Keir Dullea, Matt Savitto and Marsha Mason
by Sam Juliano
When the film version of Robert Anderson’s stage play I Never Sang For My Father opened in the first year of the seventies, the response was muted but respectful. The Broadway show’s director Gilbert Cates, was on board to helm the screen version, and he was seen by many as an unimaginative and cautious director who would do little to open up the claustrophobic confines of the material. As it turned out Cates didn’t demonstrate any particular cinematic propensity, despite the advantage of film in utilizing exteriors and drmatic flashbacks, but his two lead actors were so electrifying, that today this film has built a rather impassioned and deserved cult reputation, despite studio indifference that has blocked a legitimate American DVD release. An excellent widescreen German print, however, with the title Kein Lied Fur Meinen Vater, has been mastered in region 2 and is presently available. But what Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman did (Pauline Kael said at the time they fueled ‘bargain basement dramatury to suprisingly powerful effect) to peel away the surfaces of their troubled characters was setting the bar too high for subsequent stage productions, where that level of artistry could never be even approached, much less equaled.
While Anderson, who admits I Never Sang For My Father is largely autobiographical, had managed to secure releases for about a half dozen plays on Broadway through the fifties and sixties, only the first one, Tea and Sympathy was a major hit on stage and on screen, with Vincente Minnelli directing the movie. Yet, years later (Anderson just passed away recently) I believe I Never Sang For My Father has retained it’s universality in a way that his other work hasn’t quite managed. True, it lacks the lyricism of the work of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, but it’s so true to life and jolting, that many will find some parallels in their own lives while registering the pain of loneliness, ostracization and familial dominance that was the core of this deeply-moving work. The plot is rather simple: Gene Garrison (Matt Servitto) looks on with mounting anxiety as his septuagenarian parents (Keir Dullea and Marsha Mason) slide inexorably toward decrepitude and death. Gene adores his mother, but has never been able to accept the severe ‘limitations’ of his father, a self-made Babbitt and former Board of Education president and Rotary member, who talks about ten times more than he listens. When Gene’s mother dies unexpectantly he tries one last time to penetrate the thick vaneer of his father’s vanity and forge a tie of true intimacy. Gene’s sister (Rose Courtenay) who was disowned by the father after she married a Jewish man, returns to afford her dear brother some sage suggestions.
The strength of I Never Sang For My Father is that it never segues into sentimentality (no easy task in light of the melodramatic material being played out here) and apart from some high-minded bloviations, it’s conflict and resolutions ring true. Even the catch phrase “Death ends a life. But it does not end a relationship” has a poignant underpinning, and the stage delivery by Mr. Servitto (Gene Hackman on screen) is compellingly elegiac. With the recent outbreak of many more cases of Alzheimer’s and the coming to terms with aging by children at a period where many are living longer, the relevance of Anderson’s remembrance takes on a far more meaningful aspect, if not a pointed study of a relationship that never clicked. Gene’s character is perhaps the most fascinating in that it’s always a tense acceleration to his eventual explosion in a bedroom scene that ranks among the most extradinary dramatic segments in American theatre, one that includes revelations of familial hatred (the elder Tom for his own father, who was a drunk, and who died alone of consumption) love (by Tom for his own petit mother), and the obstinant failure to compromise. This eventually turns a potentially ‘connecting’ moment to one of rejection and final separation. But Anderson, subsequently, in some powerful asides reveals that there’s a deep and unsettling wound that won’t allow the son to ever find the ellusive peace he was sure would inform advancing age. (“When I here the word father…it matters…)
As Tom, Keir Dullea never quite goes beyond the surface cantankerous and male bravado of the character, that Melvyn Douglas did on-screen, and some others have managed in other stage productions. Dullea, is really all attitude here, never suggesting the real obstacles for familial compatibility, and his performances is cold and distancing, which is really a fatal flaw for this work. As Gene, Matt Servitto is rather posturing, but he is firm and deliberate (again no Gene Hackman by a country mile) but still able to effectively navigate the stormy waters of a relationship where for most of the time he’s evincing agreement. Marsha Mason, though she doesn’t look old and frail enough to play the beloved family matriarch Margaret, is an intelligent actress that peels aways the emotional layers to realize a selfless character, who admits they is lucky to have her son living nearby as long as they have. Unfortunately, Mason doesn’t have all that much stage time to work with, and dies off mid-way through. As Alice, Rose Courtenay is way too mannered and superficial, showing none of the deeply felt hurt and sincerity that Estelle Parson managed on screen, but it’s rather a thankless role.
The director Jonathan Silverstein, wisely sticks here with a skeletally simple set, with modest furniture and props, and effective use by the actors of vigorous ad-libbing. The Clurman Theatre is an intimate place, where basic lighting works in highlighting the narration (not onrunning) and the inactive darkened characters in the backround. It’s a servicable production, but with the acting a mixed-bag, one can never be on Anderson’s wave-length both intellectually and emotionally. I Never Sang For My Father deserves a high-octane treatment, which sadly isn’t delivered with this relatively tepid production.
Note: Lucille, Broadway Bob and I attended this stage play on Wednesday evening, April 14th at the Clurman Theatre on 42nd Street. It ran two hours, including one ten-minute intermission. We dined befor the show at Ollie’s Noodles across the street.