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STAGE REVIEW : Broadway’s ‘Nick & Nora’ Doggone Bad

NEWSDAY

A murder. A marriage. A musical.

So goes the ad copy for “Nick & Nora,” which finally opened at the Marquis Theatre last night to reveal the rest of the description: No miracles. A mess.

Despite a cast of Broadway favorites, a creative team of proven veterans, a ready-made collection of beloved characters, and almost nine weeks of previews, the $4.3-million musical based on Dashiell Hammett’s “Thin Man” is doggedly--sorry, Asta--long, flat and boring.

This is not one of those disgraceful failures from which Broadway legends are made, but merely a show that fails to happen. Most of whatever fun there is comes from the accumulated goodwill we bring along for Nick and Nora Charles, those elegant charmers who’ve been solv ing mysteries between martinis through years of novels, movies and TV.

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One sits rooting for them (and for the valiant Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason, who play them), hoping writer-director Arthur Laurents will tighten the strings that might pull the attenuated patchwork of scattered energies into something jaunty and stylish--or, at least, something with a little chemistry, tension and shape.

There are moments, but mostly they slip away--as do the bits of scenery in Douglas W. Schmidt’s glamorous but skimpy L.A. sets, and the bits of plot that clunk along in Laurents’ busy but disjointed story, and the bits of the Charles Strouse-Richard Maltby Jr. faceless ‘30s score, which seem more like bridges to songs than songs themselves.

Laurents, who wrote and directed “Gypsy” and staged “La Cage aux Folles,” is going for fast-talking, snappy socialite-gumshoe style here, which means people say “darling” and “swell” and wear a lot of hats. But they also strain at lame running gags: a cop named Wolfe is always called “Wolf with an E,” Nora is supposed to be sophisticated yet says “shutter” when she means “slammer”; and a Mexican showgirl (poor Yvette Lawrence) goes through enough humiliating “ay-yai-yai-ing!” and “coconut” shaking to merit a South-of-the-Border feminist rebellion.

There are, however, self-conscious attempts at sexual politics. Nora has been recruited to solve a murder by her old college pal, Tracy (Christine Baranski), a movie star whose director has been blamed for the crime. “Men are such poops!” these women say, often, as Nora tries to establish her sleuthing independence from Nick--who, in lieu of genuine plot twists, is suddenly required to start exaggerating the importance of his Greek working-class background and throwing in a short-lived, irrelevant curveball about marital discord.

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Nick and Nora seldom talk to each other without also dancing, and, since Bostwick and Gleason don’t seem especially drawn to each other and aren’t fabulous ballroom dancers, impatience soon waltzes in. But, then, there are all those flashbacks, different versions of how the mousy bookkeeper-turned-femme-fatale-turned-coke-snorting lesbian (the sweetly off-beat Faith Prince) was shot in her Laurel Canyon house.

Who, oh, who could have done her in? There’s the director (Remak Ramsay), basically reduced to saying “I’m German, I’m Jewish and I’m a director,” over and over. There’s the gangster union boss (Chris Sarandon), who has a mansion on Mulholland Drive but seems awfully declasse to attract Nora with a song called “Class.” There’s the pious Boston wife (the always-welcome Debra Monk) of the philandering banker-producer (Kip Niven), and Spider the lookout (Jeff Brooks), and Yukido, the offensively stereotyped Japanese houseboy (Thom Sesma) and, perhaps most confidently, Lt. Wolfe with an E (Michael Lombard), a cop with a shoe fetish.

Tired yet? These characters and their one-note identities drift in and out through the hotel bungalows, villas, studios, nightclubs--but despite some radiant Day-Glo L.A. sunsets, Theoni V. Aldredge’s elegant costumes and a “Chorus Line” homage with homburgs instead of top hats, nobody makes much impact at all.

What there is comes mostly from Gleason, a lovely, witty actress who seems to be doing a pretty good Claudette Colbert as Nora. Bostwick is a smoothie, but seems a bit anesthetized by having so little to do. Baranski is not altogether believable as the glamorous, androgynous star, but she’s such an unusual, intelligent comedian that there’s always something to watch.

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Laurents goes in for plenty of L.A.-bashing, not to mention the man-bashing and the L.A.-man-bashing. “Hollywood, city of informers,” is said more than once, for no apparent reason. For all the publicity about Asta (a terrier named Riley), the pooch isn’t onstage much and is kept on a short leash. No Sandy, Riley’s big tricks are walking and resting his chin on the furniture--but he does them with conviction. And, when Baranski sings “Everybody Wants to Do a Musical,” we suspect everybody, right now, does not.


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