Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
In "Teeth 'n' Smiles," British dramatist David Hare uses images of a sleazy rock band to suggest his thoughts about his native land as it slid from the 1960s in the '70s. With an excellent cast, it introduces the Folger Theater Group's eighth season for a run to end Nov. 20.
Images of the entertainment world to reflect modern England also was the device John Osborne employed in "The Entertainer," which made its bow exactly 20 years before "Teeth 'n' Smiles" was introduced in the same theater, London's Royal Court. Instead of the faded music halls, Hare employs the "marginally successful" rock group managed by a man who took the poison of greed at the start of World War II.
The band is playing a one-night stand for one of the Cambridge colleges, and during the course of the three contracted-for sets, its noted singer, Maggie, the band and some friends all fall apart. Living on alcohol, hash and sheer noise, the characters are a crummy lot and because they despise her, Maggie is trapped into taking a dope rap for the lot.
Maggie is a touching character of independent spirit, and Gale Garnett is both actress enough and singer enough to portray her in some depth. Though a boozer who sometimes passes out and ruins performances, Maggie has an inquiring, lively mind and proves stronger than Arthur, a stymied composer, anticipates. Arthur, in turn, has attracted, fruitlessly, the group's PR girl, Laura.
Characters and atmosphere ("This isn't Canterbury tonight. It's Cambridge,") react together, with aimlessness as the common chord.
With the introduction of Saraffian, the manager, Hare adds the perspective of 1939 to reflect how his generation wound up without hope. Saraffian, ably acted by George Taylor, recalls how a bomb fell on a posh dance hall outfitted to resemble that of the ill-fated Titantic. "Some were stealing rings from corpses and the injured." Again, the image of England, the time of George V, when Victorian and Edwardian glories were fading.
It is the dramatic images far more than the characters and their usually slimy words which state the point Hare is making about Britain's slide. When these work, they work with compelling effect and the two directiors, Jonathan Alper and Louis W. Scheeder, have pointed them skillfully.
Larry Dilg, the guitar, Hubert Kelly, the drummer, and Paul Schierhorn, at the keyboard, form a better trio than one would expect from straight actors. The several songs have music and lyrics by Nick and Tony Bicat, probably at their best in "Last Order for the Titanic."
The latter serves as a finale, a summation of what a few succeeding years have done to Maggie and the band. Actually, the play has ended earlier, a sign that neither the author nor the directors seem quite aware of the play's major weakness.
This is a looseness which perhaps was meant to suggest apathy but sometimes only jerks or confuses the action. When Arthur goes back to feeling out a new song on the piano, we have the key that his character will recover. Then comes information on a screen about the band's members and its present status. That the play dribbles away can also be seen as part of Hare's analogy.
The production facets are impressively detailed, including the bandstand set-up contributed by Bill Herrington's Music Gallery, which goes a long way to establishing credibility.
Garnett's spirited performance does much for the well-written Maggie, whose inner self must be felt to grow during the several hours. Peter Phillips brings a worn, weary sense of deja vu to Arthur, the composer who can't seem to get started again, and Pamela Brook makes a sad vignette of the unrequited Laura. M. Jonathan Steele, as a rambling Texan, and Nicholas Woodeson, as a student, contribute well-considered portraits.
The direction contains the touches of vulgarity in which the Folger Theater Group seems to take obsessive pride as, perhaps, a mark that though this may be an oil baron's cathedral to Shakespeare, we are free, free, free, rather like Hare's custom-mocking characters.