One of the small pleasures of “Talk of the Town” is the fact that the musical produced by the Peccadillo Theater Co. is being performed in the very venue where the “Vicious Circle” of wits & wags actually convened.
I’m talking about the Algonquin Hotel, where Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Robert Sherwood, Alexander Woollcott, Edna Ferber, Marc Connelly and George S. Kaufman held forth throughout the Roaring Twenties. The hotel has been refurbished several times since, though bells to call for tea in the afternoon still grace the tables in the lobby. (The Rose Room where the Round Tablers held court is, appropriately enough, now called the Round Table Room and is still a restaurant.)
The tuner, which is being performed every Sunday and Monday nights in the Oak Room of the hotel on 44th Street, captures in music the euphoria of that long-ago post-war period. The audience of about 75 appropriately wines and dines before and even during the performance. The night I attended, at least two tables were peopled with Midwesterners, the very types that those sophisticated raconteurs used to lampoon.
Not that masses of such folk, Midwestern or otherwise, are likely to flock to this show: Though satirical, it’s not big and brash like “Spamalot”; though suggestive of things unseen, it’s not deep like “Doubt.” The musical is, however, as amusing as it might have been to sit at a nearby table 80-odd years ago and eavesdrop on the original cast of characters as they sharpened their rapier wits on one another.
Plus, the play is full of quite pleasant songs.
Opening number, which resurfaces several times during the performance, is called “The Restorative Lunch,” which is what brought these talents together and encouraged them to riff off one another. (It being the so-called age of Prohibition, the meal tended to be more liquid than solid.)
The camaraderie among Benchley, Parker et al. was centered around language, especially their shared love of wordplay. They were among the giddy survivors of a world war and the influenza pandemic of 1918 — and they were in New York as that city was throwing off the last vestiges of provincialism. The Round Tablers didn’t seem to have a particular political agenda or a single business purpose: The show suggests that getting together was simply diverting — as well as a welcome diversion from the lonely act of literary creation.
Rapid-fire repartee was particularly Benchley and Parker’s game, and the lunches were peppered with puns, putdowns, punditry (and sometimes shameless self-promotion), all of which the writer-lyricists Ginny Reddington and Tom Dawes aptly convey.
Reddington and Dawes rummaged through the writings of the group to come up with some of the sharper salvos, including Parker’s immortal putdown of a mediocre novelist: “He is a writer for the ages…the ages between four and eight.” Or Ferber’s advice to the young Sherwood, who was struggling to make literary use of his wartime experiences: “If you have a message, call Western Union.”
(Sometimes the show tries too hard to pack in references pertinent to the coterie but largely lost today, from Sacco and Vanzetti to Billie Burke. A running joke about Parker’s nemesis, Claire Booth Luce, does work well, however.)
The numbers in the first act are generally upbeat, with Ferber and Sherwood (Donna Coney Island and Adam MacDonald) amusingly dissecting to a tango rhythm what it takes to be a writer. (Sherwood took several years to disgorge his first play, “The Road to Rome,” in 1927; Ferber was already a prolific playwright and went on to write massively long novels.)
As their reputations grew, the coterie became by 1925 the toast of the town — Parker and Benchley had bestsellers at the same time; Ferber penned “Showboat” and “So Big” the same year; Kaufman and Connelly had written “Beggar on Horseback,” to name just a few milestones. Their lively gossip columns in the New Yorker, first commissioned by another original Round Tabler, Harold Ross, were the must-read of the day.
But the fame of this motley crew was in some ways just a flicker, and the group is largely neglected by readers nowadays. They were more famous for being famous, or as the literary critic Woollcott dryly put it, “There’s less to us than meets the eye.”
Parker at one point in the show decries what they had become: “We got stuck in the smarty-pants stage.”
Celebrity, and cocktails, eventually took their toll.
The 90-minute musical, which features various groupings of these seven Round Table regulars, follows their ups and downs from their beginnings as the first contributors to the “Talk of the Town” section of the New Yorker through to their dissolution in the wake of the Depression.
In tracking the shifting alliances among these literary vaudevillians, it also suggests their unsavory sides and their forced gaiety. (The breakup between Kaufmann and Connelly is portrayed as particularly bitter, with the former headed off to work for the Marx Brothers in Hollywood.)
Parker, who apparently bedded everyone from Hemingway and Fitzgerald (the nighttime “bender” with the latter was not “tender”) to Elmer Rice and Ring Lardner, went through at least one abortion and several suicide attempts. As “The Faces That We Wear” (delivered poignantly by Kristin Maloney) suggests, the otherwise hard-as-nails Parker actually pined for her literary soulmate Benchley.
For his part, Benchley apparently suffered over his own superficiality but eventually succumbed to the siren call of Hollywood.
As the program notes put it: “The intellectual high-jinx began to seem jaded — and Hollywood offered more money than they could resist.”
The play, which is directed by Dan Wackerman, was first performed earlier this year at the Bank St. Theater in Greenwich Village. The seven actors, whose voices are nicely keyed to the intimate surroundings and who perform with energy, mostly hail from regional theater.