As The Stage Turns At The Mall

November 21, 1982
The New York Times
By Alvin Klein

PARAMUS PRODUCERS committed to developing new plays would hardly be expected to stage a Neil Simon comedy - and a negligible one at that. For Fourstar Productions, however, that seems to be the surest route to survival.

The production company, which signed a six-month lease with Playhouse on the Mall last June, was formed to try out new plays with commercial potential. Its first attempt, ''Fool of Hearts'' a twocharacter comedy by Gus Kalkkonen that was presented for three weeks last month, was a critical and commercial failure.

When announcement of the next play, ''Young Bucks'' by John Kunik, was made, few tickets were sold. As a result, the producers canceled ''Young Bucks,'' which calls for a cast of 11 and deals with themes of competition and maturity, and settled for Mr. Simon's safe threecharacter, lightweight comedy.

Will ''The Star-Spangled Girl,'' which runs through next Saturday, give Fourstar Productions a new lease on life? Will its lease with the Playhouse be renewed?

In response soap-opera-style questions it may be apt to say: Tune in next month to find out. Indeed, the company's soap opera associations are considerable. One of its purposes is to provide stage acting - real acting - opportunities to actors who are gainfully employed on television in the daytime, but who claim that their ''first love'' is theater.

The success or failure of the Simon play will help to resolve yet another question: Does the public want to pay $10 to $17 to see familiar faces -which are seen free of charge at home - in an unfamiliar context?

For a time, the answer seemed to be a resounding yes. For openers last August, Fourstar Productions presented a series of audienceparticipation shows under the collective title, ''Talk Back to the Stars,'' in which actors identified with such soap operas as ''General Hospital'' and ''All My Children'' appeared to promote the playhouse's coming attractions.

''Talk Back to the Stars,'' which was priced at $4 and $6 a ticket, did well. So did a musical variety show in September. Then came the first new play (''Fool of Hearts'') and disaster at the box office.

Fourstar Productions consists of George Mead, a director; Steven Smith, a writer-producer; Beth verDorn, a theater administrator, and her husband, Jerry verDorn, an actor currently appearing as Ross Marler on the television soap ''Guiding Light.''

Mr. verDorn is one of the three actors in ''The Star-Spangled Girl,'' which also stars Michael Tylo, known for his role as Quint McCord in ''Guiding Light,'' and Colleen Zenk, who has been playing Barbara Stenbeck in ''As the World Turns'' for four years.

(It is customary to refer to soap opera ''stars'' in tandem with the characters they play, so total is the association. This implies that they lack their own identity as actors, and those involved in Fourstar Productions want to change that.)

The producers, who live in Manhattan, chose the playhouse here because its nearness to New York City was expected to attract actors in ''daytime soaps.'' Furthermore, according to Mr. Mead, ''we believed there would be a chemistry between soap stars and shopping malls.''

With the failure of their first two attempts to present new works, and the artistic compromise that the selection of Mr. Simon's play represents, Mr. Mead expressed the fear that ''we're neither fish nor fowl.''

''We have a group of real theater people who want a chance to get beyond the soaps, and we'd like to find a way to finance new scripts and make an impact on the commercial theater,'' he said. ''It's too expensive to do that in New York, and it's impractical to do it on the road, and so we wanted to establish an audience here and use the theater as a testing ground.''

For the 20-year-old, 636-seat playhouse, the success of Fourstar Productions could be a turnaround. For 12 years, Robert Ludlum, the novelist, operated Playhouse on the Mall as a theater specializing in what Mr. Mead calls ''boffo attractions.'' These included such stars as Alan Alda, Carol Channing, Rock Hudson and Ann Miller.

After Mr. Ludlum left, the theater floundered, according to Mr. Mead. ''An actor I knew in the Center Stage company, which previously played here, said, 'We're going downhill, but you should see the theater,' '' Mr. Mead said. ''We felt that if we brought recognizable actors in new plays, we would do well. There are a lot of malls around, but we're the only real theater in one, and now we wonder whether there's a future for us here.''

In the sphere of Neil Simon comedies, ''The Star-Spangled Girl'' is near the nadir. In 1966, when the play eked out a seven-month run on Broadway, it was Mr. Simon's feeble concession to the sensibility of the intellectual protest movement, while keeping a solid foothold in Middle America.

Andy and Norman who, we are told, graduated in first and second place in their class at Dartmouth, are publishing a politically controversial magazine called ''Fallout'' in a small San Francisco apartment.

Norman is writing all the articles, which have such titles as ''Twenty-Seven Ways to Burn Your Draft Card,'' under 14 pseudonyms and Andy is editing them.

Enter Sophie Rauschmeyer, the vacuous all-American girl next door. To Norman, she's ''one of God's creations made during His best period.'' He goes through her garbage, cleans her house and makes himself otherwise obnoxious.

It follows that she falls for Andy, and Andy, who has called her a ''corn-fed mini-mouse,'' does not resist. The play has a few characteristically snappy Simon one-liners, but mostly they're limp indeed. The one sustained gag - Andy's attempts to ward off the landlady's phone calls (she wants his body or the rent) - is tiresome.

Mr. Mead, the director, keeps all this uneventful foolishness moving along deftly, creating capital fun with whatever visual gags can be realized or concocted.

The entrances of Mr. verDorn (Andy), Mr. Tylo (Norman) and Miss Zenk (Sophie) - all reportedly recognizable from their soap opera television appearances - were greeted with ''oohs'' and ''aahs'' from a sparse but appeciative audience.

Making something substantial or comic of such frustrating roles is a test case for actors. These passed, if not with honors, but the play's original stars - Anthony Perkins, Richard Benjamin and Connie Stevens - did no more honorably.

Mr. Mead, however, deserves extra credit for making something out of very nearly nothing.