The most memorable detail in Tom Tom on a Rooftop, Daniel Keough's new play now receiving its East Coast premiere in Hollywood, is a piece of the set. The feeble comedy takes place entirely on the tarpaper roof of a modest apartment building, where, amid lawn chairs and milk crates, the residents gather at the end of the day to visit and talk. Rich Simone's scenery is dominated by a large billboard advertising one of the theater's sponsors. More shameless pandering you couldn't hope for.
Engaging theater? Well, the verdict isn't a happy one for Keough, an acting alumnus of Chicago's Goodman Theatre School of Drama, whose first play arrives at the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre (HBT) two years after its debut in Los Angeles. The work's one positive quality is that it grants two older characters a sex life, giving them a few shades more complexity than they might find in many contemporary dramas, films, or TV shows. This attribute, however, is not enough to draw people into a story the six characters of which deliver some of the most inconsequential dialogue ever to see the light of day.
The play's many problems are not worth explicating. Suffice it to say that there's nothing at stake in Tom Tom on a Rooftop, other than the ordeal of sitting through an evening that is the dramatic equivalent of sawdust. It boggles the mind that director Kevin Dean bothered to shepherd the work through several script revisions and workshops without noticing how thin it is. Think I'm exaggerating? Here's an example of the dialogue exchanged as Claire, a middle-aged character, looks for her elderly mother, Nora, on the roof. Nora has just left the stage, announcing to two other characters, Harold and Eleanor, that she's going to church.
Claire: "Have either of you seen my mother?"
Eleanor: "She was here a little while ago, and she said she was going to church."
Lest you think the playwright is up to something interesting, let me assure you that this conversation is not intended to convey a Beckettesque suspension of time. Rather the playwright seems to have no idea how to get his characters to interact except through the most banal of interchanges. As a result little that happens on stage comes as much of a surprise to the audience. That includes the hackneyed plot line in which Nora (played by the elegant Joan Turner) resists her daughter's wish that she move to an old-age home. Bracketed around this melodrama are the romantic exploits of the aforementioned Harold and Eleanor, two retired people who get horny while watching a pair of newlyweds through their open bedroom window.
It doesn't help matters that the location of the building in which these characters live is never identified. We know it's in a neighborhood that is showing signs of economic strain, because Nora's daughter Claire comments that she is afraid to walk through it. Beyond this detail the roof exists in the same generic universe as the people who use it as a gathering place. Keough isn't the only playwright to come up with characters whose sole purpose seems to be to meet one another, but in a perfect world, a work this shallow would not have made it past his colleagues in a creative-writing workshop, much less onto a commercial theater stage.
Choosing new works is one of the hardest chores artistic directors face. I've always admired the way in which Jerry Waxman, HBT's producing director, constantly strives to find them, searching far afield despite his small budget and sometimes coming up with gold, as recent productions such as Chazz Palminteri's Faithful and Eric Chappell's Natural Causes attest. (He is also an occasional actor, appearing in this show as Mort, a character who shows up without introduction as the curtain rises over Act Two.) Feeding a theater audience is not an easy thing these days, and in most cases Waxman presents engaging dramas and comedies without dipping into the barrel of theater chestnuts (no Beau Jest, so far) or running a decade behind the trends in New York (no warmed-over Sam Shepard or David Mamet here). On alternating Saturday nights, the theater hosts Punch 59, a talented skit-comedy troupe that deserves a huge audience. On evenings when featured shows are running, the HBT stage is peopled by some of the better talent in South Florida. This show, headlined by veterans Beth Holland and Dick Robison, is no exception.
Unfortunately a loser like Tom Tom on a Rooftop could scare people away from theater altogether. I suspect it was chosen because of its potential to appeal to older theatergoers, the patrons who spend the bulk of what little money goes to theater tickets here and in other cities. If that's the case, I'm offering a short list of worthwhile plays that showcase the talents of older actors and actresses. Some of them feature the possibility of sex lives, each of them has more purpose than Tom Tom, and any of them would better serve both the cast and the audience now at the HBT.
Woman of the Year: The stage version of the popular 1942 film about two sparring journalists, originally played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (Lauren Bacall starred in the 1981 Broadway production) offers two great roles and buckets full of sexual tension.
The Old Settler: John Henry Redwood's acclaimed 1994 work is about two middle-aged sisters, living in Harlem in the '40s, whose relationship undergoes strain as one of them falls for a young man from North Carolina. Sex and dysfunctional families -- a sure thing.
Painting Churches: Tina Howe's study of an artist who returns home to size up her elderly parents, both of whom take the opportunity to dig up buried hatchets of their own. A good chance to introduce Howe, a playwright of considerable talent, to audiences in South Florida.
Private Lives: OK, the Noel Coward favorite about a formerly married couple who run into each other while each is honeymooning with a new spouse is a chestnut of sorts, but it's also a great comedy. Perfect for Beth Holland and Dick Robison, for example.
The Madness of George III: Alan Bennett's riotous story about the Hanoverian king several decades after he's lost the Colonies has great parts for the royal couple as well as various statesmen, doctors, and courtiers. Never mind that the king's bodily fluids are examined on stage.
And finally, Shakespeare's history plays: Nobody's having happy sex in Richard III, of course, but this work and several of the other histories offer wonderful roles for older women. Roles for older men in the Bard's work are more than plentiful.
Here's hoping that artistic directors and audiences swiftly ignore mediocrity like Tom Tom on a Rooftop and listen for the beat of theater's more compelling drums.
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