As his sesquipedalian title indicates, actor-author- comedian Shelly Berman has returned to New York to deliver his own particular brand of funnies. Clad in becoming shades of brown and tan, sporting boldly patterned cravats, and shod with dude-ranch cowboy boots, the natty Mr. Berman proves that time has not withered the cutting edge of his routines or staled their delivery.
Long absent from the local scene, he triumphs with aplomb over the disadvantages of the small Bijou Theater -- disadvantages that begin with black-draped stage from which he must strive to make the people laugh.
As usual, the imaginary telephone is Mr. Berman's favorite prop. It is an instrument of noncommunication, frustrations, and despair. He fights a game but hopeless battle against area codes and interior extensions, chats with a babbling child, and (as of yore) attempts to spur the rescue of a woman he has spied hanging from a tenth-floor windowsill. In the best of these telephonic conversations, a Jewish delicatessen store owner responds to his son's plea for of sentiment.
Perhaps the most hilarious of these Berman recitals is what might be called a soapcake opera, a monologue taken from his book, "A Hotel Is Not a Place." It casts him as a guest trying to persuade the maid to stop plying him with those infuriating little packaged slivers so dear to the hearts of hostelry housekeepers. The sketch builds like a verbal animated cartoon.
In the familiar nightclub manner, Mr. Berman cajoles and scolds his audience and responds to such distractions as New York's inevitable fire sirens ("45th Street is a shortcut to every fire in New York," he complained at one point, after a particularly high-decibel klaxon had assaulted his concentration). So Mr. Berman is back, beaming and saturnine -- with a smile at once seraphic and acidulous. In fact, thoroughly Shelly Berman. The Bacchae
Starring Irene Pappas. Tragedy by Euripides. Directed by Michael Cacoyannis.
"The "Bacchae" has launched the Circle in the Square's current season in a revival that comes sporadically to grips with the tragedy's nightmare world and labyrinthine complexities.
"Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad," runs an ancient Greek saying, a version of which is attributed to Euripides. In "The Bacchae," the poet's final tragedy, madness enthralls the women of Thebes and destroys its royal family. The downfall occurs because King Pentheus mistakes the rule of force for true power in his war against Dionysius, god of wine and nature, alternately gentle and cruel.
Dionysius dupes the arrogant but susceptible Pentheus into masquerading as a woman to spy on the Bacchic revels in the grove outside the city. There, Pentheus's demented mother, Agave (Irene Pappas), leads in the ghastly slaughter of her son, whom he imagines to be a lion. Returning to Thebes with the young king's head as a trophy, Agave regains her sanity and grasps the awfulness of what delusion has led to. The royal family of Cadmus is banished from Thebes.
Except for the starkly horrifying recitals well delivered by the Herdsman (Richard Kuss) and the Messenger (Paul Perri), this production achieves its full dramatic weight only in the final scene, when Miss Pappas, as the suddenly appalled and grief-stricken Agave reacts to the enormity of her crime and laments her irreplaceable, self-inflicted loss. The beautiful Miss Pappas endows this passage with the magnificent histrionic force of which she is capable.The scene's fateful implications are heightened by Philip Bosco's performance as Cadmus, Agave's father and Pentheus's grandfather. From the foolish and gullible old man of the first scene, Mr. Bosco's Cadmus progresses to the distraught patriarch who failed to see what is now beyond consolation.
Elsewhere, the performance of Mr. Cacoyannis's straightforward, sometimes eloquent, occasionally comic version runs into considerable problems. John Noah Hertzler lacks the necessary style and authority for the ruler whose bluster and stern suppressiveness are no match for the power and subtlety of Dionysius. Christopher Rich fares somewhat more successfully as the returning stranger who cloaks his supernatural powers in an initial submissiveness and whose delicate manner further infuriates Pentheus.
An interracial train of Asiatic women supplies the Chorus of Bacchae. The ensemble at the Circle in the Square fares better in song and writhing movement than in choral speaking. The cast of principals is completed by Tom Klunis as the threatened Tiresias.
Designer John Conklin has provided a stark setting that combines abstraction and convenient trapdoors with gold- crowned exits (all of the grisly action occurs offstage). Mr. Conklin's costumes range form the scant attire of Dionysius and company to uniforms of leather and richly regal robes. Pat Collins's lighting sheds a subtly changing play of illumination on the dark events. Theodore Antoniou's score is full of percussive beats and otherwordly flutings.
There is no denying the artistry and resource with which Mr. Cacoyannis and company have sought to make this difficult tragedy, with its contemporary implications, meaningful to a latter-day Broadway audience. For too much of the evening, however, the play remains at a distance. With the exceptions noted, the illusion does not sufficiently convey the emotion.