In 1946, a comedy-fantasy by Harry Segall titled “Wonderful Journey” opened on Broadway and closed after nine performances. Mounting the play on Broadway was a bad idea, as it had already been seen as the basis of the highly successful 1941 film “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” which had a much better script and a cast of Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains, Edward Everett Horton and James Gleason. What’s more, this sort of fantasy works much better onscreen than onstage. Known as “Halfway to Heaven” at some point, Segall’s play also was the inspiration for the 1978 movie “Heaven Can Wait,” starring Warren Beatty, James Mason, Buck Henry and Jack Warden. (The story was remade again this year as the Chris Rock pic “Down to Earth.”) Given all this, it was a particularly bad idea for the Westport Country Playhouse to revive the clumsy original play with the title “Heaven Can Wait” in a barely professional production as part of its ill-fated 2001 season.
Most inexplicable is why Leslie Uggams chose to play the role of Mr. Jordan (written for a man), an “invisible” character in charge of checking out souls for transportation to heaven. Built up in the film versions, where it was played by Rains and then Mason, the role means remarkably little in the play, and neither director Joe Grifasi nor Uggams has overcome this fact. Uggams isn’t even well costumed or coiffed.
The play and this WCP production are totally dominated by the central role of young New Jersey boxer Joe Pendelton, and Peter Rini’s likable performance. Utterly tireless, he drives the play with his energy and good looks as prematurely dead Joe inhabits several other people’s dead bodies. He even throws in a bit of beefcake when he strips to his boxing shorts. Without him and lively Bruce Weitz, a man who certainly knows how to do a double-take, as Joe’s manager, the WCP’s “Heaven Can Wait” would be even worse.
But for occasional amusing touches, as when Messenger 7013 (Keith Reddin), also invisible, sits down at a white baby grand to play Bach and the sound of a mighty pipe organ peals forth, director Grifasi is mostly stymied by “Heaven Can Wait.” He did far better at Yale Repertory Theater in December 1999 with another play that gave rise to a better-known film, Preston Sturges’ 1931 “A Cup of Coffee,” the genesis of his 1940 movie “Christmas in July.”
But that play was far superior to Segall’s. His play’s six scenes call for three sets — corner of a heavenly flying field, living room and stadium dressing room — and on the whole, designer Ted Simpson has risen to the occasion, though sometimes the execution of his designs looks unfinished. As for the rest of the large cast, Reddin is OK but no Horton in his bumbling comic role and Mia Barron is attractive as the girl with whom Joe falls in love. The others range from barely acceptable to unacceptable.
With only one more production to go in the WCP’s five-play season, it’s painfully obvious that artistic director Joanne Woodward and her cohorts have an enormous amount to learn about how to run a theater (people could be seen wandering around backstage during the performance) and how to choose a season.