Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Karl Eigsti's setting - a cluttered room at center and a portion of an elegant, ascetic one to its right - immediately promises an unusual play at the Kreeger. "Catsplay" wholly rewards this anticipation. It is original, hilarious and deeply touching.
THis is the first American production of the European success by Istvan Orkeny, a Hungarian playwright who has been fortunate in Kreeger's choice of cast and in the adaptation by Clafa Gyorgyey. This is a play and performance to treasure and remember.
For years Mrs. Bela Orban and her sister, Giza, have lived at a distance, Orban in that cluttered Budapest room and Giza with her wealthy son's family in a luxurious manor at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Phone calls and letter pierce the invisible curtain between Hungary and West Germany.
In Eigsti's larger room, Orban leads a lively life. He milliner neighbor, Mousie, who announces herself with a kitten's meeooou, learns that Orban has run into an old acquaintance at the butcher's, where every Thursday she shops for the weekly dinner she gives a fat, pompous, old fellow who once was a major operatic star. Such details, and ultimately many more, are conveyed to distant Giza.
In a staging technique for which the phone and letter devices become an easily accepted convention, Orban's infectious joy must contend not only with Giza's urgings that she lead a proper old age but also her translator-daughter, who has become a slave to the regime's strict disciplines. Sister and daughter have a very hot potato to handle and the activities of the lively widow become even livelier after she runs into chic and rather awful Paula at the butcher's.
Author Orkeny much of the time seems to be playing with us, introducing rich, imaginative humor in the episodes which flow during the sisters' communications.
But frivolity is not this Hungarian's purpose. He is drawing us into the sisters' philosophies and lives. Giza admits that all along she has envied the bear hugs Orban has given to whatever happens in her life, and even a hopeless, life-long live is not going to get the life-loving widow down.
Superb is the only word for Helen Burns as Orban, a grand part to be sure, but played by a highly resourceful actress. The result is almost as memorable as the experience of having seen Laurette Taylor in "The Glass Menagerie."
Nor is the theme unlike "you Can't Take It with You." Paula Trueman was the dancing Effie in that and here, years later, she's wondrously whacky as Mousie. The part of Giza demands that Katherine Squire rely largely on her voice and she does so splendidly. I. M. Hobson is most amusing as the old singer, as is the incidental music by Robert Dennis, Joseph Bieber, Phyllis Somerville, Michael Mertz and Joan Croydon complete the exemplary cast. "Catsplay" will be catnip for the Kreeger.