“You’ve got the Book of Knowledge there. Philadelphia is the capital of Pennsylvania. Or is it Harrisburg?” as delivered by the inimitable Bob Dishy, playing the disaffected New York Times reporter Jake, got a big laugh in Jules Feiffer’s Grown Ups. Jake was addressing Edie, his annoying nine-year-old daughter amid a fierce argument with his depressed wife Louise in their Upper West Side apartment. At the end of the play, with his shocked passive aggressive parents Jack and Helen, and his resentful younger sister Marilyn visiting, he announces, “I quitting the New York Times!” Mr. Dishy was titanic as he unleashed a lifetime of pent up fury.
Frances Sternhagen and Harold Gould were sensational as the parents, Cheryl Giannini beautifully conveyed tart fragility as the suicidal Louise who has not gotten over a miscarriage. Kate McGregor-Stewart’s daffy warmth was winning as the sister and Jennifer Dundas as the little girl embodied Feiffer’s quintessential take on childhood. The first act took place in Marylin’s New Rochelle kitchen and the other two acts in a Manhattan apartment. John Madden’s charged direction injected momentum as the corrosive actions played out on scenic designer Andrew Jackness’ atmospheric everyday settings.
In Grown Ups, Mr. Feiffer has narrowed his focus from the social fabric of modern America to the psychological fabric of one Jewish-American family. And by turning inward, he has written his most moving and provocative work. Mr. Feiffer is out for blood in Grown Ups, and he won’t quit until he gets it. Indeed, this play soon becomes one long piercing cry of rage.
So, observed New York Times drama critic Frank Rich in his rave review. However, perhaps there was too much such rage for audiences to accept, Grown Ups’ Broadway run ended on Feb 20, 1982, after just 83 performances. There had been 15 previews beginning Nov 27, 1981, before its opening night on Dec 10, 1981.
Grown Ups got great reviews, but it was about an acrimonious Jewish family that didn’t kiss and make up in the end. Audiences in the eighties—didn’t mind a fighting Jewish family, but they needed a happy resolution. Otherwise, it came too uncomfortably close to their own lives. From Jules Feiffer’s 2010 memoir, Backing into Forward.
In the season of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart, Master Harold and the Boys and Mass Appeal, there were no Tony nominations for Grown Ups. The Drama Desk did nominate it for Outstanding New Play and Cheryl Giannini for Best Featured Actress in a Play. I can still hear her frosty intonation of “You bore me.” The sole New York City revival of it was director Lonny Price’s non-star 1991 production at the American Jewish Theatre which ran for 31 performances. It remains an outstanding virtually unknown American play.
I saw it once in previews and once again before it closed. Most exciting was seeing Bob Fosse wearing a fur hat and a shearling coat in the Lyceum’s lobby on the way in. Back then it was my favorite production and still remains so. It has haunted me ever since. I identified with Jake, and his meddlesome parents reminded me of my grandparents and the sibling rivalry dynamics had personal parallels. Having read Feiffer’s memoir, it seemed certain that there were autobiographical links and that Jake had elements of Feiffer, such as his drinking and anger issues.
Bob Dishy was chilling recounting a childhood incident of being gifted an expensive watch by an uncle. His mother carried on how valuable it was and how important it was to wind it properly. While demonstrating this, she broke it. She ran to the father and blamed the son. The steely and cheery Frances Sternhagen lied about the incident as Harold Gould amiably dithered.
A few years later at my instigation, a woman and I performed several portions of it in William Hickey’s H.B. Studio scene study class. We were way too young, but we were forceful as the viciously feuding husband and wife. In the first act, Jack regales his sister and parents with the hilarious story of a dinner party for his New York Times colleagues hosted by the reluctant Louise. It involved a shortage of chairs. Bob Dishy was masterfully comic enacting it. I memorized this section, it has been my audition piece ever since.
“You should paint your apartment like the Grown Ups set!” said a friend who had seen it with me. Soon, my West 45th Street living room and kitchen were gray with white moldings.
In 2013, I was in a large cast one-act Off-Off-Broadway play called “Waiting Room.” I played a ne’er-do-well father who flies from Chicago to join a family hospital vigil in his hometown of Pittsburgh. My grown son’s wife was in a coma following a car accident. Jenny, the bubbly woman playing her mother, graciously offered her apartment for rehearsals. It was a rambling setup in a classic doorman West End Avenue co-op building in the 70s. I was the first to arrive and was ushered into the huge well-decorated living room while Jenny and the director conversed in the kitchen and later brought out wonderful snacks for the cast. Walking around by myself, I looked at the framed photographs on a table. The familiar bearded face and bald head of Jules Feiffer were in several.
I was in Jules Feiffer’s apartment! Jenny, was Jenny Allen, his writer and performer wife, and mother of the actress and playwright Halley Feiffer. I kept my discovery to myself. I learned that Jules Feiffer was away at their Hamptons house and that this apartment was being sold, which would explain all of the packing boxes.
I was beset with optimistic fantasies and Rupert Pupkin-style delusions. Jules Feiffer would come to see the play of course! No doubt, his famous friends such as Mike Nichols, would also attend. Jules Feiffer and Mike Nichols would see me act! I would tell Jules Feiffer how much Grown Ups meant to me! Jules Feiffer and Mike Nichols would mount a revival of it with me as Jake! “We’ve been looking for years for the perfect Jake, and you’re it! We hope you’re interested and available. Please! Please do it!” Being in this play with Jenny Allen was going to be a big break!
Rehearsals progressed and we had our performances. Jules Feiffer was never there, nor was Mick Nichols. After one of the last performances, I was in the elevator alone with Jenny. I showed her a picture of Grown Ups’ window card on my phone, which hangs in my living room. “Tell him that someone out there loves that play and saw it twice. That my audition monologue for years is from it.” Jenny looked at me and said, “The chairs!” “Yes!” We laughed. “I’ll tell him…” The play’s run ended without the presence of Jules Feiffer and Mike Nichols. Jenny accepted my Facebook friend request but there was no further contact with her or anyone else from the play.
In 2016, I was surprised to read a New York Times wedding announcement for Jules Feiffer and writer J Z Holden. The “ceremony that will combine Jewish and Buddhist traditions…” This cheery feature story imparted such facts that the 84-year-old Feiffer had been living in the Hamptons since 2008, and that he and Ms. Holden had begun dating in 2009. Wikipedia stated that he and Jenny Allen divorced in 2013 after 30 years of marriage. Now I knew why he didn’t come to see her and me in our play.
A very good television adaptation of Grown Ups featuring Charles Grodin, Marilu Henner, Jean Stapleton and Martin Balsam, aired in 1985 on Showtime. The second and third acts recently turned up on YouTube.