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Arden’s ‘Something Intangible’ (1st review)BY: Robert Zaller 04.18.2009
Bruce Graham brings a Hollywood insider’s knowledge and a flair for dialogue to Something Intangible, now in its premiere production at the Arden. You can’t treat Tinseltown without a touch of schmaltz— a trap Graham doesn’t escape. But this play about Walt Disney and the making of Fantasia, though overwrought for its theme, provides a diverting two hours. Cast and production are excellent.
Something Intangible. By Bruce Graham; directed by Terrence J. Nolen. Through June 7, 2009 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St. (between Market and Arch). (215) 922.1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.
The bad, the beautiful
The first thing I noticed about set designer James Kronzer’s excellent period set for Bruce Graham’s new play was the reassuring presence of a large black telephone— landline, of course. Something Intangible is set in the Shangri-La of 1940s Hollywood, where even a world war can hardly interrupt a storyboard conference, and where the prime task of modern culture—amusing ourselves to death, to quote the title of Neil Postman’s classic book about the modern media—must continue unabated at all costs.
The telephone reassured me, because in the 1940s such things still worked, and when new things were made, they too worked. Witness the atomic bomb. And witness, too, the movies themselves.
We were (then) the only country in the world that could fight two major wars at opposite ends of the world and run a dream factory at the same time. I doubt that MacArthur and Eisenhower could have imagined an America forced to choose among dealing with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Somali pirates, and failing pathetically with each. I don’t think Ike would have tolerated static coming out of his telephones either, as I’ve done for several weeks. (Verizon values your business. Please hold.)
Graham drops plenty of famous names; his hero, Tony Wiston (Ian Merrill Peakes), plays tennis with Chaplin (who cheats, he says) and Spencer Tracy; another character is said to be sleeping with Garbo. Hollywood doesn’t make them like that any more, either.
Tony himself is modeled on Walt Disney, and he’s no Mr. Nice Guy: Hates Jews and pansies; treats his employees like a cross between Hitler and Donald Trump; pops bennies and humps call girls. He’s kept real only by his long-suffering brother Dale (Scott Greer), who runs the business end of Wiston Studios and massages the financial backers, and by his own unerring commercial instinct. Tony knows what the public likes, and he’s determined to keep giving it to them.
Trouble is, Tony also suffers from immortal longings. Yes, his stuff sells; but is it Art? The Jews sneer at him; the moneymen want him to stick to formula, which pays the bills but bores him stiff and threatens his, uh, creative wellsprings. Well, Tony is a bit of a genius in the way only an American can be, turning out cockeyed metaphors for the deepest hopes and fears of a democratic citizenry, and making it split its sides laughing while getting its psychic massage. Isn’t that really better than all the high-toned European stuff?
Who’ll take him seriously?
Not really. The Jews, foreigners all, have taken over Hollywood; Chaplin’s a Brit, and Garbo’s a Swede. The town is crawling with expatriates and refugees. Tony knows they’re all phonies, but how can he get himself taken seriously? There’s Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane, and then there’s Tony, who makes cartoons.
At a Hollywood Bowl concert (conducted by another of those European phonies, Gustav von Meyerhoff, played by Walter Charles), Tony suffers an attack of synesthesia, the neurological condition in which musical notes and chords (or, for graphemes, letters and numbers) conjure up vivid color combinations. The concert is schmaltzy— all Tchaikovsky— but Tony goes into raptures, and sees at last a way to escape the gilded prison of his commercial success. He’ll make a composite symphony of the great composers, a fusion of sound and abstract, swirling color, a work such as no one has ever attempted.
The real-life result of this vision was, of course, Fantasia, now an all-but-forgotten succès d’estime, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. The plot thus revolves around Tony’s desperate attempts to realize his dream.
A hackneyed device
This wouldn’t carry an evening (we’re not talking about Citizen Kane here); instead, it devolves into a story about the relationship between Tony and Dale, which is largely expressed through Dale’s repartee with a female psychiatrist named Feldman (Sally Mercer), who knits and doles out lemon drops at their sessions. This is a hackneyed device, and wears itself out quickly (though it does take a little of the edge off Tony’s anti-Semitic banter, which seems to be a part of its rationale). You can see where this is going— Graham says his original idea was for a play about the Van Gogh brothers— though the ending is bittersweet enough to keep it from being outright cloying.
Graham’s dialogue is sharp and his knowledge of Hollywood intimate; the performers are all excellent; and the production values, especially Rosemarie McKelvey’s period costumes, are likewise fine. In short, this is a quite serviceable example of the contemporary well-made American play, crisply directed by Terrence J. Nolen.
I still can’t quite see Walt Disney as an anguished auteur, nor can I buy Tony’s redemption through brotherly love. As a certain model of American egotism, he functions rather better.
I think I’ve seen Something Intangible before, as the Kirk Douglas Hollywood mogul movie The Bad and the Beautiful. But, hey, what’s Tinseltown without its touch of schmaltz?
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