The American theater has a tendency to proclaim a new creative talent at its first appearance -- with the unfortunate result that any second effort not up to the original success can easily doom a struggling playwright to obscurity.
But this may not be the case with Ernest Thompson, young author of "On Golden Pond," voted best play of the 1978-79 season by the Broadway Drama Guild. A successful premiere at Los Angeles's Ahmanson Theater last fall, with Charles Durning and Julie Harris, is repeated in thompson's film version, starring Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn.
"West Side Waltz," also by Thompson, played for seven weeks early this year at the Ahmanson before spending the month of April in San Francisco and then playing during the spring in Seattle. "West Side Waltz" is now slated to open this fall on Broadway and may do more US touring.
But where Katharaine Hepburn, the drawing card, is strong, the play itself is weak.
Common to both Thompson works is a contained setting (the living room of a cabin in one and a New York apartment in the other) with very few characters over a short span of time. Along the way, repartee gives over to a climactic meditative monologue by the main character about the meaning of life and people's contact with one another in it. It is significant that in both, the protagonists are retired people. Thompson should be credited with surprising insight into their attitudes for one of his youth.
but while both deal with old age and the concern for communicating, the playwright's communication works in "On Golden Pond," and it doesn't in "West Side Waltz." While Thompson's earlier work shows a deep understanding of human nature, replete with comments worth taking home to quote later, "West Side Waltz" brims with cliches about New York City and all-too-typical theater tricks -- Hepburn's comment "Now we're cooking" brings down the curtain on every one of the six scenes as the characters reach their only harmony while playing music.
On the other hand, repeated lines in "On Golden Pond," such as "Norman will fix it" (when the retired father gets a renewed belief in life's purpose, which motivates him to indeed fix things), become ministatements on the play's theme. "On Golden Pond" is a tidy gem that keeps its audience laughing hysterically and presents some rather poignant material on the adjustments to growing old as a neatly matched pair of opposites open their summer home in Maine.
While he wants to do absolutely nothing all day ("This'll probably be my last summer here, anyway"), she energetically sets about making life interesting for her husband again. She lovingly waits on him hand and foot as every book becomes an excuse for not helping, even while his struggle to rise from the sofa usually allows her to finish any project before he can get up.
All this changes when young blood enters the scene in the form of a trendy teen-ager.The couple's divorced daughter makes a rare appearance at their summer cottage for her father's 70th birthday, leaving behind the son of her current boyfriend so the two can head for Europe. Time flies, now there's something to live for.
Father is up before dawn to take Billy fishing (but guess who's carrying all the gear), and billy's hiply coarse language has become French -- from the lessons father insists he practice. (Even the broken cabin door has been fixed.) Later a much peppier grandfather is left behind, one who even helps his wife pack up at season's end, leaving a book behind "to read nextm summer."
as with "West Side Waltz," its successor, "on Golden Pond" does better through its humor than its inevitable moments of reckoning. But those lines that remain memorable do so because the manage to reflect the attitudes peculiar to a particular generation. They bring a nice chuckle, while in "West Side Waltz" they're simply cute, and the play consists of little else, with the lines so wedged between bits of overdone and sometimes tasteless humor that the end leaves no impact.
In a large apartment on New York's West Side brimming with the elderly, a feisty pianist (Hepburn) invites an overweight violinist to play duets. The guest immediately assumes a friendship, but Hepburn silences a continued plea that they become roommates.
Indeed, she seems to find human company only tolerable when necessary for the pleasure a little three-quarter time brings her. But the truth is that she is more lonely -- and dependent -- than she'll admit. Enter a wacky would-be actress to answer Hepburn's advertisement for a live-in: "If find it encouraging to think," says Hepburn sardonically, "that $50 a week can buy me some conversation."
Once again the domineering lady seems to have attracted an individual with no life of her own -- but despite their vituperative arguments, when she leaves to become engaged, Hepburn is deeply disappointed. It seems the better moments of life are those spent at the piano, always with the attitude that people ("You have to squint your eyes a little when you look at people or you'll never like what you see") are at their best when "cooking," i.e., making good music.
The formidable Hepburn is the reason for attending the play. She is at her inimitable best when basically being herself in a scenario that fits her personality to a tee. She and co-star Dorothy Loudon spar smoothly, with lines calculated to bring laughs. Billed as Hepburn live, onstage, the opening found the acerbic legend commenting that its performances prove she is indeed not yet dead.
Although both plays indicate qualities unique to Thompson, the first possesses a poignancy reflecting the genuine communication among family members, while the second left only the comic impression of a defiant old lady. "On Golden Pond" elicits our sympathy for the characters in this family. In "West Side Waltz," we have trouble caring what happens to them.
The seriocomic Thompson imprint gives us insight into human behavior in "On Golden Pond," while in "West Side Waltz" we leave the theater longing for more substance and less gimmickry. One can only hope that in plays to come, Thompson will be given other opportunities to hone his obvious bent for understanding human frailties and strengths with a mixture of humor and pathos.