THE FLOWERING PEACH. Play by Clifford Odets. Directed by Martin Charnin. Starring Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. At the Lyceum Theatre through April 24.
TONY RANDALL'S National Actors Theatre continues its penchant for offbeat programming with a theatrical exhumation of Clifford Odets's last play (1954), ``The Flowering Peach.''
It may be that this production proves to be of little interest to the public, but anyone seriously interested in theater will not pass up this rare chance to see it.
The work is probably best known for its 1970 Richard Rodgers musical adaptation, ``Two by Two,'' a minor hit starring Danny Kaye. (The director of this production, Martin Charnin, wrote the lyrics.)
It tells the story of Noah and the building of the ark, reducing the Biblical legend to the level of a family comedy-drama. It is a true oddity of a play, and this production will hardly cause anyone to consider it a lost masterpiece. Well-received upon its initial production, even a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the play now seems little more than a curiosity.
The husband-and-wife team of Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson make a welcome return to Broadway, starring as Noah and his wife, Esther.
When the play begins, Noah has just received his message from God, instructing him to build the ark. Naturally, this causes his family great consternation. His sons Japheth (David Aaron Baker), Shem (Josh Mostel), and Ham (Steve Hofvendahl) think that Noah has lost his mind. But they become convinced when thousands of animals, in neat pairs, start congregating in their fields.
Besides the difficult logistics involved in getting an ark built and launched in time to escape the flood, there are also family difficulties. Japheth is opposed to the plan - to the point where he has to be knocked unconscious by Noah and placed on the ark. He is also in love with Ham's wife, Rachel (Joanna Going). But not to worry: Ham falls in love with Goldie (Molly Scott), the exotic dancer who saves his life and who winds up on the ark. Shem, meanwhile, is most concerned with how to exploit the ark for its fullest business advantage.
Noah has been youthfully replenished for his task. (To convey this, Eli Wallach, who began the play with flowing white hair and beard, resumes his normal, healthful appearance). But even he does not have the energy to cope with his family's emotional demands. He is soon reduced to glowering and blustery ranting, becoming a sort of Biblical Ralph Kramden. His spirits are not helped by the weakening health of Esther, who doesn't survive the voyage.
The most moving segment of the play occurs at the end, when the ark finally lands and the first tree, the flowering peach of the title, is planted. Noah asks God for a guarantee that he will never again destroy the world, and in return is granted a rainbow as a covenant.
Odets is presumably attempting to stress the universality of the human condition through his blandly domestic retelling of these events. But the effect is less to universalize the situation than to trivialize it.
The writing, with Jewish inflections, is mundane, lacking any sense of poetry. Nor is it witty enough to work as a comic variation of the story. The effect is like a padded sketch, and one can see how a composer such as Richard Rodgers would have been tempted to add songs to the mix.
Martin Charnin's direction does what it can with the text, although there are some clumsy touches, and some effects, such as the climactic rainbow, that register with barely any impact.
It is, as usual, a pleasure to see Wallach and Jackson. Both deliver vibrant performances, with Wallach giving the role the charisma it needs and Jackson being particularly charming as a woman pressed between the needs of her husband, her children, and God.
The modest physical production seems appropriate, considering that the biggest accomplishment onstage is simply having this play reappear on Broadway.
One has to admire the bravery inherent in putting on plays such as this one, or the recent staging of Shakespeare's rarely seen ``Timon of Athens.''
Unlike the bloated musical revivals that reappear with often discouraging regularity, the reappearance of a play such as ``The Flowering Peach,'' flawed though it may be, reaffirms our connection with the theatrical past.