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A CurtainUp Review
Cactus Flower

I always figured you'd have a nurse who was a. . ..nurse. You're Julian Winston. Bachelor, connoisseur. . .—Harvey

Harvey, Miss Dickinson is my assistant for the very reasons you complain about. She's like a wife, a good wife. . ..devoted, efficient, takes care of all my needs...during the day! And at night she goes home, to her home. And I, with no cares, no problems, go to my girl. My life is arranged the way I like it. —Julian
Cactus Flower
Maxwell Caulfield and Lois Robbins
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
I wasn't there when Cactus Flower, an American adaptation of a French boulevadier comedy about a middle-aged bachelor pretending to be married to avoid making his young mistress his wife, opened on Broadway in 1965. However, a friend who saw the show shortly after its official opening told me about a poster repeating a single word —" Funny" — each repeat followed by a different critic's name. Apparently this wasn't just a case of press agents pulling a sell word out of context. The critics really did think Cactus Flower was funny. And so did the ticket buying public who kept the house filled for 1234 performances.

Like the cactus plant on the desk of the commitment phobic Julian Winston's efficient nurse receptionist Stephanie Dickinson, the comedy bloomed on screen as it did on stage. It's therefore understandable why the producers thought the time ripe to give people eager to get away from the grim world and local news a chance to spend a few hours laughing at the shenanigans of the dentist, his nurse-assistant and his good-hearted young mistress.

The problem with the Cactus Flower now at the West Side Theatre is that the audience isn't laughing.

Despite the predictable and contrived complications resulting from Dr. Winston's elaborate deception the play still has the potential for a fun screwball comedy of a certain era. The ridiculous but amusing scenario has Julian, driven by guilt when his young mistress Toni attempts to kill herself, propose leaving the wife and children he's invented to legitimize the affair — but not before Toni can reassure herself that she's not breaking up a happy marriage by first meeting the soon-to-be-ex , which forces Winston to enlist his office assistant to pose as the pretend wife. Unfortunately, the complications that spin out before everyone ends up properly matched and mated at the Westside Theatre, somehow aren't the least bit funny. On the night I was there, I was almost embarrassed for the actors as line after line and scene after scene was met with stony silence, with the first audible chuckles not heard until it was too late to bring more than a teensy blossom to this sadly dated, badly directed and underwhelmingly performed production.

What we have here is a classic case of a show, whether timely as Cactus Flower was in the pre-women's lib 1960s, that demands performers with impeccable comic timing and strong interpersonal chemistry. Not to be overlooked is the importance of the actors giving those flawless performances having audience attracting star power.

Lois Robbins who plays the prickly but romantic Stephanie Dickinson, is the current revival's standout. But she's not Lauren Bacall who originated the role, or Ingrid Bergman who proved her ability as a comic actress in the movie. Jenni Barber brings some excellent credentials to the role of the dentist's young mistress duped into thinking she's the other woman. Too bad that director Michael Bush has allowed (if not encouraged) her to play Toni as a derivative cross between Judy Holiday and Goldie Hawn who nabbed an Oscar for playing Toni in the movie. (The recent movie Just Go With it which is a completely revised Cactus Flower does have a star but I hear it's not Adam Sandler's finest hour either).

As for Maxwell Caulfield, he's more in the tall and good looking mode of Barry Nelson (the Broadway Julian) than Walther Matthau (the movie Julian). However, though he's more than adequately good looking to wow! the ladies, his portrayal of the duplicitous Dr. Winston can be summed up with Toni's opening scene comment about her suicide: "I fizzled it!"

I'm afraid everything about this revival is a fizzle. Jeremy Bobb is quite appealing as Toni's young neighbor and the obvious right guy for her, but the unspectacular performances of the various actors who play patients and participants in the romantic tangle aren't helped by Michael Bush's less than exciting direction.

The Sixties' look is adequately supported by Karen Ann Ledge's costumes and Anna Louizos' set. The between scenes blackouts allow for a few prop changes to accommodate a variety of locations. I usally dislike the need for this many blackouts, but in this case the '60s songs played during these interludes were the most enjoyable part of this disappointing two and a half hour attempt to revive a long-ago hit show.

Cactus Flower
By Abe Burrows
Directed by Michael Bush
Cast: Jenni Barber (Toni Simmons), Jenni Barber (Toni Simmons), , Jeremy Bobb (Igor Sullivan), Maxwell Caulfield (Winston), John Herrera (Senor Arturo Sanchez), Anthony Reimer (Harvey Greenfield), Lois Robbins (Toni), Robin Skye (Mrs. Dixon Durant) Scenic Design: Anna Louizos
Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg
Costume Design: Karen Ann Ledger
Sound Design: Brad Berridge
Wig Design: Edward J. Wilson
Stage Manager: Rebecca Goldstein-Glaze
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours including one intermission
Westside Theatre Upstairs 407 West 43 Street 212-239-6200
From 2/24/11; opening 3/10/11
Tickets $75
Tuesday at 7:00 PM, Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00 PM, with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00 PM and Sunday at 3:00 PM
Reviewed at 3/07/11 press preview Closing 4/24/11 after 17 preview performances and 52 regular performances.
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