Though the sexual revolution was revving into full force in 1965, you'd never know it by America's popular entertainment. Barbara Eden may have been dressed in a belly dancer outfit while starring in the new hit series, I Dream of Jeannie, but the network censors made sure her belly remained covered. The next year Marlo Thomas' That Girl would begin a five-year TV relationship with her boyfriend Donald, but at the end of each romantic date they'd end the evening alone in their own separate apartments.
Sure, you might have caught a bit of nudity in those foreign films and experimental plays in Greenwich Village, but New Yorkers looking for "respectable" entertainment often turned to Broadway romantic comedies like There's A Girl In My Soup and The Impossible Years, that offered mildly titillating plots for husbands fantasizing about the swinging bachelor life but ended with a pro-marriage and commitment message that satisfied their wives.
One of the most popular of that genre, Cactus Flower, opened in December of '65 and enjoyed a three-year run. Penned by one of Broadway's most dependable gag-men, Abe Burrows (Guys and Dolls, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying), the original production starred Lauren Bacall and Barry Nelson, featuring Brenda Vaccaro in a role that would later win Goldie Hawn a supporting actress Oscar.
The Michael Bush-directed Off-Broadway revival of Cactus Flower, played on Anna Louizos' mod-style Manhattan skyline set, is certainly not without its charms. In fact, it's strangely enjoyable despite long stretches of being more smile-worthy than out-and-out funny. Maxwell Caulfield flashes a devilish grin as a commitment-phobic bachelor dentist, Julian, who has been keeping his much younger girlfriend, Toni (Jenni Barber), at an emotionally safe distance for a year by telling her he's married with three children. But when lovesickness drives her to a suicide attempt - only to be rescued by Igor (Jeremy Bobb), the nice guy writer next door - he agrees to get a divorce and marry her. But Toni, not wanting to split up a home, insists on meeting the wife first to make sure that, as Julian says, they mutually agree on dissolving their marriage.
Julian recruits his conservative, straight-laced nurse Stephanie (Lois Robbins) to play the part, figuring a quick meeting with Toni will do the trick. But when various complications, including Stephanie's long-standing crush on her boss, get in the way, the nurse's walk-on role becomes an extended performance and, like the prickly cactus Stephanie keeps on her desk, her personality, self-esteem and playfulness begin to flower and bloom.
Burrows is legendary for being one of Broadway's great script doctors, frequently contributing uncredited laughs to plays in need of a bit of punching up. Oddly enough, after nearly fifty years Cactus Flower comes off as the type of play that could use an Abe Burrows to come in and add some solid laughs. This is especially apparent when the playwright uses the traditional method of ending each scene with a gag that immediately cues a blackout. Supposedly the ensuing laughter carries us into the next scene but here the punches barely land. Fortunately, Bush supplies a hit parade of period recordings ("Satisfaction," "I Know A Place," "Born Free") whose lyrics, commenting on the action, help provide some guffaws.
The twists and turns of the plot make the second act noticeably funnier but a shot of sexual chemistry would be helpful. Another problem is that Bush's primary quartette doesn't play for the kind of light eccentricity that helps this kind of material really land. Caulfield's cad, Bobb's sensitive egghead and Robbins' spinster turned go-go queen are all likeable performances, but a bit on the plain side. Barber has to work with the handicap of being made to look like a Goldie Hawn clone, complete with the patented giggle, but still manages a lovely performance full of warmth and pathos. The broadly-playing supporting cast members - Anthony Reimer as the doctor's loudmouth buddy, Emily Walton as his loudmouth date, Robin Skye as a lusty patient and John Herrera as a would-be lothario - all have their humorous moments. If the evening isn't always funny, the atmosphere is still consistently fun.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Maxwell Caulfield and Lois Robbins; Bottom: Lois Robbins and Jenni Barber.
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