Clever Little Lies (Westside Theatre – NYC)

I remember hearing Jack Lemmon discuss his part in the classic Billy Wilder film Some Like It Hot, divulging that a core ingredient of the best comedies is an element of deceit, some facade just waiting to unravel. The time between when the lie begins and it falls apart is fertile ground for all kinds of funny things to happen, the suspense of waiting for the moment when “the jig is up” adding to the effect. Joe DiPietro’s Clever Little Lies, in its final week at the Westside Theatre after opening last fall, takes infidelity, one of the most tried and true wells for comedy (see the sitcom “Friends” and Ross and Rachel’s “we were on a break!” argument that was a running gag for years), and pairs it with former “That Girl” Marlo Thomas and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” lead Greg Mullavey to mine the rather sordid subject for laughs and uncomfortable situations.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Clever Little Lies begins after a game of tennis between father and son in a locker room where Billy confides to his father Bill about an affair that he is having with a personal trainer. Billy, who is married to Jane and has an infant child, swears his father to secrecy, but it doesn’t take long for Alice, Bill’s wife, to sense that something is wrong. Alice takes it upon herself to invite her son and daughter-in-law over to confront the issue, and what ensues is a night of revelations that leave everyone surprised. It turns out that the “lies” of the title are neither “little” nor “clever” after all.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Marlo Thomas plays Alice with a light touch, enjoyably sneaky as she butts in on problems within her son’s marriage but sly enough to get away with most anything. Ms. Thomas knows how to play this material to land every laugh, and the play comes alive only upon her entrance in the second scene when she grills her husband to extract information about her son, knowing full well that he promised not to say anything. She bypasses this by throwing out all kinds of guesses, quickly followed by, “Don’t say anything if I’m right!” Ms. Thomas turns a character who could be quite a harpy and unlikable into the kind of quick-witted matriarch anyone would be fortunate to have on their team, insidious as she may be.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Greg Mullavey plays her husband Bill, powerless to resist falling under his wife’s control but instilled with a loyalty and understanding that only comes with time. Mr. Mullavey is just as skilled as Ms. Thomas in eliciting laughter from the audience, some of the biggest using his deadpan expression when faced with surprising facts about his wife and son’s secrets. I really bought Mr. Mullavey and Ms. Thomas as a married couple, and it is their chemistry and delivery that makes the piece work.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
I’m not quite sure what to make of George Merrick as the couple’s son, Billy, or Kate Wetherhead as his wife, Jane. Mr. Merrick is quite attractive, but he acts mostly with a scowl and furrowed brow; his intensity works against the comedic qualities of the writing, and his timing is often off in a way that kills lines that would be funny if played differently. Take for example his first scene in the locker room when he confesses his affair to his father; Mr. Merrick rushes into a forced stage cry where he covers his face, his timing so abrupt that at first it appears that he is laughing. It’s hard for me to believe that two people as enjoyable to be around as Ms. Thomas and Mr. Mullavey could have such a jerk as a son, and that’s exactly how Mr. Merrick comes off. Ms. Wetherhead as his wife seems to think going nasal is a part of playing comedy, her voice often pitched higher than expected, though she at least has more to work with once her husband’s indiscretions are revealed; still, I found her only mildly more bearable than her on stage spouse, a most unlikeable couple that deserves each other. It’s almost as if Mr. Merrick and Ms. Wetherhead, who have not a thimbleful of chemistry, are from another play or are performing in some acting exercise in which they were carelessly paired up together.

Director David Saint keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, seemingly knowing that it’s his showbiz veterans that will carry the piece, though it’s hard to understand how some glaring flaws in the production appear to have passed by him unchanged. The scene in the car between Mr. Merrick and Ms. Wetherhead is startlingly stale, and the vehicle is positioned at an angle on the stage that doesn’t line up with the rear projection footage. Why bother with having the car and the background footage if it is going to be handled so poorly? At least the set of Alice and Bill’s living room designed by Yoshi Tanokura looks inviting, tastefully upscale with a lived in appearance. The majority of the action takes place on this lovely set, which makes the scene in the car and opening scene at the tennis club locker room feel like cheap afterthoughts in comparison.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Still, Clever Little Lies is a cute, compact show with several laugh out loud moments. Though I think it resolves itself a bit too easily at the end and half the cast was not to my liking, it has the feel of a jumbo-sized sitcom, appropriate as it is a great vehicle for its two veteran stars of popular television comedies from the ’60s and ’70s. At just under an hour and a half in length, Clever Little Lies doesn’t outstay its welcome, though it is the crackling chemistry and timing of its stars from yesteryear you’ll remember when it’s all over.

**/ out of ****

Clever Little Lies continues through to January 24th upstairs in the Westside Theatre at 407 W. 43rd St. (at 9th Ave.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://www.cleverlittlelies.com/

The Great American Trailer Park Musical (Dare to Defy Productions – Dayton, OH)

Trailer parks get a bad rap. I’m not saying a lot of the stereotypes aren’t true (there’s often a kernel of truth in such preconceived notions, though often warped), but I’m sure that there are plenty of kind, sane, and peaceful people that live in double wides. Fortunately, none of those people are in Dare to Defy Productions’ The Great American Trailer Park Musical, a rollicking indictment against the inhabitants of a trailer park where life is a soap opera but with bigger hair and more makeup.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical, with music and lyrics by David Nehls and a book by Betsy Kelso, ran for a few months off-Broadway in the fall of 2005; since then it’s become a favorite of regional and non-professional groups across the country looking for a musical more contemporary than the usual stalwarts of West Side Story and Annie. Set in Armadillo Acres, a trailer park in Starke, Florida, the story focuses on Norbert, a toll collector, and his agoraphobic wife, Jeanne, and how their lives are turned upside down when bad girl stripper Pippi becomes one of their neighbors; little does everyone know that Pippi is on the run from a crazy ex-boyfriend who is hot on her trail. Did I mention that some of the other residents are named Linoleum and Pickles? 

 

Photo: Matthew Smith
 
There isn’t a bad performance in the show, with special recognition earned by Tia Seay, Lisa Glover, and Angie Thacker. Ms. Seay really whoops it up as Betty, the queen bee and manager of the trailer park, her strong and bold voice a pleasure to enjoy as she comments on the action of the residents. Lisa Glover is similarly fearless as Pippi, the stripper without a heart of gold; she and Ms. Seay hit the fiercest notes and wear the tackiest clothing without fear. Ms. Thacker’s Jeannie is the only character with any deep pathos in the play, so it’s only natural that she doesn’t come off as comical as everyone around her; what’s unnatural is the unexpected sweetness of her singing voice, clear and with vulnerability that is disarming.

Rob Willoughby (who also plays the befuddled Norbert with prickly grit) has outdone himself in designing the set for Armadillo Acres in such a small space. The trailer facades are colorful and functional, especially the way the large picture window of Norbert and Jeannie’s trailer allows us to see directly into their home and glimpse the funny photos on display and odd furniture. A sign in the rear rotates when the location changes to “The Litter Box Show Palace,” the strip club where Pippi (Lisa Glover) works, and Jason Vogel’s lighting changes accordingly to perfectly fit the shift.

 

Photo: Matthew Smith
 
Director Matthew Smith stages and moves the actors quite specifically so that they don’t feel like they are on top of each other or in each other’s way, a definite problem that has been sidestepped in working in what could be seen as quite a cramped space. The only time when the presentation falters is when action is blocked by the first few rows of the audience when activity takes place too far downstage to the right, namely during Ms. Glover’s dance routine in which she motorboats Ms. Seay and walks away with lipstick marks around her décolleté. It’s a bold moment where Ms. Glover really goes for it, but I wonder if it was obscured for a lot of the audience (it was partially hidden where I was sitting) because it wasn’t being performed on some sort of raised platform.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical is intended to be performed in two acts, but this production is presented with no break for around an hour and forty minutes. The limited stadium seating and the closeness of the set and actors to the audience makes this a wise decision as any stragglers would have to walk through the action to get to their seat, a difficult interruption of the all-important fourth wall. This approach also helps the play keep up a certain momentum that would be less effective with a break. So remember – get your potty break in before the show, and know that there will be no late seating! 

 

Photo: Matthew Smith
 
My friend and I enjoyed Dare to Defy’s The Great American Trailer Park Musical, but our laughter was no match for all the giggles heard all around us. The show isn’t deep, keeping its comedy very much on the surface, and that’s just the way it is played here. I’ve seen the show before, and yet somehow a few of the plot twists still threw me this time around! Some of the language and situations push this into PG-13 terrain, but I’d still consider it a fun show for families with teens. In fact, it’s irreverent shows like The Great American Trailer Park Musical that may connect with younger audiences wanting to look beyond the typically “safe” plays performed at their schools. If having a restaurant named “Grits and Tits” offends you, stay home; if, like me, you find it funny, get a ticket before they’re all gone.

*** out of ****

The Great American Trailer Park Musical continues through to January 16th in the Mathile Theatre at the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center located on West 2nd Street in downtown Dayton (about an hour outside of Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.d2defy.com/

  

Skylight (Columbus Civic Theater – Columbus, OH)

Imagine an experiment where the script is the control and the production the variable; do that and you’ll get a sense of the expectations when staging a work that has been preserved in performance and is out there for study. Often what comes before is used as a kind of yardstick to measure future productions. That’s not to say the original cast recording of a musical or filmed production of a play is definitive or even the best, but it does cut its own path, against which what comes later is measured in standard deviations. Has there ever been a production of Gypsy that wasn’t informed by Ethel Merman, or of A Streetcar Named Desire in which Marlon Brando was not used as a point of comparison? I ask this question because I just saw what Columbus Civic Theater is doing with David Hare’s Skylight, a play that just won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play in 2015 and was chosen by patrons as the “audience choice” play of their season, and it led me to view a video of the 2014 London production that made for an interesting comparison – more on that later.

Skylight premiered in London in 1995 and then on Broadway a year later. It is about Kyra Hollis, a youngish teacher visited by two men from her past, Tom and Edward Sergeant, a father and son. Kyra worked for the family years ago, having left abruptly when it was discovered that she was having an affair with Tom, the father. Tom’s wife has now died, and Edward visits Kyra out of worry for how his dad has been dealing with it. Tom arrives later the same day to hash things out with Kyra, perhaps in an attempt to rekindle what they once had. The entire play takes place in Kyra’s apartment in a less than glamorous section of London, and over the course of the night Tom and Kyra debate the merits of their past as well as their current lives, separated so drastically by differences of social class.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design by Richard Albert
 
I went into this production not knowing the story and not having seen the recording of the recent London run. The first thing I noticed was the terrific set designed by Richard Albert representing Kyra’s run down apartment. The space looks lived in and worn, bookshelves and cabinets looking lovably less than perfect, with a raised area for a small fridge, sink, and stovetop, all functional. I’ve seen many plays at Columbus Civic with a variety of sets – some awful, some very good – and this is the best; it makes terrific use of the space and its part in telling the story.

 

Photo: Columbus Civic Theater – Edwyn Williams (Tom) and Priyanka Shetty (Kyra)
 
Edwyn Williams is Tom, the successful and rich restauranteur, and his performance is all bluster and consonants, forcefully spraying his words like a pushy salesman. Mr. Williams plays Tom as bossy and charmless, and even a bit whiny. He has what Oprah calls an “ugly cry,” as in an emotional moment near the end his entire countenance puckers, revealing his struggle to produce tears. I sensed not a drop of chemistry between his Tom and Kyra, played rather demurely by Priyanka Shetty. Ms. Shetty has wonderful, crisp diction, and a strong speech in the second act in which her passion runs true, but I can’t grasp what she could have ever seen in Tom, and because of that I can’t follow why Kyra makes the decision to revisit her past with Tom at the end of the first act. As someone who has “revisited” the past with exes after the breakup, it is always bittersweet, reminding me both of why I was attracted to them in the first place while also reinforcing why we were no longer together; I don’t sense any of this with Kyra, who smiles frequently and comes off as submissive without much reason.

 

Photo: Columbus Civic Theater – Matthew Sierra (Edward) and Priyanka Shetty (Kyra)
 
Matthew Sierra plays Tom’s concerned son Edward, whose appearances bookend the play. Mr. Sierra’s hairstyle and clothing look right out of 1995 (as they should – the play is set in that year), and he has a kind of nervousness that is difficult to interpret. His wonky British accent doesn’t help much, as it changes sometimes mid-sentence; it adds to an off-kilter malaise that clouds this production and its characters. I will say that his reappearance at the end was most welcome, as his chaste affection for Kyra is more clear and he seems far more relaxed.

At the end of the day, Columbus Civic Theater’s Skylight is not an embarrassment to anyone, but I don’t feel that it shows any of the artists involved (save for Richard Albert and that great set) in the best light either. It’s a bland, mediocre production that flounders, neither entirely fish nor fowl. The actors appear to be trying so hard to tell this story on stage without the proper guidance. A different interpretation would be fine, but I felt like this production lacks any interpretation at all, any distinctive personality or viewpoint. It is performed in a pattern of line *pause* line *pause* that is unnatural and stilted, more like a staged reading.

 

Photo: Columbus Civic Theater – Priyanka Shetty (Kyra) and Edwyn Williams (Tom)
 
The audience seemed to like Skylight the night that I attended with my friend, but we left the show bewildered and feeling like we were missing something. The production left me puzzled, and the story didn’t make much sense to me. I thought, “It must be the play.” Later I saw the National Theatre Live film of a performance of the 2014 revival of Skylight (the same production and cast that traveled across the ocean this year to win the Tony Award); that’s when I realized that the problem wasn’t with the play – it was this production. I viewed the video of the London production, and suddenly the play made sense! The script was the same, but the performances so completely different in a way that supported and enhanced the material. I didn’t know so much of the play was funny! Bill Nighy is quick and witty as Tom, and it’s easy to see what Carey Mulligan as Kyra would see in him. Lines that land with a thud in Columbus Civic’s production were greeted with laughter in London, and moments where characters experience shifts in mood were now clear and easy to follow.

Is it fair to compare this video to the production at Columbus Civic Theater? I don’t see why not, as both have the same script from which to work. I didn’t go in with preconceived notions by having seen the London production first; I entered blank, wanting to be entertained, and only afterward sought out the other production.

** out of ****

Skylight continues through to November 22nd in the Columbus Civic Theater located at 3837 Indianola Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuscivic.org

A Little Night Music (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

It takes a lot of drive and talent to direct a show with a large cast involving an enormous set and make it all seem effortless. The challenge is even greater when the show is a musical by the great Stephen Sondheim. It’s for these reasons that Short North Stage is fortunate to have Michael Licata on hand to guide their production of A Little Night Music, a confection high in style and grace, and the opening show of their new season.

A Little Night Music, with a score by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, premiered on Broadway in 1973, won six Tony Awards (including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book), ran for a year and a half, was adapted into a rather poor 1977 film, and has gone on to become one of Sondheim’s most beloved and accessible works. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), A Little Night Music is about middle aged widower Frederik Egerman and his much younger wife, Anne; his son from his previous marriage, Henrik; Petra, the Egermans’ saucy maid; Desiree Armfeldt, a successful touring actress and Frederik’s former mistress; Desiree’s daughter Fredrika; Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt; Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Desiree’s current boyfriend; and Charlotte Malcolm, the count’s wife who wants to take her husband back from Desiree. All of these people find themselves at Madame Armfeldt’s estate one weekend where relationships are rekindled while others are broken. It is a sweetly romantic comedy from which came the song “Send in the Clowns,” arguably Sondheim’s most commercial hit, though it also includes such penetrating compositions as “A Weekend in the Country,” “Every Day a Little Death,” and “The Miller’s Son.”

 

Photo: Heather Wack
 
You know you’re seeing something special when you can recognize so many faces from other shows around Columbus playing small or mute roles in this production when they are usually leads (I’m looking at you Nick Hardin, Doug Joseph, Chris Rusen, and Kristen Basore). Everyone on stage here is perfectly cast and on their A game; the moment that Jennifer Barnaba (Anne) is seen next to her on-stage husband, Mark A. Harmon (Frederik), I thought, “She’s too young for him,” and that’s one of the points of the story! The cast seems to enjoy grandly prancing around the elegant set by Ray Zupp, delicately designed with patterns and pieces evocative of a more tasteful period. The orchestra sounds lush and full, firmly conducted by musical director and orchestrator Lloyd Butler; the players are behind a screen on stage, their silhouettes comfortingly visible in the background.

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Marya Spring (Desiree) and Mark A. Harmon (Frederik)
 
Mark A. Harmon (Frederik) and Marya Spring (Desiree) have sparkling chemistry as the lovers who rekindle their romance, and they both have commanding stage presence. The play has many other delightful characters, but it is the moments with Mr. Harmon and Ms. Spring that I treasure and of which I found myself wanting to see more.

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Linda Dorff (Madame Armfeldt)
 
Linda Dorff (Madame Armfeldt) is wry and direct in her wheelchair-bound role, and her rendition of “Liasons” is beguiling as she keeps a firm grasp on her emotions, releasing her grip every so slightly in a few moments; it’s a subtle shift but highly effective.
 
Photo: Adam Zeek (zeekcreative.com) – Eli Brickey (Petra)
 
Eli Brickey (Petra) all but stops the show with her rousing rendition of “The Miller’s Son,” though every scene in which she appears has a bit more kick than it would’ve otherwise. Her scenes with JJ Parkey (Henrik) bristle with sexual energy. Mr. Parkey plays repressed well, even persevering through the score’s weakest moment (in my opinion, mind you) – his section of the otherwise charming “Now/Later/Soon.”

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Jennifer Barnaba (Anne) and JJ Parkey (Henrik)
 
There is an odd audio anomaly that is worth pointing out; all of the voices, no matter where the actors are on stage, come solely out of a far left speaker. It’s a disconcerting sound problem, especially when the orchestra can be heard so clearly across the stage. I hope this was an issue just with the performance I attended and not a design flaw.

Short North Stage’s A Little Night Music is a very good production of a very good show, and its leisurely pace suits the material, though at around three hours it sometimes feels a bit slow. It’s a real testament to Short North Stage to have some of the biggest talents in the area on their stage all at once. I’ve always found the show itself to be second tier Sondheim (which means it is better than first tier most anyone else), but it’s that rare musical that improves in its second act. There is no shortage of talent or beauty on display in this production, one of the largest and most ambitious I’ve ever seen in Columbus not part of a touring production.

*** out of ****

A Little Night Music continues through to November 1st in the Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/467

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? (Red Herring Productions – Columbus, OH)

“Did you ever think you’d come back from your splendid life, walk into your living room, and find you had no life left?” That’s the question Stevie Gray asks her husband Martin after learning of his infidelity in Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?, a daring dark comedy involving infidelity, betrayal, love, and beastiality, presented by Red Herring Productions in the Studio One Theatre at the Vern Riffe Center for just two weekends. This is the kind of play and production that in less than two hours can provide fodder for days of debates.

Martin Gray is a successful and celebrated architect, with an engaging wife, Stevie, and child, Billy, and something troubling on his mind. When his best friend, Ross, comes over to interview him for a television show, Martin is distant, eventually divulging that he is having an improbable affair with a goat named Sylvia; and thus begins a chain of events that rock his world and the world of those around him.

 

Photo: Matt Slaybaugh – Tim Browning (Martin) and Sonda Staley (Stevie)
 
Tim Browning plays the conflicted and troubled Martin Gray, and he is dangerous on the stage; he is so real and present in the part that he could easily turn the play into a one-man show, something that I could see happening without such a strong supporting cast around him. Mr. Browning is honest and thoughtful, so appealing that he is able to wrangle the audience’s sympathy for a character who admits to performing quite an unsympathetic act, probably because of his skill of instilling such humanity into his performance, one without judgement. Mr. Browning plays Martin as completely normal, not as quirky like I saw Bill Irwin do in the same part on Broadway in 2002 (with Sally Field as his co-star; they were both part of the replacement cast once Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl had left the original company), and the net result is a performance with far more nuance and emotion than I experienced with the play previously. So touching is Mr. Browning that I found myself revising my opinion of the material, as I originally thought of it as substandard Albee – not so anymore.

Sonda Staley as Stevie Gray holds her own next to her onstage hubby, quick on her feet with an immediacy to her responses that propels every scene that she is in forward. She’s also good with props, even when things go slightly awry (I had the pleasure of attending both the dress rehearsal and opening night performances, witnessing Ms. Staley deftly navigate minor snafus on both occasions, the audience oblivious to any problems). “How could you love me when you love so much less?” she asks of her husband, the same question surely anyone who has ever been cheated on has thought; when Ms. Staley asks it, you want to comfort her because she is so affecting, though she proves as the play goes on that she has strength enough to face this situation on her own.

 

Photo: Matt Slaybaugh – (left to right) Jesse Massaro (Billy), Tim Browning (Martin), and Todd Covert (Ross)
 
Jesse Massaro plays the Grays’ son, Billy, a gay teenager with angst to spare. Though I’m not a fan of the eye liner and emo look given to the character, Mr. Massaro is strong yet vulnerable, a tough duality to play without coming off as unstable or trite. Todd Covert is Ross Tuttle, Martin’s best friend who betrays his confidence, often voicing the opinion of the audience when confronted with anything outside of his comfort zone. Mr. Covert has the least material to work with out of this ensemble of four, but he manages to firmly stand his ground in this cocky and judgmental part, quick to summarize everything into a sound byte, as if everything were so easy. If Martin’s infidelity were with a woman, would Ross have kept the secret? Would he if it was with a man? We know where he stands on the subject of goats.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III
 
This extraordinary cast is guided by director Michael Garret Herring, who has a firm grasp on what does and doesn’t work, even extending to the mostly black, white, and gray color scheme of the costumes and set; it’s as if Mr. Herring is daring us to see all of the gray between what is right (white) and wrong (black). Aided by terrific lighting by Jarod Wilson (pay close attention to the use of colors on the backdrop and how they comment on and forecast the action) and clear sound by Dave Wallingford (the people who make sure we can hear what is going on are too often overlooked), this is an all-around quality production.

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? covers topics so dire and in such a dramatic fashion that it crosses over into dark comedy, so abhorrent in content that one can only laugh in response. This isn’t a play that advocates acceptance of beastiality or any other socially unacceptable conventions; it is a play about betrayal, the kind we can perpetrate against others as well as ourselves given just the right circumstances. Martin Gray surely never saw his infatuation with a goat as being a viable option, let alone something that could derail his life so completely. It begs the question: how well do we know those around us, and how well do we know ourselves?

Highly recommended – catch this one before all that is left of it are the discussions it will provoke.

**** out of ****

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? continues through to October 10th in the Studio One Theatre (4th floor) at the Vern Riffe Center located at 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.redherring.info/the-goat-or-who-is-sylvia/

A note about the title: As licensed by Dramatists Play Service, Inc., it is The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? Other resources, such as Ibdb.com, playbill.com, and nytimes.com (a review of the 2002 Broadway production), give the title as The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Other resources remove the comma entirely or, better yet, include one before and after the “or”. The advertising for this production follows the lead of the Dramatists Play Service for the title, even though the program alternately lists it without a comma on the cover as well as with a comma in the earlier spot on the insert. The Collected Plays of Edward Albee: 1978-2003 lists the title as The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? as well, and so that is the way I referred to it in this essay.

A Key to the Suite (1962) by John D. MacDonald

Somehow I always find myself returning to John D. MacDonald, and for good reason; I haven’t been disappointed by one of his novels yet. I was attracted to his work by the mysterious titles and lurid artwork, but shortly after reading my first MacDonald novel I sought out every other book he had written, always in vintage paperback form. I’ve been inching my way through them ever since, rationing them in a way, knowing that once I’ve made my way through all of them that there will be no more.

A Key to the Suite hails from 1962 and is about a man on a mission; Floyd Hubbard has been assigned to evaluate the performance of Jesse Mulaney, an upper level manager in the sales division of a company, while at a convention full of free flowing booze and girls. Mulaney’s a hack and knows it, and the writing is on the wall for his exit from the company. And so he has engaged a high-class prostitute, Cory Barlund, to seduce Hubbard and make a big, embarrassing scene in front of a lot of people to destroy his credibility in the hope that it could help save Mulaney’s job. But things don’t go as planned (do they ever?), and it all comes down to a showdown with the person who has the pivotal “key to the suite.”

 

back cover
 
I love a story with a scheming hooker, and Cory Barlund is one for the record books. She is at the convention posing as a reporter, but her striking beauty catches everyone’s eye. One of the few convention wives attending comments, “You know, that girl comes on slow. She builds. The more you look, the more you see. Floyd, only a woman could know what kind of a total effort that takes, all the time and thought and care.”

Cory is no pushover either, only agreeing to the framing job as a favor to her madam and after approving of Hubbard. When another person in on the scheme suggests an extra pay day for a tumble, she wryly replies, “Try me again in ten years. By then I may have lost the freedom of choice. That’s supposed to be the standard pattern, isn’t it?”

We learn more about Cory’s background and why she took up the trade, blaming it on a cheating former husband who infected her with syphilis while she was pregnant. She says that it “turned my baby into an idiot. It’s over five years old now. It will never speak or walk or recognize anything or anyone. I have one child, defective, institutionalized.” Her harsh words here go way beyond what I think any woman would ever say about her offspring; it’s a shocking stance though and definitely paints a picture of the kind of woman Hubbard is dealing with. “After the divorce I was trying in an amateur way to prove to every man in the world that I was more useful than every whore in Havana.” Mission accomplished, Cory!

  
No one describes women like John D. MacDonald, and here is an excerpt of when Hubbard is watching Cory out by the pool and she approaches him:

  
 
It may seem like I’ve given a lot away, but trust me when I state that there is a lot more where all of that came from. There are sex scenes written in such a stylish way that it is possible for one not in the know to read them and not be explicitly clear on what is going on! There are also a lot of characters for such a short book, and some have names that didn’t fit the gender I would’ve thought (Cass is a man, Cory is a woman, etc.), but the book is a real slice of corporate life right out of the “Mad Men” era. I found myself wanting to know more about the characters and hoping for the best as it sped on towards an inevitable and violent conclusion.

I was struck by how dated and yet contemporary the novel was, and in equal parts. The stereotypical “good old boys” who are woefully under qualified for positions but are appointed due to their chutzpah are still the types we see today in businesses (and in public office), but the women in the novel are nothing more than wives, whores, or eye candy. It’s a reflection of the time in which it was written, to be sure, and of the environment at the convention. Still, the novel is a quick and exciting read, with just the right amount of spice to keep it on the right side of the sleaze border.

**** out of ****

inside cover teaser