Theater: Donna Murphy Can't Save "The People In The Picture"

It happens every once in a while at the movies or in the theater. The moment it begins, you think, "Uh-oh, this isn't going to work." Here it happens when the peasants of Poland are cavorting about the stage a la Fiddler On The Roof. Oh dear or, more to the point, oy vey.

I would say thank God for the marvelous Donna Murphy who stars in this show and like Mother Courage shoulders the entire burden herself. But even she can't make The People In The Picture a satisfying evening of musical theater. Still, it's easy to see what attracted Murphy -- she gets to age decades on stage from act to act and even moment to moment, she gets to relish the role of a Polish star of Yiddish theater who broke into movies and she gets to fight off the ravages of old age while finding the courage to dredge up painful memories for her granddaughter. The challenges such a journey present are even greater when the book by Iris Rainer Dart and the songs primarily by Mike Stoller and Artie Butler with Dart are so awkward and uninvolving.

Murphy plays Bubbie, an old woman who lives with her daughter Red (Nicole Parker) and nominally takes care of her granddaughter Jenny (Rachel Resheff). As such things often transpire, it's now Jenny taking care of Bubbie. The little girl doesn't mind, since she soaks up Bubbie's stories of pre-war Poland and the Yiddish theater. Jenny can see the ghosts of Bubbie's old friends and lovers who crowd around whenever Bubbie launches into one of her tales. The remarkably humorless Red -- who rather astonishingly is supposed to be a TV comedy writer -- wants to put Bubbie into a home before the old woman hurts herself or someone else.

It's not the craziest of ideas since Bubbie is increasingly forgetful, can't even recognize their home when she's standing in front of it, leaves things boiling on the stove, is overwhelmed with painful memories and is generally a tragic accident waiting to happen.

Nonetheless, Red's decision is meant to be seen as heartless and the show builds to the revelation about what might have driven a wedge between mother and daughter. The answer -- and this is not a spoiler - is that Bubbie sacrificed everything to save her child. Yes, that's what is somehow supposed to have embittered Red, a "revelation" that makes you want to slap the woman into her senses for being so ungrateful. Seriously.

Yes, the actual situation sketched out in the show would be handled quite differently today. But it was the war, kiddo, and people felt differently back then. Cut your mother some slack.

All of this contemporary action is interspersed with comic days on the circuit and the harrowing Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in which so many men and women and children were killed outright or starved to death. This show being what it is, the Nazi rise to power is condensed into a few anti-Semitic slurs and one woman apologizing for "all this insanity" or some such thing. Deep, it isn't. The songs do not step in to save the day, virtually all of them being forgettable and -- equally depressingly -- rarely giving Murphy's great instrument a chance to shine on its own.

The set is a bland affair. Yes, The People In The Picture features a rather boldly massive giant picture frame that leans over the entire stage and out towards the audience. It seemed promising before the show began. But it just sits there and even more picture frames are raised and lowered at various points, giving an all too plodding reality to a title that wasn't very good to begin with. None of the cast is too blame but none can be singled out, either. Out of focus. Underdeveloped. Choose your own picture metaphor. I'm afraid they all apply.

THE 2010-2011 THEATER SEASON (ratings on a four star system)

Angels in America revival at Signature *** out of ****
Anything Goes ** 1/2
Arcadia with Billy Crudup *** 1/2
Baby It's You * 1/2
Being Harold Pinter ** 1/2
Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo **
Between Worlds/Entre Mundos * 1/2
Beautiful Burnout at St. Ann's Warehouse **
Blood From A Stone ** 1/2
Born Yesterday ***
The Broadway Musicals Of 1921 at Town Hall ***
Cactus Flower *
Carson McCullers Talks About Love with Suzanne Vega * 1/2
Catch Me If You Can *** 1/2
Devil Boys From Beyond **
The Diary Of A Madman with Geoffrey Rush at BAM ***
Die Walkure at the Met with Deborah Voigt ***
The Divine Sister *** 1/2
Double Falsehood **
The Dream Of The Burning Boy ** 1/2
Driving Miss Daisy **
Elf *
Elling **
A Free Man Of Color ** 1/2
Gatz ***
Ghetto Klown ***
Good People with Frances McDormand **
The Grand Manner **
The Great Game ***
Gruesome Playground Injuries ***
The Hallway Trilogy: Nursing **
The Hallway Trilogy: Paraffin ***
The Hallway Trilogy: Rose ***
The House Of Blue Leaves with Ben Stiller and Edie Falco * 1/2
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying ***
The Importance Of Being Earnest ** 1/2
The Interminable Suicide Of Gregory Church *** 1/2
Jerusalem ***
John Gabriel Borkman * 1/2
King Lear with Derek Jacobi at BAM ***
La Bete ** 1/2
Les Miserables ***
Lombardi **
Macbeth with John Douglas Thompson **
The Merchant Of Venice *** 1/2
Middletown ***
Mike Birbiglia's My Girlfriend's Boyfriend ***
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore *
Mistakes Were Made ** 1/2
The Motherf**ker With The Hat ***
Nixon In China *** 1/2
The New York Idea **
The Nightingale and Other Short Fables at BAM ***
The Normal Heart ***
Other Desert Cities **
Our Town with Helen Hunt ***
The Pee-wee Herman Show ***
Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert: The Musical * 1/2
The Road To Qatar *
Room ***
The People In The Picture *
The School For Lies with Mamie Gummer and Hamish Linklater at CSC ****
The Scottsboro Boys ****
Sister Act **
Sleep No More *** 1/2
Small Craft Warnings zero stars
Three Sisters (w Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard) *** 1/2
Timon Of Athens at Public with Richard Thomas ***
War Horse ***
We're Gonna Die ***
The Whipping Man **
Wings **
Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown **
Wonderland *

Blood Ties ***
Fellowship * 1/2
Fingers and Toes ** 1/2
Frog Kiss *** 1/2
The Great Unknown ** 1/2
Nighttime Traffic **
Our Country *
PopArt *
Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical ** 1/2
Show Choir **
Tess: The New Musical **
Trav'lin' ***
Without You *** 1/2

*****
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.

Note: Michael Giltz was provided with tickets to this show with the understanding that he would be writing a review.