March 26, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
“Let’s not waste time on its ifs, buts and maybes. Enter Laughing is marvelously funny, and so is Alan Arkin in the principal role.”
This is what Howard Taubman, then the chief theatre critic of the New York Times wrote in his review of Joseph Stein’s adaptation of Carl Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel when it opened on March 13, 1963.
“The major complaint about the new play that pranced into Henry Miller’s Theater Wednesday night is that it doesn’t provide enough rest periods between side-splitting laughs. Even an uproarious farce ought to be more considerate of the customer’s staying powers.”
With a review like this (eventually winning him a Tony Award), Alan Arkin had much to celebrate, in addition to his turning twenty-nine just two weeks after his opening night. Today marks his eighty-third birthday and he is happily still working at the peak of his powers. And though he abandoned Broadway shortly after his next hit show, Murray Schisgal’s Luv in 1964, (only returning once to performing live thirty-four years later in Off-Broadway’s Power Plays in 1998), for a brief period in the early 1960s, Arkin was a theatre sensation.
His Broadway debut had been in 1962 with Chicago’s fabled Second City’s first visit to New York. Alongside co-founding members such as Barbara Harris and Paul Sand, From the Second City, with its company of wildly talented improv artists, took the town by storm.
And oddly enough, it was his glory days with Second City that was the reason he found doing wildly successful plays like Enter Laughing and Luv a drain on his productivity. Arkin explained what working with that company meant to him in a 1966 interview with Roger Ebert: “Improvisation sometimes seemed more like jazz than acting, like verbal jazz, with the actors playing a theme back and forth, and then introducing another theme, incorporating it, somehow trying to work their way all together to a meaning of some kind, or at least a conclusion. We had the opportunity to push ourselves in any direction.”
More to the point, in an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation in 2001, Arkin described how strait-jacketed he felt outside the realm of improv: “You’re not encouraged to experiment or play very much. The play gets set the minute opening night is there and … you’re supposed to do exactly that for the next year. And I just am constitutionally unable to just find any kind of excitement or creativity in that kind of experience.”
Luckily some video exists that offer a glimpse of what Arkin was like at this point in time. Here he is doing a kind of physical humor that is altogether remarkable:
Fortunately, Arkin never abandoned the theatre, since he has kept up an active directing career that began in 1966. One of my earliest Off-Broadway experiences was seeing his production of Jules Feiffer’s dark comedy Little Murders in 1969. His work was superb in balancing the farcical and realistic elements of a piece that failed only two years prior in a Broadway production that was fatally misdirected. When he took on Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys in 1973, he had a walloping success in what to this day was one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. I only wish that Arkin wasn’t so adverse to performing live, as he is now the most perfect actor around to take on the role of Willie Clark, first essayed by Jack Albertson and later done to a fare-thee-well by Walter Matthau.
Funnily, modesty (or was it insecurity?) forbade Arkin from taking his very first directing credit in an Off-Broadway play by Henry Livings called Eh? As it turned out, he had nothing to worry about, because not only did the play run for close to a year, but it made a star out of a young actor, Dustin Hoffman, who had to take a few days off during its run to fly to Los Angeles and screen test for the role of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate.
A man of many talents, it may surprise you to learn that Arkin is an accomplished singer. Before any of his theatre or film successes, he was part of a folk singing group the Tarriers, that had a bona fide hit with “The Banana Boat Song.” As one of its team of songwriters, Arkin had to have seen some significant coin in residuals, as the hit recording by Harry Belafonte was a best seller. In his recording with the Tarriers, see if you can glean Arkin’s voice among the threesome:
Another of Arkin’s passions is writing. He told Robert Osbourne in a 2014 interview: “I’ve written about ten books, all of them by accident. For many, many years I couldn’t stand the idea of a day going by without doing something creative.”
And that just about says it all. That passion to be creative is what keeps him going and thriving. Not one to rest on his laurels, his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine did nothing to diminish his drive. He received another Supporting Actor nomination six years later for Argo (his fourth nomination overall). And opening April 7th, Arkin can be seen in a remake of the 1979 film Going in Style, co-starring with Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. I fully intend to see it, not only due to Caine and Freedman being among my favorites, but because I’ve never seen Alan Arkin give a bad performance. His work demands to be seen. And if you don’t believe me, go find wherever The Russians Are Coming, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, The In-Laws or any number of his more than 100 film and TV credits are streaming.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Arkin.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/