For all its promising elements –a live presentation as a glorious homage to early television, a reunion of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer 37 years after “The Sound of Music” –Craig Anderson’s production has a frenetic, unsettled quality. It lurches from crisis to crisis without any sense of reality, and the two stars, despite their previous experience together, seem oddly mismatched and much too youthful and vigorous to be playing an elderly couple contemplating death.
A major problem is the omission of what Plummer has called the “gooey, mawkish” tone of the award-winning 1981 film version with Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. The new approach subtracts pathos without gaining power. Andrews and Plummer collide like irritable loons and peck constantly at each other, but the confrontations lack edge and bite. There’s an occasional risque gesture or remark that is meant to portray the sexual connection of the characters, but we don’t feel sexual connection between them — only a sense of proficient performers following a blueprint and going through the motions.
Andrews and Plummer play Ethel and Norman Thayer. Ethel is nearing 70, and Norman, a retired college professor, is about to celebrate his 80th birthday. Both are spending what they fear may be their final summer vacation at their summer home in Maine. Norman can’t ignore his weak heart and failing memory, although Ethel tries, with relentless optimism, to talk him out of fixating on mortality. Tensions increase when their daughter Chelsea (a neurotic, self-pitying Glenne Headly) shows up with new fiance Bill (Sam Robards) and his son Billy (Will Rothhaar). Norman and Chelsea are mutually antagonistic, but Chelsea is determined to win the fatherly love she’s always been denied.
Critical, crotchety Norman makes life hell for everybody, acting rude to Bill, nasty to his daughter and surly to 14-year-old Billy. But Billy is a tough little hombre; he can dish it out as capably as Norman, and they form a bond that eventually softens Norman and reveals his hidden heart of gold.
Plummer has the hardest acting challenge, taking an impossible, hard-headed character and humanizing him. He accomplishes this cleverly by not becoming frail, vulnerable or teary-eyed. Even when he’s supposed to demonstrate a long-suppressed affection for his daughter, the affection comes through with rigid reluctance and a clenched jaw.
Andrews is charming when she relates to her new son-in-law and his rebellious teenager. But her line readings in general are overstated. She’s either dogmatic and imperious or sentimental, and neither approach feels entirely convincing. She also races about nervously, placating her husband without evidencing awareness that he’s a querulous, demanding tyrant. When the unloved Chelsea wails to her mother, “You always took his part,” you can’t help wondering why she did. The most Ethel can admit is that “he’s not always kind.” Andrews attacks her emotional outbursts with full force, but her most memorable moments are tender ones.
Not operating in a self-conscious Great Actor mode, Robards is relaxed and able to infuse life into such lines as “We have a proactive relationship — terrific synergy” as well as to project solid, admirable strength. He holds his own with his nightmarish future father-in-law. Young Rothhaar conveys believable rebellion as Billy. As Charlie, the postman who has always yearned to marry Chelsea, Brett Cullen is effectively likable and dense at the same time.
Some of the staging by Ernest Thompson is almost bizarre, particularly a scene when Norman collapses in pain and Andrews, in her panic, doesn’t think to call a doctor. She finally does, and while waiting for a response on the phone, Norman inexplicably regains his strength, rises to his feet and asks her to dance. The events flash by with no logic, and it seems as though Norman is, after all, a perfectly healthy specimen who simply likes to complain.
Score by Anthony Marinelli sounds tacked on, since the cues, once begun, never vary or establish nuances that match mood or action. The Thayer home is beautiful, but seems too candy-colored and elaborate to be a New England cottage, and the lush flowers in Ethel’s garden dominate to the extent that they appear to be posing for a magazine layout.