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Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?

A capable revival of Terrence McNally’s early, long unseen play reveals it to be not a lost masterpiece.  It’s the episodic adventures of a 1960’s misfit.

Emma Geer and David Gow in a scene from “Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?” (Photo credit: Daniel Davila)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

Terrence McNally’s early play, Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?, hasn’t had a significant New York City production since its first 1971, Off-Broadway one that ran for 78 performances.  With this capable revival we now know why.

This is a painfully dated, aimlessly episodic and interminable affair best left to dramatic literature scholars and McNally completists to read. Unlike Mr. McNally’s later, accomplished works this is overblown and the whimsical dialogue becomes cloying.

It’s 1969, and Tommy Flowers is a job-less, 30-year-old, former actor from St. Petersburg, Florida who exists in New York City by conning, stealing and begging.  He is one of those anti-Establishment, non-conformist anti-heroes that were popular in 1960’s works such as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Hair and Midnight Cowboy.

One of his pastimes is hanging around airports, finding old plane tickets and altering them with a magic marker and then taking a flight to wherever it’s going.  Another is not paying restaurant checks through a number of shenanigans.  In one bit he pays homage to Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye.

Addressing the audience directly with his screeds, his main companion is his dog Arnold (played by an actor) and later Ben Delight, a garrulous, elderly washed-up actor.  A semblance of a plot emerges after an hour, when in the ladies restroom of Bloomingdale’s he becomes smitten with fellow shoplifter Nedda Lemon. She is a feisty, young violinist from a middle-class family who fled from her conventional fiancée.  Will she and Tommy find love and happiness in this land of A Thousand Clowns?

Pat Nixon, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are the real-life characters along with kooky representations of Tommy’s family, police, taxi drivers, stewardesses, and waitresses that are encountered during flashbacks, short scenes and vignettes.

David Gow in a scene from “Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?” (Photo credit: Daniel Davila)

Tommy’s opening monologue is a lengthy recitation of pop culture figures entwined in his consciousness that include Bernadette Castro.  Franchot Tone is pivotal in a conversation and there’s a monumental meal of fried clams at Howard Johnson’s.  All of these references and many more will incite nostalgia in those of a certain age but doesn’t redeem the rambling tedium.

David Gow is the show’s producer and he also plays Tommy Flowers.  Mr. Gow perhaps saw this showy role as a vehicle for him to shine in and he does up to a point.  Gow is an appealing, very talented young man who gives an admirable performance in such problematic material.

The part is up there with Ibsen’s epic Peer Gynt and Quentin in Arthur Miller’s verbose After the Fall in terms of duration.  Mr. Gow winningly displays stamina and range. However, it would take a colossus of likes of a Robert Morse in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to make this play even a qualified success.

Daniel O’Shea is amusing and conveys the pathos of the hammy and enfeebled Ben Delight.  With fur ears dangling, Sam Garber is spirited as the virtually silent dog Arnold and wonderfully delivers a wistful monologue.  Emma Geer is quite captivating as Nedda Lemon.

Al Fallick plays “The Men”, Emily Kitchens plays “The Women” and Noelle Franco plays “The Girls.” This trio of fine actors all delivers suitably zany characterizations as a variety of cartoon-like figures.

Director Laura Braza’s resourceful staging has momentum, steady pacing and visual variety.  Ms. Braza has done her best to make something so unwieldy stage worthy.

Al Fallick, David Gow, Sam Garber and Daniel O’Shea in a scene from “Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?” (Photo credit: Daniel Davila)

The airy stage is set with wooden crates, small wooden platforms, an orange construction cone, a pay phone, corrugated steel panels and three wooden bathroom stall doors that double as a wall.  It’s all a weathered landscape that scenic designer Zach Serafin has assembled that perfectly conveys the sense of New York City in 1969.

Above the playing area is a rectangular panel surrounded by old-fashioned light bulbs, resembling a vintage theater marquee. Inside are projected the titles of each scene.

Abby May’s lively lighting design fluctuates from straightforward brightness to shadowy for striking results.  Snippets of The Beatles, The Doors, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Carole King are ably realized by Cody Hom’s sound design.

Bell-bottom jeans, striped shirts, vests, and Afro wigs are among the vivid, authentic details of Susanne Houstle’s appropriately gritty costume design.

Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? is an antiquated curio whose counter culture themes have been explored more successfully elsewhere and so this faithful presentation of it ultimately sputters out.

Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? (through December 17, 2017)

Starting 5 Productions

The WorkShop Theater, 312 West 36th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006 or visit www.wherehastommyflowersgone.weebly.com

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (421 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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