Bony, angular, dressed as always in seamless black, The Girld in the Leotard begins her dance to 1978. She says this dance is going to be much different from her dances to 1977, 1976, 1975 . . . But seeing it at Ford's Theatre, it looks just like the dance to 1958 that I remember seeing 20 years ago in the The Village Voice.
Another Jules Feiffer play has begun. This time, as if he were tired of critics claiming that he's really only a cartoonist giving us caricatures, the play really is a series of Feiffer cartoons. Everybody's here. Bernard. The Girl in the Leotard. The Woman Who Admits She Talks Too Much ("I'm quite bright, so it's interesting - but I do talk too much"). The Grown-Up - who is willing to make all our decisions for us, and also capable of telling his child, "Look, this isn't working out. I've wasted five of the best years of my life trying to relate to you. It's nobody's fault . . ."
Like all Feiffer characters, they make great copy - and it's hard to resist the temptation to review "Hold Me!" by simply stealing the jokes.
Only there are too many jokes. Jokes about people who hate all the parties they go to - and somehow never realize they keep going to parties they hate. Jokes about husbands who want to get out of having to be unfaithful to prove their manhood. Jokes about body odor ("what kind of person could care about your body odor and not you? Instead of having a drink with you, he smells you!"). Jokes about mothers who discover in the middle of a tantrum that they have to stop ("You mean I'm the parent?"). Even jokes about laundromats and lost socks, but mainly jokes about dating, feelings, boredom, love, lust, hatred, contempt, coolness . . .
Jokes about us. This collection of Feiffer sketches, most of which you will find yourself remembering from the paper if you are a constant reader, slowly grows into a playfull of real people who seem to have acquired a surprising amount of self-knowledge while devoting their lives to self-deception. "My dances never changes," says The Girl in the Leotard finally. "Nothing else gets any better - why should I?"
What's surprising about this play is that Feiffer holds up so well, and has changed so much. Feiffer, after all, comes from the same generation as Mort Sahl and Shelly Berman - comics who got big in the '50s and got stuck in the '50s. To go from doing Eisenhower jokes to Kennedy jokes to becoming one of the most scabrous critics of the Vietnam War, as Feiffer did, requires a lot of thinking, and a lot of changing your mind. There are no political jokes in "Hold Me!" - and I miss them, especially Feiffer's newest caricature, that toothy, callous, pious Jimmy Carter. But the thinking that goes into the political cartoons is what makes "Hold Me!" so unremittingly real.
Maybe that's why "Hold me!" seems to start slowly - it takes a while to realize that what we're seeing is not imitation Feiffer (Saturdau Night Live, for example) but real life. All the characers seem like cartoons for the first few minutes - until thye make us understand that to other people we seem like cartoons. We walk in expecting to suspend disbelief - and it takes 15 minutes or so to get our disbelief firmly back on the ground again, standing on its own two feet. You need all the disbelief you're capable of to enjoy "Hold me!" How else can you understand lines like "If only not being alone didn't depend on other people!"?
Here were are at the end of the review and I have not resisted the temptation to steal jokes, and I have not mentioned any of the actors. The actors have an especially diffecult job in "Hold Me!" - they have to be real, and they have to remind us of the characters in Feiffer's cartoons. Rhoda Gemignani (Who Talks Too Much) and Ray Stewart (The Grown-Up) seem to be the best at this. Britt Swanson as The Girl in the Leotard concentrates on being a superbcaricature, exactly like the cartoon in every way (except that she wears a ponytail and Feiffer's Dancer hasn't done that since 1964, when they went out of style again at Sarah Lawrence). Maria Cellario is better when she's brittle - and William Lodge is a dead ringer for Bernard - as long as there'ssomebody else on the stage for him to react to.