Sometimes in a Great Nation
The latest word from Broadway is, give or take the hyperbole, "Eek!" Suddenly the supposedly recession-proof live entertainment industry of the Great White Way is in a miserable slump. Long-running shows, like The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Sophisticated Ladies, have closed, having run their course, and the product that has come along to replace those long-running warhorses has been thin much of the time.
There are exceptions, of course, like Dreamgirls, which, month after month, plays to standing room only at ticket prices hovering around $50 per. Cats, recently brought to America from London, has sold $8 million worth of tickets, enough to keep it running in Gotham for a decade and a half. At that rate, we may all be dead in the provinces before the show reaches beyond New York.
Increasingly, the shows that succeed in New York and around the country in road-show productions are gargantuan, splashy items—occasionally something new and instantly a super-event, like the aforementioned Dreamgirls, more often something that has been around so long that it has taken on the aura of a classic (as I write this, for example, Richard Kiley is doing his nine-zillionth performance of Man of La Mancha). What seems not to make it in New York, and hence what isn't going to be around long enough to travel throughout America, as Evita is finally traveling, is the kind of show that hasn't much splash about it, that depends for most of its appeal on good writing and intimate situations and the development of character.
Two such shows originated outside New York, one nurtured over a very long time indeed, the other going the more standard route; and one has managed to remain alive in the big city while the other closed within three days of its opening. You may see Foxfire if you get to Manhattan or if—when—it begins to make itself felt in other cities, but chances are you'll never see Almost an Eagle. That the former survived and the latter did not is a puzzlement to me, since both partake, or partook, of similar ingredients.
Foxfire, by Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn, originated from the series of Foxfire books published by Doubleday and made up of the recollections of Appalachian mountaineers as gathered by high school kids. After a long period being honed, refined, and concentrated, Foxfire emerged as one story—that of a widow lady who has not quite accepted her widowhood and of her physical decline, combined with the story of her guitar-strummin' son who has succeeded as a Country & Western entertainer.
Annie Nations is a tough old bird, resourceful and self-reliant and quite content to have crotchety but somewhat pointed conversations with Hector, who we discover has been dead for five years. Their son comes by to visit since he's giving a concert nearby, and a real estate man comes by to try once more to induce Annie to sell her mountain-top property.
The narrative weaves between the present and the past. We see what stuff the elder Nationses are made of and, for once in a story that deals with generational differences, what warmth and unity there is between mother and son. The show is comforting, and it tells of a corner of a great nation in an unassuming way. It has as much of the chic about it as an apple pie. It seems to have taken hold in New York and to have built an audience.
Not so Almost an Eagle, about the leader of a four-boy Boy Scout troop in modern-day Iowa. The colonel, as their leader is called because of his days in the Marines, once headed a troop that really mattered. He is into the bottle now, not too secretly, and hasn't done as much leading as cajoling. His four scouts include the straight arrow, the wise-acre who's much in need of some paternal guidance, the fatty, and the little kid who has no more discipline than a pup. Nothing much happens—happened—in Almost an Eagle except an abortive Memorial Day celebration and the fallout therefrom, but the writing presented us with believable youngsters and with a grizzled veteran who yet retained a touch of his one-time élan.
Eagle touched another small corner of America, not unkindly, not unsympathetically, but with a raw-edged honesty to it that evidently condemned it to the junkheap. Frank Rich of the New York Times, whose review did as much as anything to kill Eagle, wrote of it that it is "also, I guess, an anthem to old-time patriotism, but the lame gags about the boys' adolescent sexuality and alimentary difficulties always come ahead of duty." Somehow the feeling is conveyed in Mr. Rich's review that the old-time patriotism's a crock.
Maybe so, but I think it had much more to offer than the New York reception of it would suggest. Like Foxfire, it pretended little and aimed at a gentle, kindly look at a segment of the American people.
Can there be something about a show like that that can't stand the onslaughts of Manhattan sophisticates and therefore can't get up the steam to carry such items out to the rest of the country? It would make a nice little conspiratorial essay if that were the case, but On Golden Pond did nicely enough even before the movie, and Foxfire is holding steady. Perhaps New York has room for just one of these things in any season. In any case, no grand theorizing about any of this, just a notice to alert you to the existence of Foxfire and to utter a soft RIP for Almost an Eagle.
Contributing Editor David Brudnoy is arts critic for WNEV-TV (CBS) News and WRKO-AM (ABC) in Boston. He hosts a nightly talk program on WRKO, writes regularly for the Boston Herald, and syndicates a thrice-weekly newspaper column. Copyright © 1983 by David Brudnoy.