual futures and the sense to train for and go after what they want.

A lot of strong dramatic hay can be made with the situation involving Billy and Barbara, but Levinson gives their story short shrift. While he writes long discussions for Boogie, Beth, Elyse, and others, Levinson keeps Billy and Barbara’s talks so cut-and-dried, they’re incomplete. Rather than writing conversations for a matter that requires depth and exploration, Levinson saddles both Billy and Barbara with attitudes, declarations, and pronouncements that preclude discussion and decide their fate based on what seems politically correct and culturally popular today. Instead of confronting a true dramatic and moral dilemma, one much more intense than anything that concerns Eddie, or even Boogie, Levinson panders to the easy.

Billy is a law student attending a college outside of Baltimore. Barbara has a job on the production side of a Baltimore television station, WMAR (actual call letters for the ABC affiliate in Bal’mer). The two are friends who have never been romantically entangled but who consummated their affection for each other during a sentimental weekend they spent together in New York. Barbara becomes pregnant. Billy will marry her and with enough love to give expectation the marriage will work. But Barbara has been offered a major promotion at “MAR, for a job no woman has been given. You’d expect these two, among anyone, to have a mature, rational conversation about their options, But no, Levinson, and/or Marshall or Crow prefer a 21st century feminist route. There is no discussion. Barbara will call the shots, and Billy will disappear, unheard with his tail between his legs.

This outcome is one that would be plausible under any situation, but Levinson ducks the drama. He goes for positions and stances instead. Crow has the chance to write a nifty song, “I Can Have It All,” that O’Malley makes a show-stopper, and modern sensibilities are salved.

While an opportunity for genuine substance and truly heady writing, for Levinson and Crow, is squandered.

I mention that Eddie and Shrevie are portrayed as unredeemable and unlikeable. What about Boogie, who makes bets about whether he can get a girl to touch his penis and whether he can lure the girl to bed with friends in the closet to verify the intercourse and confirm Boogie’s claim to his take?

Boogie’s scenes play better. For two reasons. The first is Levinson gives Boogie more texture than he gives any other character. He’s the narrator of “Diner,” and he has positive and negative facets that make him attractive and fun to be around even when the negative prevails, as it does most of the time.

The writing and portrayal of Boogie, played with suave if classless insouciance by best-of-cast Derek Klena, is complete. It allows the character to be a scoundrel and a mensch, chances Eddie and Shrevie do not get and Billy is cheated from bringing to any kind of boil.

Boogie may make Fenwick look like a minor leaguer when it comes to getting into stupid, unnecessary scrapes of his own making. He might register as a sleaze who would not only besmirch a girl’s reputation, something worth protecting in 1959, but would advertise his corruption to his friends and make money on it. He might be a compulsive gambler who has to face having his handsome face rearranged for non-payment of loan shark debt. He may even contemplate sleeping with his buddy’s wife. But Levinson and Marshall allow Klena to show that Boogie has compunctions and heart that mitigate flaws that can lead to disgrace and an early grave. Scenes with Beth show that Boogie’s heart is in the right place and that, of all of the guys, he is the most reliable and the one who has the most perception when it comes to dealing with human matters.

Klena makes you like Boogie even when you hate every action he’s taking. It’s not that you care about the girl he’s about a get branded a stale. It’s that you don’t like the idea of anyone fooling someone else or using them for something low and nefarious. Yet, Klena pulls it off. You root for him to win and go along with him when he’s so wrong, there’s no way to correct or admire his behavior. Your faith in him and regard for him is rewarded when, in a pinch, he does the right thing. Eddie also does the right thing. Shrevie is about to. But it’s too late. You’ve written them off. Klena’s Boogie hold you and makes his character funny while the others never get past being jerks.

Klena also opens “Diner” is a promising his way. His entrance as Boogie, as lights are going up on the stage and Crow has the band playing a Presleyish guitar riff, is perfect ’50s, part Sinatra, part James Dean. His style of speech brings back the ’50s and tells the class and education of his group.

Then comes the Hitchcock gambit, and the illusion Klena and Crow established is shattered.

The guys don’t come to life as a group and don’t attract you mutually or as a collective.

The diner also has no appeal. It has to be figure. You have to be affected by what you hear about its history and keep it in mind as the musical unfolds.

That’s doesn’t happen. The diner remains just a place where the guys gather for late night eggs and bull. It makes no claim on your consciousness or imagination. The best use of the diner set is when designer Derek McLane turns it into a jail after the guys are arrested for abetting Fenwick is his crèche fiasco. The red vinyl diner seats become bunks, and the bars are placed in front of the table for the guys to lean on in various poses and talk.

Matthew James Thomas’s Fenwick seems like an entity unto himself. Thomas’s is a good, well-measured performance. No matter what Fenwick does, Thomas keeps him in your good graces. Fenwick is the most feckless of the characters in terms of being of any use to anyone. He’s a pothead before marijuana is really popular, and he is constantly drunk.

His saving grace is admitting he doesn’t care about much and spouting off philosophy that shows Fenwick has a thought in his head and can express it. The thoughts mainly deal with the fragility and overratedness of life. Thomas gives Fenwick traits that make us care about. He may be the only male character for whom our hearts break, especially when he is turned from his family dinner at Christmas and is refused entry into his brother’s house.

“Diner” in 1982 might have been about the guys, but the musical favors the women. The men all have flaws and can mostly be derided as dopes, creeps, and self-destructive children. The women have something going for them and show variation and texture the men do not.

Erika Henningsen is particularly affecting as Beth, the young bride who cannot understand why Shrevie prefers to hang at the diner and jaw with his high school friends instead of keeping her company and taking advantage of marital benefits Eddie, for one, may only be marrying to get.

You feel for Henningsen’s Beth. There’s hurt and wonder in her expression. She seems to be a sensitive woman who harbors affection for Shrevie, who she originally dated on the rebound from Boogie, even though he ignores her. In ’50s style, she thinks the fault is hers. You want Henningsen’s Beth to get the attention and understanding to help her get through her disillusion about being married.

Tess Soltau is fine as Elyse, who stays level-headed and plays along with the Colts quiz by being serious about it. Soltau, O’Malley, and Henningsen have some of “Diner’s” best moments together. It is their characters, and Anne Horak’s Carol, the girl Boogie surprises, that provide us people to care about and want the best for. Ethan Slater isn’t given all that much of consequence to do as Modell, but he is a lively presence and comes through when needed to complete a musical ensemble or deliver a line that sets Eddie or Fenwick on his next monologue. John E. Brady makes the most of the small but pivotal part of Bagel, who figures prominently in Boogie’s story. Jacqueline Beatrice Arnold sings stylishly and beautifully. The shame is her numbers are always on the side and usually interrupted after a few bars by dialogue between the guys.

From all that I’ve noted, I hope you can tell the potential that lies buried in this heaping sprawl of a production. “Diner” is not ready to move to New York as it is. No doubt Levinson, Crow, and Marshall, pros that they are, are aware of the work required to get “Diner” prepared for the mainstem. Attention to making the book conversational and changing the guys, especially Eddie and Shrevie, from contemptible to enjoyable are the main challenges. Giving more importances to the sequences with Billy and Barbara would also help. What exists is watchable, engaging, and entertaining to a point, but things go flat regularly and often. This Wilmington production reveal the rudiments of a show. What happens next is up to Levinson, Crow, and Marshall, and I hope they’ll take the time to consider all they’ve learned in Wilmington and use their combined prowess to fix it. Having someone like DTC artistic director Bud Martin on the scene is also a benefit. Martin has a talent for finding the emotion and entertainment value in pieces that need a director’s eye to play at their best. I look forward to seeing “Diner” in some future form and hope the finished product will come up to the standard and affectionate quality of Levinson’s 1982 film.

Kathleen Marshall is also the show’s choreographer, and her dances are more consistent than the dramatic sequences. “Gotta Lotta Woman” sets the mark for how “Diner” should rouse its audience every minute. It’s the one perfect scene in the show and worth waiting to see.

James Kronzer’s adaptation of Derek McLane’s set is strange. You wonder why so much happens on the side and why all-purposes spaces that are mostly cozy look like a fire escape and is made from metal instead of the wood that might denote a porch. The diner is derivative, and it’s fun to see it appear. Amanda Seymour’s take on Paul Tazewell’s costumes are like Crow’s music. Sometimes Seymour scores with bullseye accuracy. Other times you wonder what mode or period she’s working in. Her gowns for Elyse and her bridesmaid are dreadful. Even for ’50s dresses.

“Diner” runs through Sunday, January 3, at the Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street (right on the Christina River), in Wilmington, Delaware. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $65 to $40 and can be obtained by calling 302-594-1100 or by visiting www.delawaretheatre.org.

 

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