Two Ill-Begotten Plays Sink Fast on Broadway

'On the Waterfront' closes after eight shows; 'My Thing of Love' takes bitterness too far

In a furious quest to get in under the wire and open just before the Tony Awards eligibility deadline, two plays arrived on Broadway last week amid much chaos, and one of them closed yesterday: ''On the Waterfront,'' Budd Schulberg's adaptation of his own classic screenplay, and ''My Thing of Love,'' a new play by Alexandra Gersten starring Laurie Metcalf.

In its final weeks of previews, ''Waterfront'' lost its original director and one of its stars, delayed its opening, and saw one of its cast members become ill onstage; ''My Thing of Love'' lost its director and two of its performers. We won't know until today, when the Tony nominations are announced, whether the tumult was worth it, but it seems unlikely.

On the Waterfront

At the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

'Waterfront,'' you'll recall, is the story of Terry Malloy, a longshoreman working the New York docks in the 1950s who becomes embroiled in a local priest's efforts to expose mob corruption. His relationship with the sister of one of the men whose murder he unwittingly helped engineer further complicates his turmoil.

The 1954 film, starring Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, and Lee J. Cobb, is a certified classic. One would think that, in adapting it for the stage, the creators would have had some new slant on the material, some important reinterpretation to justify its existence.

It's not that the material does not lend itself to the stage; in fact, Schulberg originally conceived it as a play, and it is a tightly constructed story told with force and power. But the fact remains that the film's images, and especially its performances, are burned indelibly in our memory, and the stage adaptation only suffered by comparison.

The capable actors gave competent performances, but it was a no-win situation. Ron Eldard did a good job as Malloy, and managed to provide new inflections to the ''I coulda been a contenda'' speech that, for contemporary actors, ranks right alongside Hamlet's soliloquy.

The always electrifying Kevin Conway provided some sparks as the mob boss Johnny Friendly. Less effective were Penelope Ann Miller (in the Eva Marie Saint role) and David Morse, who lacked the vital charisma that would have made credible a lone priest facing down mobs of tough longshoremen.

Adrian Hall staged the work with assurance, and Eugene Lee's stark, industrial set -- filled with huge, loudly clanging metal walls -- provided the proper forbidding atmosphere. ''On the Waterfront'' was an engrossing melodrama, but for audiences who had seen the film, it was a case of expectations and memories getting in the way.

My Thing of Love

At the Martin Beck Theatre.

Expectations also don't help ''My Thing of Love.'' Laurie Metcalf, who years ago established herself as a superb stage actress, has had a huge success playing Roseanne's sister, Jackie, in the hit TV series ''Roseanne.''

That show often comically depicts the less-attractive aspects of married life, and its stars even participated in television commercials for this play. So audiences will probably come expecting something like a sitcom (the cutesy graphics in the ad may support that impression).

What they get instead is a very dark, somewhat absurdist look at a failing marriage, in which the husband, Jack (played by Tom Irwin, the father in the acclaimed TV series ''My So-Called Life''), is having an affair with a younger woman, Kelly (Jane Fleiss).

In the first act, Jack's wife, Elly (Metcalf), confronts him with her knowledge of his behavior. He barely bothers to deny it; instead, he launches into a long bitter confession about how lost he feels in his life. He battles every day, he says, with his electric shaver in the morning, and can barely stand commuting to work. Elly's response: ''Stop shaving.'' That pretty much sets the tone for the encounters that follow.

Elly and Jack go on uneasily with their marriage (they have two young children), but Jack doesn't end his affair. In fact, Kelly pays a visit to Elly, who, as you might imagine, greets her in less-than-welcoming fashion.

Their encounter is interrupted by a visit from a school guidance counselor, who proceeds to regale Elly, in bizarre fashion, with various childlike songs and dances (Metcalf's slow, incredulous reaction to this is classic). Later, in Act II, we see Jack and Kelly in bed together. They wake up the next morning to discover Elly sitting in a chair looking at them.

''My Thing of Love'' tries to blend bitter comedy with a serious look at the pain of an unfulfilling marriage. But in trying to walk that fine line, it falls off repeatedly. The comedy is simply too bizarre and the drama too unstructured to work, and the play and its staging are mostly a mess. It is a mess, however, that at least has some serious feeling behind it and some moments that are both genuinely funny and recognizably human. The actors struggle hard with the material.

Metcalf's frenetic energy and amazing line readings give the play whatever energy it has. ''My Thing of Love'' probably won't last long on Broadway, and it's a shame, because this is where actresses like Metcalf belong.

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