Photo Carol Rosegg
New Girl in Town
The Irish Repertory Theatre
Composer-lyricist Bob Merrill is best known today for having written the lyrics for Funny Girl, and also for having penned the 50s novelty song “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” In 1957, he musicalized Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, a play about a Swedish prostitute trying to find redemption, and called it New Girl in Town, a title that sounds like a put-on. It made me think of the moment in 1950's The Furies when a good-time girl at a bar tells Barbara Stanwyck that she’s new in town and Stanwyck dryly remarks, “Honey, you wouldn’t be new anyplace.” That title, though, isn't meant to be comic; instead, it's an earnest attempt to beam a little 1950s sunshine onto O’Neill’s gloomy play, most of which doesn’t survive the sanitization of George Abbott’s book.
Most people think of Anna Christie as the 1930 movie in which Garbo Talks!, saying, in her lingering contralto, “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby.” In the German film version of Anna Christie, which was filmed simultaneously with the American, Garbo is at her best: she really does seem like a hardened prostitute when she makes her entrance. By contrast, when Margaret Loesser Robinson enters this revival of New Girl in Town at Irish Rep (through September 9), she seems like a sturdy, good-hearted, intelligent blond who doesn’t let anything bother her. Merrill gives her a song, “On the Farm,” in which Anna recounts the horrors she’s experienced with men. But the lyrics are so discreet and Robinson so basically cheerful that it’s hard to tell if her father, Chris (Cliff Bemis), has understood anything of what she was trying to tell him. Robinson is talented, and as I watched her I kept thinking about the many other parts she should play. Anna Christie isn’t one of them.
Meanwhile, Anna’s father is really one of the worst theater roles of all time, and in Merrill’s musical he comes across as dimmer and more absurd than usual, even if Abbott has axed all the mutterings about “dat ole davil sea” that so slow down the O’Neill. As Matt, the man who might rescue Anna from a lifetime of bitterness, Patrick Cummings does that musical-theater thing of staring off into the middle distance as he sings, and Danielle Ferland’s Marthy takes no advantage of that role’s opportunities for enjoyably hamming it up. The Irish Rep has already put on Take Me Along, Merrill’s musical version of O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness!, so now they’re two for two with his dull O’Neill adaptations. This one is just an all-around mistake. Hopefully he didn’t leave lying around an upbeat Long Day’s Journey into Night with a chin-up 11 o’clock number for Mary Tyrone, in which she'd sing, “I Was So Happy For A Time!”