There’s a scene in director Fritz Lang’s noir-ish 1952 drama, Clash By Night, where an unsophisticated fisherman played by Paul Douglas, attempts to impress Barbara Stanwyck by asking Robert Ryan, a dirtbag film projectionist, to do his “Chinese imitation.” Happy to oblige, Ryan pulls his eyes back into a slant with his fingers and begins to babble in some broad approximation of a Chinese dialect. Douglas chortles uncontrollably, pounding the table with his hand, it hurts so good. Stanwyck raises an eyebrow and shrugs, unimpressed. This is her lot in life now. Social pressure will force this worldly, restless, occasionally poison woman (who writes this stuff?), to choose between Ryan, the rugged but repellent jerk who wants to stick pins in his absentee wife, and Douglas, the big, sturdy lug stupid enough to think his friend’s unfettered racism is goddamn hilarious. This is 1952, mind you. WWII was a recent memory, the Korean war was raging, and anti-Asian propaganda was inseparable from pop culture. Four years later, Marlon Brando will squint his way through Teahouse of the August Moon, and 9 years later Mickey Rooney will bare his buck teeth as Mr.Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But even in ‘52, when pan-Asian racism was relatively normal, even encouraged, this brief exchange between Ryan and Douglas was all it took to convey the essence of American life at the crossroads of misogyny, meanness and hayseed provincialism.
It’s not "politically correct" to call out comic bits that are wholly dependent on racial coding and broad stereotypes. It’s merely correct. And in 2015, theaters choosing to produce vintage shows with intrinsically racist content need to develop strategies for working with and around said content. Like, for instance, the Chinese-impersonation gag in Anything Goes, currently running at Theatre Memphis. Watching the east Memphis playhouse’s lukewarm production of this American standard, I felt a little like Babs Stanwyck in Clash by Night. Theatre Memphis stood in for Paul Douglas, and did a fine job of playing the sturdy, well-intentioned suitor wanting nothing more than to show me a good time! And oh, baby, with its hot as hell score by Cole Porter, and a frivolous, lighter than champagne bubbles script, Anything Goes is a delectable sexy-ass beast on par with Robert Ryan shirtless, slathered in Crisco. But, as the above scene suggests, that shit was ugly in 1952, and by now we should know better. We should do better.
I’m happy to report that there are many talented performers in TM’s Anything Goes. But only a handful of characters ever make it all the way to the stage. James Dale Green makes a fine Monopoly Man, hoping to seduce Ann Sharp. Likewise, in a role custom fit, the accomplished Sharp gives a top drawer performance as the show’s dotty Market Crash widow.
As the ineffective gangster (public enemy #13) Moonface Martin, the great Barry Fuller has perpetrated an accidental act of terrible cruelty. He’s gone off and crafted a not-to-be-missed performance in the midst of a show that people with options might consider skipping. And although I think she’s miscast as the worldly evangelist turned nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, musical theater powerhouse Whitney Branan very nearly pulls it all off. Beyond that, things get dicey. Even the usually reliable songbird and character actor Emily F. Chateau only manages one singularly grating dimension, as a shrill gun moll making her getaway.
Did I mention that I fell in love a little? Probably not, but I should. Porter’s “Friendship,” is an underrated masterpiece of rhyming meta-pop whimsey, and Fuller and Branan make a little magic when they sing it together. This sly, easygoing number showcases everything Fuller does best. And given an opportunity to slow down and connect with a co-star, Branan gives us a taste of the richly-imagined Reno Sweeney that might have been. In the parlance of the show, the dame’s pretty fabulous.
Speaking of fabulous, there’s also a spectacular tap number. And boy do all those gold sequins sparkle. And… and that’s all I’ve got. None of the main characters connect, which means a goodly number of jokes don’t connect either. With notable exceptions they fly by sans set up, sans follow through, sans teeth, sans everything. Everything, except, of course, great songs. You may want to go ahead and click here too.
It's been said (and said, and said...), comedy is all in the timing. This Anything Goes stands as a fine and finely paradoxical proof. It’s a slow slogging two-and-a-half hour musical stuck in perpetual fast-forward. In this environment, less desirable things stand out.
TM's Anything Goes isn't all bad. But it's not especially good either. And the "yellow face" aspect made me physically cringe. It colors everything else that happens in a farce that, as the title suggests, should be pulling out the stops in the name of good fun. People will disagree, of course, even though I'm hardly the first person to flag the problem. They’ll say I’m too PC. Some will dismiss the very idea that naked racism might be embedded in a wholesome American classic that’s been performed by high school theater departments across this great, not even a little bit racist land. They might bring up canonical (but socially progressive) texts like Huckleberry Finn, or gird their arguments with talk of changing sensibilities, as if the antique content and the production vessel it currently inhabits, were somehow interchangeable. But c'mon, folks. This isn't complicated.
Let's be clear. What I’m describing isn't sympathetic non-traditional casting. Nor is this in any way comparable to The (still controversial) Scottsboro Boys, which uses extreme racial stereotypes to contextualize historic racism. It’s straightforward race-based minstrelsy created for the sole purpose of giving comic actors a chance to do their best Robert Ryan.