Two Composers, One Curmudgeon Off-Broadway

THE HELIOTROPE BOUQUET BY SCOTT JOPLIN & LOUIS CHAUVIN Written by Eric Overmeyer. Directed by Joe Morton. At Playwrights.

WRONG TURN AT LUNGFISH By Garry Marshall and Lowell Ganz. Directed by Mr. Marshall. At the Promenade Theatre.

PLAYWRIGHT Eric Overmyer has been justly acclaimed for his theatrical imagination and for his dazzling language in such works as "On the Verge..." and "In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe," but he lets these qualities get away from him in his newest play. It's about the brief collaboration between Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin.

Joplin, of course, was the celebrated black composer who put ragtime on the map. Chauvin was an obscure composer and pianist who died at age 26, but who gained immortality through his work with Joplin on a single piece, "The Heliotrope Bouquet." Little is known of this incident in musical history, but it is certainly an intriguing subject for dramatization.

Unfortunately, Mr. Overmyer's penchant for stylization and verbosity get in the way of the story. The piece is a dreamy meditation, told from Joplin's view. It jumps back and forth in time from 1917, when the composer was ill and living in obscurity with his second wife, to a dozen years earlier in St. Louis. These scenes, depicting the raucous atmosphere of the time and detailing the rivalry and eventual collaboration between the two men, are overdone, fragmented vignettes that are often confusing.

It is only when the playwright simplifies his approach that he finds the emotions of his story. The ailing Joplin's encounter with a cleaning girl, in which he attempts to impress her with a failed attempt at playing the piano; the scene in which Joplin and Chauvin create their music - these resonate with a force lacking in the rest of the play.

Compounding the difficulty is the over-stylized set design by Richard Hoover, which uses as its motif a surrealistic representation of an exploded piano. The small stage at Playwrights Horizons can't handle the clutter, and there is not enough room for Louis Johnson's choreography either.

Delroy Lindo, a powerful presence as the Harlem mob boss in Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," is a moving and dissipated figure as Joplin, and Duane Boutte, as Chauvin, offers a powerful portrait of a talented man undone by overindulgence.

Actor Joe Morton, making his New York directorial debut, does a good job of re-creating the ragtime period and guiding the on-stage traffic, but his efforts are defeated by the murkiness of the text. Pianist Terry Waldo provides beautiful examples of Joplin's musical brilliance.

`Wrong Turn at Lungfish,' the somewhat lame new play by Hollywood veterans Garry Marshall and Lowell Ganz, is improved by George C. Scott.

As he has aged, Mr. Scott has become a wonderful curmudgeon. Although one misses the hard-as-steel presence from such films as "Patton," it is a pleasure to report that he has not lost his bombast or bluster.

The best Mr. Ganz and Mr. Marshall can come up with here is a cliched Pygmalion story about the relationship between Ravenswaal (Scott), an irascible, blind, dying college dean, and the streetwise woman, Anita (Jami Gertz), who reads to him.

The title refers to one of Ravenswaal's musings about man being a mishap along the evolutionary trail, and primary evidence for that is supplied in the person of Anita's boyfriend Dominic (Tony Danza), a comical but menacing thug who shows up to cause havoc in the second half. The chief thrust of the play concerns the growing affection between Ravenswaal and Anita, with Ravenswaal learning to confront his feelings and finding the emotional resources to face his situation and Anita valuing herself to the point where she no longer feels bound to Dominic.

Unfortunately, despite a profusion of undeniably snappy one-liners, the writing never rises above the predictable. The only surprise is provided by Mr. Danza's hood, who starts out as the usual comic buffoon but who also turns out to have a strong streak of cruelty, giving the second half of the play some edge.

Scott glowers magnificently, and his presence, especially in such a small theater, gives the play some weight. Ms. Gertz does not rise above her stereotypical role, while Mr. Danza, who has had a successful TV career as a nice guy ("Taxi," "Who's the Boss?"), works effectively against type.

"Wrong Turn at Lungfish" is the kind of innocuous comedy that was done routinely on Broadway years ago; now, even with its high-voltage star cast, it is playing Off-Broadway. Where it really belongs is on the small screen.

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