Thursday, October 14, 2021

What’s in the Boxes? A livestream performance by Alan Arkin and Robert Klein

Little heads in little boxes — I’ve been driven nuts by Zoom visuals, which have reduced discussion, entertainment, art, and just plain silliness into the home game of “The Hollywood Squares.” But when this pandemic finally ends (probably in 2024, just in time for the next pandemic and a surely chaotic Presidential race, in which the Duopoly will play its preordained game once again), I will remember fondly some of the cultural events that were done over the bizarro Zoom platform, a place where two people can’t properly talk at the same time. (But the second person’s “box” will indeed light up like crazy if he/she does want to interject.) 

An example of a one-time only event: a livestream I caught this past weekend starring two of my faves of long-standing, Alan Arkin and Robert Klein. The duo (who are both grads of early Second City companies but have never worked together before this) performed an un-staged (at their respective homes) reading of two one-acts written by Arkin, to benefit The Schoolhouse Theater and Arts Center in Westchester County, New York.

The first play, a somewhat preachy jaunt in which the Amazing Randi (Klein, playing the real-life magician and skeptic) meets a very welcoming Jesus (Arkin), was very obvious in its writing and allowed for no great characterizations. Arkin and Klein were joined for this and the second play by Jon Richards as the narrator (and necessary stage-direction reader).

The impetus for the play was apparently that Arkin is a spiritual person and wasn’t fond of Randi’s debunking not only magicians, but all kinds of spiritual schools of thought. The idea of Randi being seated next to the big JC on an airplane — and then being reduced to tears at the play’s end (when he arrives at his hotel room) did not make for a really resounding statement on either faith or disbelief.

On the other hand, the second one-act, “Virtual Reality,” was a great blend of comedy-team crosstalk and Theater of the Absurd (a NYC Jewish “Godot” with shady workers as the two-man cast — or are they crooks?). Klein did a great Bronx accent as a guy whose job is to unload three crates that are to arrive from an unnamed source. (Are they filled with stolen goods? Will the contents be sold or exchanged for something even stranger?)

Arkin wrote a terrific “Alan Arkin” role for himself — one where (true to form) his “new recruit” character doesn’t understand what he’s supposed to do in helping Klein, and eventually ends up yelling (in Alan’s classic fashion) about him not knowing what the hell is going on. The play begins with Arkin’s character showing up to his new “job” (or is it a caper?) and being told by Klein that the crates haven’t arrived, and they will prepare for their job by pretending the crates are there and making note of the contents. The piece supplied perfect roles for both of them and was a well-crafted absurdist one-act. (That ends, of course, just where the actual action in a traditional play would begin.)

The livestream was followed by a “talk back” segment in which both actors were willing to answer questions about the plays, or basically anything. The always-terrific Arkin seemed pleased with the whole event, but Klein lamented that he kept looking down at the text (because he saw that Arkin was interacting with the camera). Arkin was far more adept in his performance — this is true. But the odd nature of the second play made it okay that Klein wasn’t fully “engaging” on a visual level. (Plus his tough-guy Bronx accent sounded pretty damned authentic.)

I asked two questions in chat that were answered on the “Talk Back” afterward. The first was about Arkin’s influences for the second play — he honestly admitted “Virtual Reality” came out of him playing around with a playwriting app a friend of his couldn’t get to work. (Turns out I missed him performing it with his son Tony off-B’way in 1998; it was produced at the Manhattan Theater Club with what he said was a one-act starring Elaine May and Jeannie Berlin — then one with Arkin, May, and their children! Jeezis...)

Barbara Harris and Alan Arkin.

The second question was about the late, very great Barbara Harris, whom both men worked with. (Arkin in the initial Second City cast; Klein in the B’way play The Apple Tree.) Arkin responded instantly by saying, “She was brilliant and she had emotional problems. She had difficulty with staying in something [theatrical]. She would have problems and have to leave. But she was unquestionably a brilliant performer.”

The Apple Tree
(Harris on right;
Klein in cast)
Klein noted he had a big crush on her and (some of this is in his memoir) he befriended her and brought her to see his old neighborhood in the Bronx and the Bronx Botanical Gardens. He remembered that, at the time, Harris was lamenting that "Warren Beatty won't leave me alone!" (Post-Second City, she had made a big splash with both her theatrical work and her first film, A Thousand Clowns.)

He was there the night when she “went up” onstage in The Apple Tree: “Alan [Alda] was standing there dumbfounded and Barbara starts addressing the audience. ‘Hello, how are you?’ and she’s not making sense. She’s not crying but she’s not ‘in it’….” Her understudy took over for the rest of the first act and the second act, and an emergency call went in to Phyllis Newman, who took over for the third act and filled Harris' three roles afterward. Klein calls it one of the most “extraordinary” things he had ever seen onstage. (Barbara returned to the show two and a half months later; she stayed with it until after Alda had gone and Hal Holbrook took his place.)

All in all, it was wonderful to see Arkin functioning on all cylinders at 87 and Klein doing some comic bits during the talk back. (He’s a kid of 79.) When the pandemic really does end someday, I won’t bemoan the loss of its jerry-rigged entertainment — but I will indeed have some pleasant memories of these one-time-only livestreams. And yes, some screenshots to prove the damned things really took place.