The All Star Live Staged Reading

of Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" for the Television Academy

Related Article Published in the Italian American Review: Winter 2015:

Italian American Review WINTER 2015 • VOLUME 5 • NUMBER 1

27 The Afterlife of a Classical Text: Representing Ethnicity in the Stage Productions of Marty

The Afterlife of a Classical Text:
Representing Ethnicity in the Stage Productions of JONATHAN J. CAVALLERO

Ernest Borgnine’s performance as Marty Piletti in director Delbert Mann’s Marty - sentation of Italian-American men from the 1950s. Originally a 1953 episode in NBC’s Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse (1948–1956) with Rod Steiger in the title role, the material was then adapted into a highly successful 1 But Marty’s presence in American popular culture extends beyond its classes. Additionally, two adaptations of Marty have been produced for the stage.2 Marty was performed as a musical play in 2002, and the original television script was later featured as an invitation-only live stage reading at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in the summer of 2012. Although both had limited exposure, they are nonetheless important to our understanding of Marty. This article provides critical analyses of the representations offered by each production. Additionally, through original interviews, it offers a backstage look at the production process of the stage reading and a descriptive analysis of the event, which is especially notable since copyright constraints prevented any recording of the performance.3

Taken together, the musical and the stage reading have provided an ongoing commentary about the social meaning, rhetorical use, and surrounding Italian Americans has changed so too has the meaning of Italian-American representations in Marty. What once seemed progres- sive may now seem clichéd, harking back to a time when the full diversity characterized by an urban existence, a particular accented speech pattern, to a lesser degree continue to identify) many Italian Americans, but they do all Italian Americans. This is not to suggest that working-class life is an inadequate vehicle for the expression of universal themes or an understanding of American culture. I merely mean to propose that there is a great deal of diversity within the Italian-American community historically, and as scholars who concern ourselves with Italian-American ethnicity, we need to strive to speak about Italian-American experiences

©2015 John D. Calandra Italian American Institute

28 • Italian American Review 5.1 • Winter 2015

rather than the Italian-American experience. Otherwise, we may perpet-

This problem became more pronounced when Marty was restaged with only minimal revisions. Political silencing and exclusionary racial practices had characterized the 1950s mediascape, and the McCarthy era’s restrictive conservatism had limited the choices available to producers like Philco-Goodyear’s Fred Coe. One of the program’s regular directors (and the director of “Marty”), Delbert Mann, often lamented the ways in which the anti-Communist blacklist limited his casting choices and negatively affected not just his programs but the programming that television as a whole offered. “It was just beyond belief awful that the actors who previ- ously had worked over and over and over again would suddenly no longer get calls,” Mann wrote in his autobiography. “I feel that it was one of the major contributions to the start of the decline of the live television era” (Mann 1998, 37–38). This political silencing was exacerbated by the era’s racism. Even if “Marty,” under the supervision of progressives such as Coe, Mann, and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, worked to change the implica- tions of ethnicity by offering a white ethnic character who represented the average everyman, the effect was tempered by the racially exclusive world in which the character lived. This was not unusual at the time, since most television programs took place in such a world, but that representation “television drama thus became associated with a representation of univer- sality that contributed to racial exclusion” (2006, 271). Of course, historical productions that confronted different institutional and historical conditions should not be held to modern standards, but when an opportunity arises to adjust those representations in a more modern era, producers’ willingness or unwillingness to do so gives insight into notions on the general place of ethnicity in the present and also on how the meaning of Italian-American

The musical version of Marty seems to have offered little comment on the original, preferring instead to more or less resurrect a beloved character and narrative from the 1950s. This kind of nostalgic embrace laments a supposedly less complicated past and implicitly serves as a critique of the multicultural present where Italian-American neighborhoods and identi- 4 In order to facilitate such a critique, the musical mobilized some of the historical ethnic markers listed earlier (speech patterns, urban existence, working-class back- ground) with apparently little regard for the generic or historical/cultural differences that surrounded the production. The live stage reading, on the

The Afterlife of a Classical Text: Representing Ethnicity in the Stage Productions of • 29

and extended family, choosing instead to emphasize the characters’ inability to conform to traditional notions of beauty, the treatment they endure as a stage reading, then, moderated the play’s Italianness in order to emphasize issues that cross ethnic boundaries and carry the potential to build multi- ethnic alliances.

Marty’s journey from the screen to the stage was an arduous one; the Wisconsin State Journal reported that Chayefsky said he was “writing the lyrics for a musical version of his play ‘Marty’” (Wisconsin State Journal 1969).5 That particular version of the narrative never came to fruition, but others did. After Chayefsky passed away in 1981, interest in a musical adaptation of Marty continued. Chayefsky’s widow Susan and his son Dan were very protective of the writer’s legacy, and together they declined several oppor- tunities to sell the stage rights. In 1996, a team led by actor Jason Alexander Marty. Alexander, a Broadway veteran, had risen to stardom on the strength of his Emmy- nominated role as George Costanza on Seinfeld (NBC, 1990–1998), and, according to trade press reports, Alexander’s fame was instrumental in swaying the Chayefsky estate (Evans 1996).

Despite Alexander’s involvement, Marty’s production history would be lengthy and tumultuous. By the time the musical went before audiences at the Boston University Theater in November 2002, Alexander had left the project to pursue other television work, and the original librettist Aaron Sorkin had been replaced. Nonetheless, a number of prominent names were still involved. John C. Reilly had been cast as Marty, and famed Broadway composer Charles Strouse (Annie, Applause, Bye Bye Birdie) and his frequent songwriting partner Lee Adams (Golden Boy, Applause, Bye Bye Birdie) had written the music. The involvement of these stars along with the enduring popularity of Marty created enormous anticipation, and the musical broke “all previous advance sales records” at the theater (Hernandez 2003).

While a video copy of the musical is not currently available, much can be discerned about the show from published reviews and Strouse’s reaction to those reviews in his 2008 autobiography, Put on a Happy Face. As Strouse acknowledges, critical reaction to Marty the musical was mixed, but one review, in particular, drew the composer’s ire. He writes:

The local reviews ranged from superb to constructive, but (and this was a very big BUT), the Variety review—the only one to reach New York—said that John was too someone more different than the character so that the results might have

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been more “invigorating.”. . . My personal reading of this was that they were suggesting a black actor who was perhaps more hip-hop or rock, but I’m overly sensitive to the prevailing winds. (2008, 285)

Rather than saying Reilly was “too perfectly cast,” Markland Taylor’s Variety review read, “Mark Brokaw’s direction is never less than sensitive, but if everyone involved had taken an entirely new approach to the Chayefsky material—extending even to the casting and portrayal of Marty—the results might have been invigorating, rather than merely famil- iarly present” (Taylor 2002, 35). Strouse’s suggestion that this critique was There is no indication of that anywhere else in the review, and Taylor’s suggestion that the show break with previous iterations of Marty lest it seem repetitive was not unique. Carl A. Rossi, for example, had suggested something similar, writing, “the essence of Marty and Clara lies in their homeliness . . . if they’re made to sing like an angel and dance like a dream, you may wonder why they have trouble getting a date on Saturday night. Messrs. Strouse and Adams’ intentions are good: keeping their leads as plain, awkward people— middle register, nor are they made to dance—but they don’t allow their that the generic expectations of a Broadway-style musical and the ordinari- ness of Marty and Clara seem antithetical—a situation that appears to have little, if anything, to do with the racial identity of the musical’s protagonist.

Perhaps Strouse’s comments have less to do with the Variety review than with the failed efforts to bring the show to Broadway after its initial run in Boston. The composer reports that Gerald Schoenfeld, who worked with the Shubert Organization, requested a meeting with the musical’s principal creative personnel to discuss the possibility of staging it on Broadway. When Schoenfeld’s suggestion to cut the cast’s size in half was rejected, he asked the producers to meet two other conditions. First, no one was allowed to use an Italian accent; and, second, there could not be “a set that represented the front of a house in Brooklyn” (Strouse 285–286).6 Both suggestions, but especially the one about Italian accents, attempt to downplay the show’s ethnic Italian elements in favor of a more contempo- rary, multicultural vision.7 Schoenfeld’s suggestions endeavored to move beyond a nostalgic embrace of the 1950s in order to highlight some of the play’s other themes. He seems to have wanted the musical’s representation of ethnicity to be a minor aspect of the story rather than the story itself. It is easy to see how Schoenfeld might think that the use of 1950s Italian accents could add an unintentionally comic and possibly offensive angle to

The Afterlife of a Classical Text: Representing Ethnicity in the Stage Productions of • 31

the show, especially since Italian-American organizations were at that time protesting media representations of their ethnic group on programs like The Sopranos (HBO, 1999–2007).

cultural attitudes had changed. A more diverse (though still somewhat narrow) range of Italian-American media representations was being offered, and Italian Americans had further assimilated into the American mainstream. Those sociological and cultural changes had implications for how ethnic representations would be received (Hall 2010, 77–88). As Stuart Hall has shown, the cultural, historical, and institutional norms that surround a program’s production (its “encoding,” in Hall’s language) and its reception (its “decoding”) have profound effects on the representations a production offers and how those representations are understood by an audience. In Hall’s model, the cultural surround is inextricably linked with the program and its representations. Thus, the show becomes a kind of cultural artifact that reveals aspects of the culture(s) that produced and consumed it. The concern that Schoenfeld seems to have had was that the musical’s new representations did not update the material enough. After all, “Marty” was encoded in a time with much different norms, and Schoenfeld might have worried that the ethnic representations, in particular, would not translate very well in a more modern era.8 Strouse rejected this position and the conditions Schoenfeld had laid out, writing that the absence of Italian accents was an “odd and unmeetable” demand. As of this writing, Marty the musical has yet to be performed on Broadway (Strouse 2008, 286).

Ten years later, however, actor/producer Patricia Bethune’s decision to moderate (not erase) the 1953 teleplay’s Italianness would add considerable weight to the Television Academy’s live stage reading. Bethune’s involve- ment with the stage reading began during a meeting of the Academy’s Activities Committee in early 2012. At some point during the meeting, the discussion had turned to the live stage readings that Jason Reitman had been directing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Throughout the 2011–2012 season, these one-night-only performances had brought together contemporary Hollywood stars and classic scripts.9

As the Activities Committee members discussed the live reads, one member wondered if similar events could be staged at the Television Academy, bringing together classic television scripts and today’s TV stars. The committee was enthusiastic about the idea and asked Bethune, thought of “Marty.” “That’s the [early television show] that everyone knows and cares about,” she said in 2012, “It really broke through and changed everything” (P. Bethune, telephone interview, June 7, 2012). Bethune had

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Marty years before and had been drawn to Borgnine’s performance, especially since the character reminded her of her own working-class, non-Italian father. Bethune thus recognized the broad appeal of the material immediately, and as a result of that viewing, she later watched the TV version of “Marty” and The Catered Affair (Richard and starred Borgnine.10

nine-year-old script continued to be relevant to contemporary audiences, not necessarily because of the ethnic representations but rather the connec- tions between economics and family that the play presents as well as the relationship issues that the play confronts. In Bethune’s estimation, a sluggish economy had led more young adults to move back in with their parents, and the ubiquitous presence of new technologies and social media sometimes enabled the kind of cruel treatment that Clara and Marty lament in Chayefsky’s teleplay. “There’s no difference in hurting feelings by breaking up over Twitter or pawning someone off on someone else in a dance hall,” Bethune contends (P. Bethune, telephone interview, June 7, 2012). Bethune was obviously enthusiastic about Marty, but before the play could be performed she needed to secure the necessary rights and permis- sions from Paddy Chayefksy’s son Dan, who co-owns the rights to Marty with MGM. Initially, Dan Chayefsky was hesitant about the idea. “I feel a father,” Chayefsky says, “I don’t have the consciousness that he had about the material” (D. Chayefsky, telephone interview, July 13, 2012). On one hand, the younger Chayefsky was grateful for the continued attention his father’s work receives. On the other, he did not want to authorize adap- tations or re-stagings that might damage the standing of the original. Bethune’s insistence that the script continued to be relevant along with her assurance that her casting would modernize the material swayed Chayefsky, who had worried that Marty might seem dated in part because of the play’s historical ethnicity.11

With Chayefsky in agreement, Bethune began assembling her cast. Her choices were based on three principles. First, she wanted actors who were enthusiastic about participating in the event and ones that she believed would deliver high-quality performances. Second, she wanted actors who represented each of the major television networks. And third, she wanted actors who would not be competing in the same Emmy category. These casting practices would ensure a more democratic representation of the Television Academy’s membership while lessening the chance that the

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event would turn into a competition. Noticeably absent from this list is the actor’s ethnic background (although, as will be shown, this does seem to have been a factor in the casting of at least two of the play’s most prominent roles) or their ability to speak with an Italian accent. “I am not making anyone do Italian accents,” Bethune had assured Dan Chayefsky, “It’s not about the accent” (P. Bethune, telephone interview, June 7, 2012). For Bethune, the accents were a potential distraction from the themes that she audiences. Had the entire cast mobilized character traits that were rela- tively homogeneous, the distraction would have been even more apparent.

Despite the backing of the Television Academy, Bethune rarely got to speak to potential cast members directly. “I had to write my feelings about [the project] and hope that their publicist or manager would actually pass it along to them,” she remembers (P. Bethune, telephone interview, June 7, that was always very close to him,” Bethune recalls. “He changed [his whole schedule] around to be able to be there. That’s how much it meant to him” (P. Bethune, telephone interview, June 7, 2012). Next, Bethune turned to the role of Teresa, Marty’s mother. While Bethune wanted a multi- the possibility that some theatergoers might see Marty as a play that was about only Italian Americans, she nonetheless recognized the importance of acknowledging and retaining some of the original teleplay’s Italian/ Italian-American aspects.

(rightly or wrongly) continue to be attached to Italian-American ethnicity. Bethune’s casting of Brenda Vaccaro, an Italian-American actress who had been friends with Paddy Chayefsky and was happy to perform one of his scripts, in the role of Marty’s mother placed actors with Italian-American backgrounds in two of the play’s most prominent roles.12 This worked to “explain” the relationship dynamics. Marty’s willingness to show consid- eration for his mother’s feelings even if that means delaying his pursuit of his own desires may seem somewhat strange for an American audience, given how steeped U.S. mythology is in individualism. Perhaps, for some, it would seem less strange if the actors (and by extension their characters) were marked by a culture routinely associated with strong family back- grounds, overbearing mothers, and immature sons who cling to their adolescence rather than accepting the responsibilities of adulthood.13 This is not to suggest that the stage reading crudely mobilized all of these clichés, but the long-standing history of their existence may have informed the representations that the stage reading offered.

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She approached Anna Gunn after a Television Academy event that featured the cast of Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–2013). Gunn, who was familiar with Marty, was happy to play the role of Clara/The Girl telling Bethune, “Just tell me the day and when, and I’ll be there.” Dermot Mulroney was also enthusiastic about being included. The actor had studied Marty in college, and he jumped at the chance to play Angie. Bethune later cast Loretta Devine in the role of Aunt Catherine; Pauley Perrette and Raymond Cruz in the roles of Virginia and Tommy, the married couple who struggle with Catherine’s constant presence; and Max Adler, Joel McHale, and Cleo King in a variety of bit parts. With her cast assembled, Bethune made a bold decision. She felt that the actors were already being “very generous” with cast would read the script together (P. Bethune, telephone interview, June 7, 2012). In order to allow them to prepare, Bethune sent each of the actors a copy of the script along with a note that described how she saw the character and what function she thought the character served in the play. Over the next several weeks, Bethune informed her actors which stage directions she would be reading, which ones she would not, and who the other members of the cast were so that the actors could “get a visual of who they were talking to” (P. Bethune, telephone interview, June 7, 2012).14

The live stage reading of Marty took place at the Academy’s Leonard Goldenson Theater on June 4, 2012. Upon entering at the rear of the theater, attendees saw a stage that featured eleven white chairs arranged in a semi- circle. Nametags lined the front of the stage, identifying each of the actors, and images of 1950s New York were projected on a large screen behind and slightly above the chairs while music from the likes of Frank Sinatra (a noticeable Italian-American marker) and others played over the sound system. The event began with a nearly seven-minute video, assembled by Bethune and Bob Telford from the Academy Archives. Featuring Mann, Borgnine, Max Wilk, James L. Brooks, and Nancy Marchand, the video (which as of this writing is available on YouTube) provided a brief history Marty along After the video, an Academy representative acknowledged the sponsors who had helped to make the event possible, thanked Dan Chayefsky for allowing the reading to take place, and then introduced the cast. Each actor walked onstage to applause and carried a black binder with a color insert Marty script.

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With all of the actors seated, Bethune began: “FADE IN: A butcher shop in the Italian district of New York City.” Romano sat with his script in his reading progressed smoothly, and it became clear that Marty still resonated with an audience. Theatergoers sat rapt throughout the entire performance, listening intently to the dialog. On multiple occasions, the audience went from laughing in one moment to being on the verge of tears in the next—a demonstration of just how powerful Chayefsky’s artistry remained. To varying degrees, Bethune and Dan Chayefsky had been concerned that the material would seem dated to the audience, but whenever something of that nature came up during the reading, it seemed to enhance rather than diminish the audience’s enjoyment. In one such example, during the play’s second act, Teresa and Aunt Catherine discuss getting older. “What shall become of me?” asked Loretta Devine in the role of Aunt Catherine. “These are terrible years. I’m afraid to look in the mirror. I’m afraid to see an old lady with white hair, just like the old ladies in the park. Little buns and with myself?” Devine, who was sixty-two at the time, and Vaccaro, who was seventy-two, laughed with each other as an audience that included Importantly, it was not the representation of ethnicity that was humorous or dated here but the representation of age.15

demonstrated a detailed knowledge of the script. In between acts, cast members would swap chairs, allowing actors who shared upcoming scenes to sit next to one another. Rather than recycling previous performances of the material, each actor played his or her part in a unique way. For example, Ray Romano, well known as a comic actor from his Emmy Award-winning performance as Ray Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS, 1996–2005), played Marty in an emotionally restrained manner. Neither as melancholy and weepy as Steiger nor as ebullient as Borgnine, Romano’s performance parody or leaning too heavily on Romano’s obvious comic gifts. Romano’s performance then worked against the notion that Italian Americans are overly emotional and foreshadowed his performance as the more serious and socially awkward photographer Hank Rizzoli on Parenthood (NBC, 2010–2015).

Nevertheless, at times, some members of the audience struggled to shake the memory of Romano’s comic past, laughing at lines that were not meant to be funny. One such moment came during the play’s famous “blue suit-gray suit” monolog. In the scene, Marty’s mother badgers him about

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going to a dance at the Waverly Ballroom. Marty, who privately wants to avoid the pain of rejection, is resistant, publicly saying he would rather stay home and watch Sid Caesar on television. However, his mother is insistent, wife lest he “die without a son.” After much hounding, Romano as Marty snapped, “Ma, the blue suit or the gray suit. I’m a fat, little man. A fat, ugly little man.” A few audience members could be heard chuckling, if only likely that such reactions were inspired by the memory of Romano’s past roles (or the fact that Romano himself hardly appeared fat, ugly, or little onstage). But when the actor barked Marty’s next line, “That’s what I am!” the laughter quickly subsided and the script’s seriousness won out. It seems that initially some audience members were reading new material through an old lens. Not yet familiar with Romano’s more serious, dramatic work, these theatergoers (at least initially) decoded his performance as another iteration of his more famous comic persona.

While Romano’s Italian-American roots are a prominent aspect of reading’s other actors do not claim Italian heritage.16 By freeing the actors of the need to conform to working-class Italian-American accents and overly expressive body language, Bethune allowed them to move beyond ethnic imitation. Using their own voices made it less likely that audience members would be distracted by the spectacle of known actors mobilizing 17

For example, in the second act, Gunn sat silently for several minutes while two unnamed male characters (one played by Joel McHale and the other by Max Adler) discussed who would take Clara (Gunn’s character) home. At this point in the script, McHale’s character has been set up on a female friend with whom he would rather spend the evening, he offers Marty $5 to take Clara home. Marty, who has endured similar treatment in the past, is appalled by the cruel nature of the offer and says as much to McHale’s character, who quickly shuns our hero and approaches the more agreeable Adler. In both the TV program and the movie, the character like Marty, seems to be in his mid-thirties. McHale played him in a much more dynamic, youthful way, and Adler followed suit. In McHale’s and Adler’s hands, the characters were not just trying to get rid of a date, they delighted in the (to them) brilliant plan that they had hatched. McHale’s voice was crisp and strong and his body language was dynamic rather than the more mumbled, secretive tones and lethargic body language of

The Afterlife of a Classical Text: Representing Ethnicity in the Stage Productions of • 37

bound up in their own cleverness that they were blissfully unaware of the emotional damage they were causing. The audience responded to them in kind. While the characters were not entirely likable, they carried a kind of repulsive charm—more misguided young boys than malicious men fully aware of their treachery.18

As Gunn continued to sit quietly, Bethune’s stage directions described how Clara (who Marty’s mother says “doesn’t look Italian”) silently rejected the offer of a walk home, how Marty witnessed the entire scene and how Marty followed her and eventually asked her to dance. As the scene unfolded, Gunn, who had yet to speak, began crying silently. Pulling a tissue from her pocket, she softly dabbed her face as the tears fell from her eyes. Reviewers of earlier versions of Marty have been quick to criticize the casting of Clara. Both Marchand (in the TV version of “Marty”) and be believable in the role of a homely woman in her late twenties. A similar statement could be made about Gunn. But that criticism is predicated on the notion that physically attractive people’s looks have allowed them to avoid insecurities and cruel treatment of any kind. Gunn’s physical presence in the theater stripped away the glitz and glamour associated with the big and small screens. Her genuine reactions to the scene had the effect of humanizing the character and allowing the audience to identify with her pain.

Gunn’s unique take on the character also led to a slightly less assertive time. After some initial pleasantries, it becomes clear that Mrs. Piletti’s notion that a mother should continue to live with her son after he is married cannot be reconciled with Clara’s more modern idea that married couples should have a home to themselves. As Vaccaro hurled questions at Gunn, Gunn almost immediately retreated to a more conciliatory tone. Marchand and Blair had both been more assured and assertive in their performances of this scene. Gunn spoke the same lines, but she was more timid. Her voice was softer, and she made less eye contact with Vaccaro. Almost sixty years had passed since Chayefsky penned Marty, but Gunn’s performance rendered a less modern if perhaps more believable Clara. Here the inse- curities that Clara would feel not just in her interactions with potential suitors but also with other women were emphasized. Clara’s recognition of and deference to Mrs. Piletti’s cultural norms—norms with which Clara disagrees but of which she wants to be respectful and sensitive—only

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Dermot Mulroney’s performance as Angie made the character smarmier and less pathetic. Whereas Adler and McHale had worked to make their unappealing characters more young and likable, Mulroney endeavored to played by Joe Mantell, struggled with the possibility that Clara might soon replace him. While Angie’s actions were self-serving, they seemed to garner some sympathy from the audience since he did not seem fully aware of the emotions that were driving him.19 In Mulroney’s hands, Angie became more smirk on his face, slouching in his chair at times, and sighing frequently to convey his impatience with Marty and Marty’s attraction to Clara. The material moved closer to non-Italian-American viewers who could not use ethnic difference to distance themselves from the material. This was an important move for the play to make since movies and television shows from Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977) to Jersey Shore (MTV, 2009– 2012) to the more recent Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013) often frame Italian-American men as undesirably chauvinistic, sexist, and aggressive. By stripping Marty of Angie became a comment on some forms of American masculinity and avoided the clichéd, often derogatory representation of Italian-American men. Thus, the stage reading bucked the media’s willingness to divide indi- viduals along ethnic lines and highlighted our shared struggles.

Raymond Cruz’s performance as Tommy (Marty’s cousin and Catherine’s son) and Pauley Perrette’s as Virginia (Tommy’s wife and Catherine’s daughter-in-law/nemesis) also emphasized aspects of the characters that were not apparent in previous versions of Marty. In a scene from Act I, Virginia and Tommy ask Mrs. Piletti to allow Aunt Catherine to live with her. Perrette played Virginia as an anxious, unsure-of-herself young wife with a mother-in-law problem. Sitting in her chair, she bent at the waist and moved in a somewhat sporadic manner, as she leaned incon- sistently toward and away from the other characters. She stammered over her words as she relayed her problems with Catherine’s constant presence, appearing both edgy and unsure of herself. The performance simulta- neously conveyed how frazzled Catherine had made Virginia and how desperate Virginia was to have the problem addressed. Cruz (Perrette’s on-stage husband) sat in his chair, bent at the waist, his legs spread wide apart as he looked down at the script he held in both hands. His perfor- mance as Tommy seesawed from vitriolic rants to comments spoken in whispered, secretive tones to Marty, the only male relative in the scene

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as the henpecked husband, who is simultaneously fearful and annoyed at the prospect of brokering a peace between his wife and his mother. contain his own nervousness and sometimes failed to subdue the anger that rested just below the surface.

In the 1953 television version of “Marty,” Betsy Palmer had played Virginia as irritated and angry, speaking in a sharp voice and gesturing heatedly with her hands. Lee Phillips had played Tommy nervously, tones, and looking down at the table in an effort to avoid eye contact. In the live stage reading, Perrette and Cruz played the roles in a radically different way. Now Virginia was nervous, and Tommy was irritated and angry. At times, Cruz as Tommy became so enraged that he stumbled over the words he was speaking. The performance was one of Bethune’s favorites. “I loved the spin he put on his role,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘That was something that wasn’t played in either of the previous versions, and should have been’” (P. Bethune, telephone interview, June 7, 2012). While Romano played Marty in a manner that diverged from his comic persona, both Perrette and Cruz’s performances drew energy from some of their most well-known roles. Cruz’s anger hinted at his prior performance as Tuco Salamanca, an unstable Mexican drug lord on Breaking Bad, while Perrette’s high-energy Virginia echoed her performance as the overcaffein- ated tech geek Abby Sciuto on NCIS (CBS, 2003–present).

male friends. The guys make fun of Clara and tell Marty he should not call her, but eventually our eponymous hero discounts their objections. With the receiver in hand, Marty turns to Angie. “Hey, Angie, listen,” Marty says. “When are you going to get married? You know, I mean, you’re thirty four years of age. All your brothers and sisters are married. When are you going to get married? You better get married, because if you don’t you should be ashamed of yourself you know.” Clara comes on the line (although we do not hear her voice), and Marty closes the phone booth’s door. With the dialog concluded, Bethune read the play’s last stage directions, and the audience burst into applause giving the performance a standing ovation.

Bethune had promised Dan Chayefsky that she would use her casting choices to make the piece more relevant to a 2012 audience, and she had followed through by deliberately assembling a multiethnic cast and allowing them to speak in their own voices. As a result, none of the cast members felt the need to cater to exaggerated patterns of accented speech in order to be “true” to the original material. From the stage came a cascade

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of accents—African American, Latino, Italian American—creating a kind of harmony that carried transformative potential—a potential that is seldom realized in a world and an industry that still often seeks to divide individ- uals by classifying them into different racial and ethnic groups. Bethune’s choices allowed the play to shift some of its attention from the way the actors spoke to the problems they faced, thus highlighting issues that are prevalent within, yet stretch beyond, Italian-American families and commu- nities. Here the markers that were once used to identify Italian Americans as obviously different were subdued in favor of multiethnic representations that subtly recognized differences but stressed commonalities. Further, Bethune’s revisions created a stage reading that rejected the notion that the past was preferable—an admirable move since the so-called simplicity of the 1950s ethnic landscape was often built on racially exclusive policies.

Nevertheless, Bethune’s approach may raise concerns, especially on the Marty is perhaps the most important aspect of the material for those of us who specialize in ethnic representations, and toning down the play’s Italian markers might offer the impression that the “twilight” of ethnicity has indeed been reached. Relatedly, it could be argued that Italian-American cultural life. It is important to remember, however, that the stage reading included actors from various ethnic backgrounds and allowed them to preserve their ethnic accents. In this way, Bethune embraced ethnicity while showing that some struggles transcend ethnic difference. The perfor- ethnic homogenization or erasure.

Chayefsky and the southerner Delbert Mann saw Marty’s ethnicity as incidental. Throughout his life, Mann would insist that the charac- ter’s experiences not be reduced to his ethnic background. “[Chayefsky] arbitrarily chose an Italian background,” Mann had written in his auto- setting where tradition, family values and concerns are strong” (Mann Chayefsky, in fact, had based the characters on various Jewish Americans that he knew, and, for decades, Mann had kept fan letters (which are now available in the archives at Vanderbilt University) that recognized the story’s universal appeal. Marty may be a story about Italian Americans, but it is not just a story about Italian Americans. Despite its ethnic foundation, it is (and always has been) a story that appeals to individuals of various

The Afterlife of a Classical Text: Representing Ethnicity in the Stage Productions of • 41

backgrounds, and Bethune’s decision to use an ethnically diverse cast was motived by a desire to emphasize that cross-ethnic appeal.

Still, Bethune’s decision to cast Romano and Vaccaro at the core of of the original play. But Bethune also seemed to recognize that despite the play’s universal appeal there remain some dynamics that appear quite —or perhaps more broadly some ethnic cultures. Would Marty’s commitment to his mother and his desire to respect her opinions, even if he disagreed with them, be as believable if he were nonethnic? Perhaps, but Bethune was not willing to take that risk. By keeping Italian-American ethnicity at the core of the stage reading’s most prominent, familial relationship, Bethune ensured not just a sense of son relationship.

Ultimately, Italian-American ethnicity is still very relevant today, just not in the same way it was in 1953 or 1955. Italian Americans as a group have progressed to a higher socioeconomic standing that includes positions of power in the media industries, and with that power has come a greater diversity of ethnic representations (although it still remains somewhat narrow) and a better understanding on the part of the general public of the kinds of diversity that exist within the community, making representa- tions simply resurrected from the 1950s seem far more alien than they once were. Additionally, the multicultural adaptation of a text that once had a text more relevant to an increasingly multicultural world but also more relevant to many modern-day Italian Americans. After all, the majority of Italian Americans now live or work in multicultural environments where they interact with individuals of many different ethnic backgrounds. This was less the case in the 1950s when urban ethnic enclaves such as the one featured in Marty were more prevalent and isolated. By carefully moder- us to see the struggles that reach across ethnic lines while still acknowl- edging the importance of ethnicity today.

—Facebook and Twitter may replace some forms of face-to-face contact, for example—but the general struggles that we face remain relatively consistent. Perhaps this is why Marty continues to be of interest to artists from an array of ethnic and social backgrounds. Dan Chayefsky reports that “a popular television/stage actor” has approached him about a nonmusical stage version of the material, and “a prominent rap star/actor inquired about a movie remake” (D. Chayefsky, email comm.,

42 • Italian American Review 5.1 • Winter 2015

July 29, 2012). In 2006, Fox was developing a comedy series titled Call Me Marty, written by Danny Jacobson who had been a writer on Roseanne (ABC, 1988–1997) and Mad about You (NBC, 1992–1999). The series was to focus on “a blue-collar butcher from Yonkers, who winds up joining a snooty Westchester country club” (Schneider 2006, 5).20 None of these versions have been realized, but one hopes that if and when they are, the artists will see the continued relevance of Marty and Clara’s stories today rather than Type your paragraph here.


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