Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
"Do You Turn Somersaults?" which arrived last night at the Eisenhower, is gentle, touching and humorous and benefits immensely from its two skilled players, Mary Martin and Anthony Quayle.
The author, Aleksei Arbuzov, is one of the Soviet Union's most popular playwrights, and he could have been writing about proper Victorians, Edwardians or Georgians. The time could be 30 years after any war, a time when two survivors happen to meet and find, surprisingly, common ground.
I must confess to a personal discomfort when confronted with two-character plays, for they are frail craft indeed and only the exceptions give one a sense of fulfillment. This is not, so far, one of the exceptions.
Lidya is a patient in a seaside sanatorium, where Rodion is one of the leading doctors. Lively, spritely, quirky and forthright, Lidya feeds the seagulls at 10 a.m., and rather than "upset their routine," she misses an appointment with the medico. He is stiff, controlled and inhibited and it will take some nine scenes before he finally thaws enough to realize it will be better to accept the living than mourn the dead.
Ariadne Nicolaeff's translation makes the most of Arbuzov's recognized quality of fine, naturalistic dialogue, and Oliver Smith's smooth, airy settings further the play's light, airy tones. There is charming incidental music by Charles Gross, allowing the tentative lovers to remember how they danced back in the '20s.
More than most two-character plays, the action here is, well, seated. Director Edwin Sherin has avoided letting these characters, who are not truly restless, move about merely to divert us. There are few moments of any action whatever until the sixth scene when these oldsters, slightly pixilated, recall the shimmy and the Charleston. Whether these dances were the rage of Moscow while Lenin was getting everyone used to stern measures, I know not. It is allowed that Rodion was then against such frivolities, but now he appreciates them.
Quayle herewith redeems his Rip Van Winkle of last year with a finely built portrait of the doctor who regularly tends his wife's grave. He allows the thaw to set in very gradually and by interesting pronounced degrees. He played the same role in London opposite Peggy Ashcroft when it was called "Old World" and has mastered it with crafty aplomb.
Back on the stage after too long an absence, Mary Martin plays with that graceful charm which makes Lidya deliciously credible. While one never can quite believe anything this mysteriously married woman says. she most likely did work as a circus performer before being relegated to the cashier's cage. There is sparkle and gravity in the Martin Lidya.
I, for one, would not object to more Martin in this Lidya, for both the star's public image and the lines of Lidya reveal a yea-saying optimist. Few can express the winsome joy of living, at whatever age, so well as the obviously ageless Martin. They do say she's had her knee in a cast because of a ligament torn while rehearsing. I don't believe it. She's springlike as ever, had perhaps Dr. Nikolayevich is a bit slow to react to the sunshine. Anyway, that's how Arbuzov wrote him and Quayle does make us accept his reluctance to take on Lidya.
London this summer has had a play not too unlike this geriatric flirtation, William Douglas Home's "The Kingfisher," with Celia Johnson and Raph Richardson as the oldsters. They have the advantage of a butler. however, and though a minor figure, he is not an uninvolved one. One becomes quite conscious here of tha fact that no other patients, doctors or even restaurant patrons are visible.
And so, I fear, "Do You Turn Somersaults?" is a frail craft which will do for awhile until the zesty Martin and the cagey Quayle find a more rugged, more commodious craft.