Baltimore's admirable, atmospheric Center State opens its season with "The Goodbye People," by Herb Gardner, who wrote "A Thousand Clowns." The run is through Nov. 27.
"The Goodbye People" might be called a "second chance" entry. The script has been a cult favorite since its Broadway failure (with Milton Berle) in 1968. It is the story of a man in his dotage who seeks to revive, in the dead of winter, the Coney Island hot dog stand held run much of his life. The playwright's theme is that ours is dried-up time, that while you're living, be alive.
That the play doesn't really work, despite its Gardneresque humor and compassion, lies in its premise. Instead of reinforcing Max Silverman's idealism, the hopelessness of resuming "Max's Hawaiian Ecstacy" on the Broadwalk in February merely signals that those against whom Max rails are right in thinking he sould be restrained.
People who pragmatists dub "nutty always have been, to be sure, the perpetuall victions - the major concern of the cartoonist who gave us his "Nebbishes." But the line between escentricity and hopelessness is perilously thin and Gardner winds up on the losing side. It is rather what happened to the playwriting of William Saroyan: lovely eccentries who lose our patience.
Seeking our sympathy, not our disdain, Gardner gives old Max telling lines to address to the sensible: "There's a special code I can't talk to you people. Some people can, I can't . . . I'll tell you the truth, buddy, the old days weren't so terrific, but God help me from the new ones."
Later Max observes:
"At the end of the conversation these sweethearts will do a 'Goodbye' for you. Oh, boy, it's beautiful. 'Hello' they don't do so good after that, nervous and rotten . . . But they will do a job for you on 'Goodbye, keep in touch, so long,' all of a sudden warm and personal and terrific."
It's perfect aim on our insincerities.
But why encourage an old man with heart trouble and a hopeless idea?And so welcome to the sentimental ending when, seeing the lights twinkling on his stand, old Max dies happy. Instead of true Nebblish, mush.
Charles Cosler's evocative beach set and mood lighting are graced with understanding by director Robert Alan Ackerman's performers, with welcome vitality from Marcia Rodd, as daughter Shirley who'd rather be called Nancy, and Sammy Smith in his tightly written scene as Max's former partner. John Kellogg is technically right as Max, but the part would finally work against any actor. Russell Horton's Arthur. Shirley's friend, is pure self-conscious Saroyan. An aware try this, but I'm afraid Gardner stacked his own cards against his Coney Island Lear.