Wednesday, November 14, 2018


A play written by Bruce Jay Friedman (my all-time favorite short story writer), originally produced off-Broadway in 1970and reprised at L.A.’s Odyssey Theater, where we saw it last weekend.

And did not care for it.

In my youth, I read the script of Steambath and I laughed my pachachskys off.  A Steambath production on PBSin 1973, I found to be “Okay-Plus.”  Then there’s this latest production, which for reasons I cannot precisely identify failed to successfully deliver the goods.

Maybe it was the actors who, with rare exceptions, were unable to “connect “with the material.  Maybe it was the director, whose idea of “playing comedy” is to instruct the actors to speak faster.  Maybe it was a third thing I will mention later if I remember to… you know, I better mention it now, before it abruptly disappears, like the third CD from a “Book-on-Tape” I was listening to that accidentally dropped from its case and I never saw it again.  A Scottish “murder mystery”, ruined forever by the disappearance of “Disc 3.”  (Although, truth be told, I was having serious difficulty with the accent.) 

Let me begin with “A Note From the Director”, written in the recently attended Steambath program:

Steambath was written in 1970 and was immediately both enormously successful and shockingly controversial.”

That could be the decisive problem with Steambath,right there – a play, “shockingly controversial” in 1970, which, through the cultural “passage of time”, has lost its latent ability to shock.

How exactly does that work? Okay.  Say you need two blended ingredients to propel a rocket – boy, am I out of my depth with this one, though I shall forge ahead regardless.  If you only have oneof those two necessary ingredients, your doomed rocket will not successfully attain “Lift-off.”

That’s Steambath today – one element short of a “Lift-off.” It’s got the comedy but lost the igniting “Nitro” to explosively “spark” its propulsion. 

It’s amazing when you have both.  I saw Bruce Jay Friedman’s similarly bold first play Scuba Dooba in 1967, whose risky comedy – about a distraught man whose wife has run off with an African-American scuba diver – was “dangerously funny” for its time.  You could sense the subversive electricity, sitting in the audience.  We felt “this close” to getting arrested. Makiing us laugh rebelliously harder at all the play’s jokes.

By contrast, in the 2018 production of Steambath, the contemporary actors are aware they are shooting, if not blanks, then harmless “cotton ball” bullets that, reaching their targets, fall ineffectually down to the ground.  Leaving the uncertain performers rushing their dialogue, “pushing” the emotion, ad-libbing contemporary references and rewriting the script, rewriting being “ad-libbing with a pen.”

And, as a result those unhelpful strategies, dashing any chance of a successful production, the untrusted “laugh lines” garnering tepid reactions, or, as I noticed after intermission, a proactive “Let’s go home now.”

didhear oneperson heartily enjoying the experience.

That person was me.

Am I a fan of “Throwback Theater”, stripped of its incendiary sting?

No.  And what kind of a question is that?


You should be.

The reason I was laughing despite the play’s faded combustibility is that I am in awe of how Bruce Jay Friedman’s comedic mind works.  It’s not the jokes, per se. It is the delicious, selected specificity within the jokes.  I hear them, and I want to search out the author and give him a hug.

Stripped of its “illicit” credentials, the play must now proceed without the angry outcries of “Blasphemy!” concerning a plot in which a steambath serves as a Purgatorial “way station” and a Puerto Rican steambath attendant is God   As well as the incensed shouts of “Disgusting!” when, after the lead character calls “God” a “prick” and then quickly apologies to the one female in the room, she casually responds, “You can say prick.  Pecker is the one I don’t care for.”

Nudity, racial and sexual stereotypes, a Deity, demonstrating his “Divinity” through ordinary cards tricks and picking a lock with his teeth.  For today’s audience, it’s all a shrugging “Post Morality” yawwwwwwn.

Despite that unarguable drawback… I mean, 

“I don’t need no stinkin’ temporal context.”

When I hear a stream of off-kilter, “Where-did-that-come-from?” beauties like,

“I taught Art Appreciation at the Police Academy.”


“I just got involved in a charity.  Helping brain-damaged welders.”

Or, from a nostalgic denizen-of-the-40’s character,

“Malteds are the marijuana of my generation.”

Or, perhaps, my crowning favorite,  

(CONCERNING THE LEAD CHARACTER’S “DIFFICULT” MOTHER):  “I never liked the work she was doing.  She ran a chain of dancing schools in Appalachia.  She’d talk these starving families into taking mambo lessons…”

Are you laughing? “Mambo lessons.”  Are you kidding me?

Ahhhh, forget it.

I see Steambath on stageI feel sadly disappointed.

I read it privately at home and I am cackling like chicken.

“Brain-damaged welders.”

I worship the mind that uniquely came out of.
Election Follow-Up (about the California propositions mentioned in this blog):

The dialysis clinics will remain unregulated.

The ambulance drivers will remain "On Call" during their breaks.

The municipalities did not receive rent control authority.

The egg-laying hens got more cage room.

1 comment:

angel said...

Steambath was produced by KCET, back in the early 70's. It was shot in our new production studio on Sunset Blvd and though I came almost a decade later, the stories I heard from the crew were still being told, regarding the fact that just a towel was on top of the lead female character. It was so racy for TV, that they had to have 2 versions, so that the stations could make their own choice as to what version to air...or not air at all. I viewed it, finally, in 1984, when we reprised it for our 20th Anniversary. I found the first half much better than the 2nd half, but still thought it was a monumental victory for creativity and art, on this still "new" medium called Television. Now days, I am sure it would not even cause a ripple of trouble and I think that is partially what you are saying. It was a play for its time and maybe its time is over. How sad.