Review of reviews: Stage

Come Back, Little Sheba

Come Back, Little Sheba

Biltmore Theater, New York

(212) 239-6200

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In the 1950s, playwright William Inge’s name was “linked with those of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller” as important figures of the American stage, said Malcolm Johnson in The Hartford Courant. But since then Inge’s reputation has “fallen from grace” while his contemporaries’ have grown. Inge’s plays are revived only rarely on Broadway; his debut hit, Come Back, Little Sheba, hasn’t been performed there since its original production in 1950. This revival “shows both the playwright’s strengths and weaknesses.” His character portraits of Lola and Doc, a middle-aged man and woman stuck in a loveless marriage and yearning for happier days, still ring true. But his overheated plot comes across as sheer melodrama.

“This revival will do nothing to revive Inge’s flagging reputation,” said Jacques Le Sourd in the Westchester, N.Y., Journal News. All the main roles are miscast “in almost perverse” fashion. Kevin Anderson isn’t nearly old enough for the role of the alcoholic Doc. This character’s age is meant to contrast with the nubile youth of the couple’s flirtatious boarder, Marie, whom Doc transparently lusts after. But the girlish Zoe Kazan, who plays Marie, “hardly seems a girl who would be lucky enough to juggle two lovers, with Doc as an unrequited third party.” The biggest problem with the cast, unfortunately, is S. Epatha Merkerson as Lola. Best known for her role as a police supervisor on TV’s Law & Order, Merkerson usually excels onstage, and “Broadway should welcome her back in practically anything.” But here the forceful actress demeans herself by playing a dowdy, trod-upon housewife who “conducts pathetic flirtations with every man who crosses her threshold.”

In the right hands, Lola can be quite a grand and tragic character, said Linda Winer in Newsday. The part made a star of Shirley Booth, who originated it in the original Broadway production and the 1952 film version. “Booth had a dumpy but girlish fragility as Lola,” which made her sympathetic. Merkerson, try as she might, “simply seems too intelligent and secure to inhabit a woman” as pathetic and shabby as Lola. Perhaps this weak female character, like Inge’s play, is just too outdated to receive a convincing contemporary interpretation.

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