Around the Way:
A Review of A Naked Girl on the Appian Way
by Tony Phillips
One can almost imagine Tony-winning out playwright Richard Greenberg elevator pitching his latest comedy — A Naked Girl on the Appian Way — as a ‘three guys walk into a bar’ joke. Except that the ‘three guys’ are all siblings, one’s a chick and, oh yeah, two of them are fucking. But hey, one needs to mix up the formula a bit when taffy-pulling sitcom fodder into an evening-length Broadway entertainment. The fact that one is white, one is black, and the third Asian, at least, adheres to the ‘three guys’ formula faithfully.
This is not to suggest that Greenberg’s confection isn’t a winning evening on the boards. It does, in fact, have much to recommend it. There’s Jill Clayburgh, back on Broadway after a 20-year absence, and from our second-row perch looking every nanosecond of it. She plays Bess Lapin, an edamame-obsessed cookbook author and celebrity homemaker who puts the Martha back in matriarch as the ‘three guys’ slicing/dicing mom. There’s John Lee Beatty’s handsome, Hamptons’ barn of a set, which garners its own entrance applause when the curtain goes up. There’s even the inestimable Ann Guilbert, who plays kooky neighbor Sadie here, but much of the gay audience will recognize from her star turn as Grandma Yetta to Fran Drescher’s nanny. Guilbert’s off-the-wall “fuckin’ chickens” speech alone makes this a worth-tuning-in-for evening.
But tuning-in is precisely the problem. Naked Girl is television grist ground down by lowbrow jokes dressed up in high-style references like edamame. It’s also why Dick Van Dyke alum Guilbert fares so well, but Clayburgh — despite her two Emmy noms — and her even-keel hubby and humanitarian businessman (whatever that is) Jeffery played by Richard Thomas — with all his itinerant John Boy Walton baggage — stumble. Guilbert is simply from another time and place, and one that Greenberg seems particularly intent on exploring in this piece, namely that of the one-liner heavy, early days of television comedy.
In it, we get the perfect bourgie family turned on its ear when two of its children, Thad and Juliet, return stateside after a-year-and-half long European idyll. Sure, mom and dad are happy to have their respective Caucasian and Dominican babies back in the nest, but Bill, their Asian brother, a bisexual librarian, natch, isn’t as pleased. Add to this salty mix the aforementioned kooky neighbor and her feminist daughter Elaine, who may or may not still want to munch some of Bess’ edamame, and one has all the trappings of a tempest in a TV spot.
Interest fades when Greenberg diffuses the incest storyline by letting the adoption penny slowly drop, thereby casting the impending brother/sister nuptials with a Soon yi Previn/Woody Allen ick factor, but nothing more. It certainly stops short of the real guffaws to be had from, say, a three-headed baby. Here’s a playwright who successfully introduced a Deux ex machina literally spitting script updates from the future in The Violet Hour. Surely, he could have pulled off a happy family made up of biological offspring each unique in their racial extraction just as easily as he pulls an Aryan Asian.
But black-on-white, brother/sister love makes for some easy — if less sci-fi — laughs. And why do Thad and Juliet sweat one another, other than the fact that she’s smart and he’s fuckable? And is Bill the librarian bisexual just so he can wrings some yucks out of his line about being rejected twice? Of course, the comedy on display gets exponentially more highbrow. Witness Greenberg serving up 17th century Antinomian controversy where a little “Who’s on first?” would have sufficed. And certainly, the cultural references, from Henry James downward, will take years to trickle down to the WB. Still, it all adds up to a play in search of a laugh track, which Broadway audiences will no doubt be happy to provide as they kill time waiting for Julia Roberts’ spring debut in Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain. And maybe hedged-bet incest and homosexuality make this production a tad more HBO than “Must See TV,” but the real wonder is that Jill Clayburgh manages to spend most of her time in the kitchen without lighting her nose on fire.