Twain's boys meet again as grown-ups

The Boys in Autumn Play by Bernard Sabath. Directed by Theodore Mann. Starring George C. Scott, John Cullum. George C. Scott and John Cullum do their best to enliven the imaginary reunion dreamed up by Bernard Sabath in ``The Boys in Autumn,'' at the Broadway Circle in the Square Theatre. The resourceful veterans portray a pair of legendary literary characters advanced for the occasion to middle age. A program note explains the 1920s encounter of Mark Twain's Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as follows:

``Once upon a time, Huck and Tom rafted the Mississippi, explored the woods and cut capers at midnight on the bluffs above the river. Summers were carefree, endless. Once upon a time many autumns later, after separate travels and adventures, they met again.''

According to ``The Boys in Autumn,'' the summers have never been so carefree since the youthful parting. Mr. Sabath periodically summons the ghosts of Becky Thatcher, Aunt Polly, Jim, and others -- with here and there a nostalgic quote from Mark Twain himself -- to remember things past. Otherwise, ``The Boys in Autumn'' busies itself with Sabath speculations. Throughout much of the first act, Huck (now calling himself Henry Finnegan) fends off the intruding Tom (who has rechristened himself Thomas Gray). The cause of Huck's hostility emerges as the two men wage the verbal duels that take the place of their make-believe boyhood sword fights.

According to Sabath, Huck didn't ``light out for the territory'' to escape the threat that Aunt Sally might adopt and ``sivilize'' him. Instead he ``sivilized'' himself, got a college education, ran the local hardware store, married, and became a Coolidge Republican of the 1920s. Tom went into show business as a small-time vaudevillian and toured the provinces with a female partner, who has since left him. Both men harbor secrets, which Sabath reveals as the two oldsters reminisce, quarrel, and reconcile.

To the extent possible, the stars enrich the autumnal riverside meeting with their own sense of humorous relish. Mr. Scott's gravelly voice and initially truculent manner yield to mellowness, as the reclusive Huck gradually admits recognizing his ``friend of long ago.'' But it requires all the determination, corny gags, and showmanly wiles of Mr. Cullum's Tom to break down the barriers and reestablish the comradely bond. In the end, ``The Boys in Autumn'' never reaches beyond the level of an extended sketch.

The Circle in the Square production, staged by Theodore Mann, has been picturesquely served by designer Michael Miller's set -- clapboard house exterior, grassy riverside bluff, and Tom's Model T Ford -- with lighting by Richard Nelson and costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser. Williams & Walker A musical entertainment by Vincent D. Smith. Directed by Shauneille Perry.

Beginning its run at the American Place Theatre with a limited schedule, ``Williams & Walker'' has settled down to the standard eight performances a week. Everything else about the show is exceptional. Vincent D. Smith's ``musical entertainment'' salutes the careers of black entertainers Bert Williams and George Walker, whose 15-year partnership ended in 1909, when Walker retired because of illness. He passed on in 1911. As a solo performer, Williams continued to gain in popularity. Among other productions, he appeared in eight editions of the Ziegfeld Follies and was described by Theatre Magazine as ``a vastly funnier man than any white comedian now on the American stage.''

The irony that this great comic artist was required to perform in blackface (the standard makeup for black comedians at the time) is not lost on playwright Vincent B. Smith. Nor is the brighter side of the coin -- the skills that brought him unparalleled popularity with the theatergoing public. Ben Harney's extraordinarily graceful, rich, and sensitive performance creates for latter-day audiences a believable portrait of one of the 20th-century American theater's legendary funny men.

``Williams & Walker'' begins backstage at the Majestic Theatre in 1910, the year Williams made his Follies debut and became the first black performer to star on Broadway. Wiping off his black makeup -- the wearing of which is ``my decision, not my preference'' -- he begins telling the audience about the West Indian lad who moved with his family to California, managed a year at university, and landed in show business via the circus.

The biographical treatment counterpoints Williams's professional progress as a public entertainer against the private ordeal of a performing artist relegated to the clown's role. ``If I had to play the shuffling buffoon, I would try to make him a character with real feelings,'' says Williams at one point in the play.

At the same time, ``Williams & Walker'' meets its obligations as popular entertainment. The musical pleasures extend from the Scott Joplin ragtime overture, played by the indispensable duo of pianist Neal Tate and percussionist Joe Marshall, to the high-stepping ``Chocolate Drop'' cakewalk, by Will Marion Cook, that climaxes the song-and-dance performance. Along the way, Williams & Walker (Vondie Curtis-Hall) -- soloing or as partners -- evoke a marvelous period of American musical theater.

Mr. Harney's performance of ``Nobody,'' Williams's signature song, highlights the entertainment. But there are also the delights of such numbers as ``Bon Bon Buddy,'' ``Somebody Stole My Gal,'' ``Everybody Wants to See the Baby,'' ``Save Your Money John,'' ``I May Be Crazy but I Ain't No Fool,'' and ``I'd Rather Have Nothin' All of the Time Than Somethin' for a Little While'' (a Walker solo).

In keeping with their tradition, most of the numbers are comic musical sketches and are performed with finesse by Messrs. Harney and Curtis-Hall under Shauneille Perry's admirable direction. With Ron Metcalf as musical director, Lenwood Sloan as choreographer, Marc D. Malamud as lighting and set designer, and Judy Dearing as costumer, ``Williams and Walker'' proves to be a lively musical entertainment that is also a fascinating slice of theatrical history.

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