Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Life is never fair to Jules Feiffer characters. They are always working hard at making themselves over into whatever they are told is loveable, and it always turns out to be just the quality for which the attractive stranger at the cocktail party - or even their own house plant - rejects them.
So here's one for Feiffer himself:
Earlier this year, after 20 years as a successful cartoonist, Feiffer brought out a novel, "Ackroyd," which was criticized for attempting to disguise what was basically a long cartoon as a fictional narrative. His play, "Hold Me!", which opened Monday night at Ford's Theater, frankly presents his cartoon characters in dramatized cartoon episodes. And the trouble with it is that he hasn't attempted to make his ideas over into a play.
Feiffer has previously done successful plays ("Little Murders," "The White House Murders") and a successful screenplay ("Carnal Knowledge").But here is a whole evening of his most proven, beloved work - and even a devoted fan could find it wearing.
Five actors perform his comic strips, one after another in rapid, unrelated succession, taking such familiar roles as his modern dancer who dances to modern life, his Woody Allen-like Bernard who makes an art of being rejected, his couples whose relationships consist of talking over their relationships.
Feiffer is a master at exposing the cliches of modern philosophy-to-live by. With tone deft stroke, his cartoons rough in those weary souls, with their loads of guilt land anxiety, trudging toward the impossible goal of "fulfillment."
But there is a reason why adults rarely sit down and read comic books, however much they may relish such comic strips as Feiffer's - or Peanuts or Doonesbury - in small doses.
A small point, quickly made, is sharp. The same point, used over and over again, gets dull.
Almost every sentence in "Hold Me!" begins with "I," and goes on to give the speaker's analysis of what is wrong with his life. Many of these situations could be the basis for interesting plays. But you need some dramatic action behind them in order to make them interesting on stage.
This lack is most obvious in an episode of "Hold Me!" in which there is a tiny narrative - poignant for just a minute before the wisecrack for which it was designed. Rhoda Gemignani, whose acting many times carries the thin script beyond its face value, plays a woman facing the death of the only good man she has ever known. The story she tells before suggestion to God that He take the doctor instead of Bill is a banal one, but it seems important among all that rapid-fire smart-aleckiness.
After all those characters who have been agonizing with "I'm a person! . . . I'm not a person?", suddenly she becomes . . . a person.