No musical has ever been so quiet, so often, as “A Catered Affair,” the Broadway-bound adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s ’50s-era teleplay and Gore Vidal’s subsequent screenplay. The subject is a family whose communication has reached a dead end, so it’s fitting that the most affecting moments are those in which words simply aren’t enough. Much is verbalized in Harvey Fierstein’s gritty slice-of-life dialogue and John Bucchino’s sensitive lyrics, but the use of silence — sometimes for as long as 30 seconds — is remarkable: Few tuner directors would conceive of those quiet moments, and even fewer would dare attempt them.
First of several lengthy silent sequences comes as parents handle the effects of a decorated soldier recently killed in Korea. For Bronx cab driver Tom Hurley (Tom Wopat), the bereavement benefit check will fund the purchase of his half of a hack, permitting him some measure of self-determination after 20 years of late shifts and scrimping.
But having lost the golden boy in whom her hopes were wrapped, Aggie (Faith Prince) turns her attention to daughter Janey (Leslie Kritzer) and her elopement plans. That check will pay for the white wedding and fancy catered reception Aggie was denied long ago.
The Hurleys are a lower-income family that strives so hard to cope they’ve forgotten what they’re striving for. This is psychologically rich stuff, recalling the socially realistic Chayefsky of “Marty” and “The Bachelor Party”; Fierstein skillfully cuts unnecessary characters and plot to focus full attention on the central conflict over 90 gripping, intermissionless minutes.
The most memorable silent moment comes as the catered affair drives its final wedges between the principals. Having engaged all our sympathy for long-suffering Aggie, show suddenly flips on a dime as Tom flips out, defending himself against decades of sniping about miserliness and unconcern in a number titled “I Stayed.” The song might as well be called “Tom’s Turn” in its late-inning, self-justifying effect (the scene poetically sidelit by Brian MacDevitt as if it were Strindberg).
Left alone, Prince stares and thinks through agonizing silence as the audience holds its breath. As the light changes to next morning, and Aggie’s brother Winston (Fierstein) enters to remind her of a lesson from their childhood, we truly believe this once-dead creature is ready to embrace life again.
Collaborator Bucchino’s cabaret background has provided ideal preparation for writing for a set of characters who talk to themselves rather than each other. This score may contain more soliloquies than “Spring Awakening”; even the few duets play as monologues, and the lyrics’ direct, simply rhymed emotional effects maintain class consciousness throughout.
As befits a real play with music, helmer John Doyle sets the songs flowing seamlessly out of the dialogue and back again with little room for applause. (One feels that if he could eliminate all such breaks, he would).
Core of the family delivers precisely observed performances. Prince internalizes Aggie’s bitterness and self-pity, blossoming beautifully when Winston challenges her to imagine her own ideal wedding in the lovely “Vision.” Wopat is a gruff and powerfully dormant presence on the periphery, and Kritzer pulls off show’s toughest assignment in seeking to establish a sense of self while alternately resisting and encouraging the wedding hoopla.
Neighborhood gossips (Heather MacRae, Kristine Zbornik and Lori Wilner) get some snarky Greek chorus work and amusing cameos, especially MacRae’s preternaturally perky wedding planner. But Matt Cavenaugh has little to do as fiance Ralph. And Katie Klaus’ Alice mostly serves some sort of symbolic function as she dreamily sits around in an apricot dress, her confession that she can’t afford to be her best friend’s matron of honor oddly directed for anger rather than mortification.
Fierstein’s reconfiguration of the uncle role, from Barry Fitzgerald’s asexual imp to an explicitly gay shop owner whose relationship is on the skids, is problematic. Winston’s regular income and only temporary residency diminish his fifth-wheel status around the house, thus reducing tension. Moreover, Fierstein hasn’t yet found the right balance between Winston’s discretion and gay pride. He wants us to believe Winston is open at home and merely quaint elsewhere, but right now the entire role is imbued with post-Stonewall-era bravura at odds with show’s fabric and period.
When crashing the in-laws’ dinner, his drunken tirade complaining of disinvitation to the wedding is just too big and vulgar for the room. The accusatory anthem “Immediate Family” would benefit from more hurt feeling and less naked rage, and from the thesp remembering that drunks generally try to hide their inebriation rather than give in to it.
Scene is a rare directorial misstep, aside from weird symbolic Alice. Doyle’s stage pictures may trump logic — a character high on a fire escape converses naturally with someone down below — but instantly evoke relationship. Like the libretto, David Gallo’s set strips away nonessentials, with sliding panels altering the space and welcoming Zachary Borovay’s sepia-toned projections of a bygone era.
“A Catered Affair” begins its Broadway run March 25 at the Walter Kerr. Official opening is April 17.