It’s hard to fathom why Christopher Hart, scion of the legendary Moss Hart, wanted to turn superagent Irving “Swifty” Lazar into a stage character. In “Swifty,” which Hart wrote and directed, Lazar comes across as petty, neurotic, self-aggrandizing, libidinous, selfish, needy, superficial and mean. As far as Hart is concerned, Lazar’s famous annual Spago Oscar bash was his greatest contribution to the culture, raising a basic question: Why bother telling this story? Hart never comes up with a good reason.
Taking Annette Tapert’s biography as its inspiration, the play opens in 1993, the year of Lazar’s death. Swifty (David Wohl) — a name Lazar despised, by the way — is planning the Spago party for the first time since the death of his wife Mary, just a few months before. He is also regaling Annette Tapert (Linda Gehringer), on assignment from Vanity Fair, with stories of the good ol’ days.
Hart relates Lazar’s saga by shifting between present gripes and embellished reminiscences. It’s not a particularly unusual tale: Poor Jewish kid from Gotham’s Lower East Side grows up to become big-shot Hollywood maven with all the trappings of success. There are, however, a few unusual twists, even if their veracity remains unclear. Lazar’s years in the Army and his encounters with Gen. Hap Arnold, for instance, provide some zip to an often dreary evening.
But Hart’s attempts to get at deeper issues by introducing two Lazar associates, the golddigging Alicia Kwan (Karen Lew) and the potentially backstabbing Alan Nevins (Scoot Powell), fall flat. There’s nothing tragic in watching someone take advantage of a fellow as unappealing as Swifty.
Play might work better as a one-man show. Certainly that would allow the Lazar character to connect more with the audience. He might even be able to charm theatergoers the way he obviously did Tapert and Hart.
Wohl offers up a honed, engaging perf and has the requisite charisma for this task, though a solo outing would smooth the play’s herky-jerky structure. A better director might be able to ease some of the rough transitions, but the shifts from one era and locale to another with nary a costume change are always going to present problems.
Gehringer, a fine actress who resembles Kathleen Turner, slobbers over Swifty as though he were some Old Testament prophet. As sycophants, Lew and Powell are just plain weak. And the rest of the supporting cast is largely indifferent, with a notable exception: Stephen Mo Hanan, whose Milton Berle in one long, enlightening and humorous scene elevates this work to a genuinely impressive pinnacle.
Were Hart to turn that Swifty-Miltie encounter into a play a la “My Dinner With Andre,” he might really achieve something worthy of attention.