There are all sorts of yardsticks to measure the ground we've gained or lost over the last few decades: the price of a loaf of bread, the fluctuation in interest rates, the explosion of home computers . . . and the demise of the Broadway sex comedy.
You can still find examples of the sex comedy here and there -- in dinner theaters, mostly, and community theaters -- but as a theatrical staple, it was killed off by television. Television, you see, gives it away free. For a while, the theater could claim the greater raciness, but then TV got frank, and the Broadway sex comedy was left without a double-entendre to stand on.
By way of illustration, you have only to take a quick gander at "Never Too Late," which is currently serving as a vehicle for Eddie Bracken at the Hayloft Dinner Theatre in Manassas. Bracken is a congenial comic -- partially because he's got the timing of an old pro, partially because at 64 he still looks like an innocent choirboy and therefore can get away with murder, or at least some murderously dated material.
"Never Too Late" ran for 1,007 performances on Broadway, beginning in 1962, so it must have corresponded to someone's perception of comic reality. It is the story of Harry Lambert (Bracken), a prosperous lumberyard owner who discovers in middle age that he is about to become a father again. However, the impending blessed event turns his household -- which includes a married daughter and an idiotic son-in-law -- on its ear. Finding himself the butt of the town's jokes, Harry goes on a big bender before harmony is restored.
The last 20 years have certainly taken the comic punch out of the notion of middle-age paternity, and the squeamishness with which these characters talk about sex is likely to strike you as quaintly Victorian. But it is in its depiction of women that "Never Too Late" shows the real ravages of time. The play naturally assumes that women belong in the kitchen; housework may be a curse, but it is their calling. Their greatest desire is to have a maid. Failing that, they use pregnancy as a means to escape the heavier cleaning chores. Sometimes, when yelled at, they turn pale and faint.
Lambert's wife -- played by Mary Rausch as attractively as you can play a part like this nowadays -- is always placating her mate with lines like "Whatever you say, dear." For 30 years, she has had a joint checking account with her husband. Still, she needs to be reassured that "I can write a check, can't I?" She apologizes for having a baby so late in life, even though it "makes me feel young again." When obdurate Harry finally pushes her to the limit, she summons up every bit of courage in her soul and tells him (over the phone) to "go to hell." Then she sits up all night, waiting for him to come home so she can make amends for her inconsiderate outburst.
Harry, however, contemplating the possible sex of his unborn child, thinks nothing of bellowing, "No son of mine is going to be a girl." The lack of logic might be funny, if the rampant sexism of the remark weren't reflected throughout the play. To see "Never Too Late" today is to enter a time warp, and you don't have to be a virulent feminist to sense that some basic values are very much out of kilter.
As a result, I'm not sure what you can do to make the play palatable as an entertainment. Director Carl Schurr has deftly exploited what few occasions there are to turn these creatures into human beings. (Bracken, in fact, has a touching moment in the last act, when he confesses drunkenly that he just doesn't want to be thought the town jester.) The pace is brisk and Schurr has steered his actors clear of the sniggling tone that sometimes accompanies dinner theater revivals of such comedies.
Nonetheless, "Never Too Late" has passed over the bar. Another generation's smash, it is now a sociological document -- proof, if proof be needed, that we have indeed come a long way, baby.