Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sweet Charity

We watched a music-and-dance oriented play last night: Sweet Charity. According to the program notes, it was written and first performed in 1966.

Kind of amazing to me. I didn't realize they had places like this back in the '60s: The lead character, Charity Hope Valentine works in a "dance club"--what I believe is known today as a "gentleman's club"--a euphemism for a place where women dance, in various states of undress, in order to get money from male clients. If a man is willing to pay extra, apparently, the woman is supposed to be willing to offer "additional services," never clearly defined, but definitely not of a character that either male client or female employee would normally be proud to speak of in polite society.

Charity is a hopelessly naive romantic in an industry where no one remains naive or romantic past the first night of work. But, despite having been burned many times, Charity keeps believing that "this" man--whoever he is--really means her well.

The musical begins as Charity is ripped-off by the man she is sure is going to marry her. Walking along the waterfront one night, he pushes her in the water as he snatches her purse, then runs away. She returns to the club seeking to protect her mental and emotional equilibrium--and her dignity before all her more cynical co-workers--by concocting an impossible story about how she had tripped in the water, and her fiance had actually tried to save her. . . .

I don't want to go into many more details. She eventually meets a man, Oscar Lindquist, who has no idea concerning the kind of work she does. He is, himself, a respected and respectable member of society, a tax accountant. Yet he suffers certain paralyzing mental conditions, most notably, claustrophobia. In by far the highlight scene of the entire play (where the two of them meet and are then stuck, just the two of them, for a lengthy time between floors in an elevator), Charity is able to talk Oscar through his extreme discomfort.

Now, suddenly, the stronger member of a male-female partnership, Charity seems able to form a true friendship with Oscar. Eventually, Oscar has the opportunity to return Charity's favor when they find themselves stuck in mid-air on a Ferris wheel.

One senses the mutual respect between the two characters. One hopes for and all but "knows" where the play is heading. And it heads right where one hopes: there is to be redemption, after all, for all parties concerned.

Except. . . . Except. . . . At the last moment, the night before their wedding is to take place, in the same spot where the play began--in the park by the lake--Oscar tells Charity that he can't handle the thought of her past life with all the "other" men; he can't go through with the wedding.

And so Charity's dreams are dashed once more. Ironically, money plays a role in the last scene every bit as much as it did in the first: Oscar announces his intentions (or, rather, lack of intentions) just after Charity has told him she has transferred her life's savings to a joint account with him.

I was astonished how a play that had held so much hope, so much joy-- . . .in those last couple of minutes suddenly turned dark and nasty. Sarita has had nothing good to say about it. I, myself, found it depressing. (I am tempted to say "extremely depressing," but I will leave it at "depressing.")

All the joy, the pathos, the mini-ironies of self-discovery that had pleased us so much in the run-up to the expected wedding: suddenly they were dashed on the shoals of this "one more" failed relationship.

We sat stunned in disbelief as Charity walked off stage for the last time declaring, I believe (I cannot be sure I heard accurately; my mind was numb with the shock of what was occurring onstage) . . . I believe Charity walked off stage declaring that she would carry on, undaunted.

I don't think I would be so equanimous.


Funny. I had intended to make this post about Guy Adkins, the man who played Oscar. His physical humor in the elevator was beyond almost anything I can remember. I don't know whether he is or has been a professional contortionist, but I could believe he must have been one at one time. The contorted positions into which he tied his body as he demonstrated physically what a person must feel on the inside while suffering an extreme bout of claustrophobia: absolutely hilarious.

Mr. Adkins, in my opinion, was the only real standout in the cast. He strongly outshone the lead, Molly Ringwald, whose singing and dancing seemed, by contrast, lacking in flair or fluidity.

Strange, then, when it came to the final opportunity for applause: the applause for both actors was indistinguishable. But then, I imagine, the emotional impact of the final scene was so heavy upon us, the audience was unable to sustain great applause for anyone in the production: when all was said and done, at least for that moment, we were unable to separate Mr. Adkins, the actor, from Lindquist, the part that he played and whose character, in the end, proved flawed in a way that none of us wanted to accept.
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