One of theatergoing’s greatest pleasures is the discovery of “forgotten gems,” plays that may have hit it big when they debuted but for one reason or another have faded into obscurity in the intervening years. Such is the case with Bob Randall’s 1972 romantic comedy 6 Rms Riv Vu, now getting a sparkling Sierra Madre Playhouse revival under Sherrie Lofton’s pitch-perfect direction.
The titular six rooms belong to that most coveted of apartments on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, one under rent control, and though the only Riv Vu this one offers is by leaning out the second bathroom window and looking to the left, it has inspired a pair of 30something married strangers—copywriter Paul Friedman (Jeremy Guskin) and stay-at-home mom Anne Miller (Lena Bouton)—to pay it simultaneous afternoon visits.
Some smart, funny banter ensues as the mismatched pair (he’s Woody Allen/Gene Wilder to her Doris Day/Sandra Dee) discuss furniture, their respective spouses, and the name Anne just happens to share with an MGM movie queen, all the while measuring up both the apartment-for-rent and the competition the other offers in renting said apartment.
Since both prospective tenants must quickly return to their daily responsibilities, 6 Rms Riv Vu would end just as quickly were it not for a teensy-weensy obstacle.
During the brief moments Paul spends checking out the dining area while Anne does the same in one of the bedrooms, who should pop his head in but Eddie The Super (Bob Rodriguez) who, thinking the apartment empty, removes the inside/outside doorknobs for security’s sake, thereby sealing Paul and Anne inside the fourth-floor walk-up.
Physical comedy follows as the duo make unsuccessful attempts to open a stuck window, followed by equally amusing efforts to convince a suspicious neighbor (Lynndi Scott) that they are neither thieves nor potential rapists.
Eventually, however, our hapless couple must face the fact that they are trapped inside those 6 Rms Riv Vu until help arrives, and goodness only knows when that will be.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that with a pair of attractive young opposite-sex heterosexual protagonists compelled by circumstances to remain in each other’s close proximity over an extended period of time, sexual and perhaps even romantic sparks will ensue.
What might come as a surprise, however, is just how much poignancy there is to be mined beneath the couple’s flirtatious one-liners. Paul’s and Anne’s marriages may not be perfect, but they are good, solid marriages nonetheless, yet the more time the twosome spend with each other, the more it becomes obvious that opposites do indeed attract, and that in an alternate universe, these two mismatched strangers might just be soul mates.
In the meantime, a magnetic force between them gets stronger by the minute even as a will-they-or-won’t-they suspense keeps building all the way up to intermission.
Had Neil Simon written 6 Rms Riv Vu (as well he could have, since it could hardly be more Neil Simonesque), regional, college, and community theaters would doubtless have kept it alive long after its 247-performance Broadway run.
Sadly, playwright Randall, who succumbed to AIDS in 1995, never achieved Simon’s name value despite numerous stage and TV successes, and his 6 Rms Riv Vu deserved a far better fate than near obscurity, as evidenced by the romcom magic now taking place on the Sierra Madre Playhouse stage.
6 Rms Riv Vu works for many reasons, not the least of which is Randall’s gift for creating vivid, recognizable characters who just happen to say very funny things.
But that is far from its only appeal.
It is also that rarity, a play that offers the best of a “two-hander”—the biggest chunck of 6 Rms Riv Vu has only its two stars sharing the stage—in addition to providing the many pleasures of an ensemble piece, Randall having created a half-dozen delightfully delineated supporting characters whose stage time may be limited but whose contributions are many.
There’s also 6 Rms Riv Vu early-‘70s time frame, a textbook case of a once contemporary play turned period piece, its dozens-upon-dozens of then topical pop culture references having since become a fascinating time capsule of a bygone era.
6 Rms Riv Vu is also that rare play to focus specifically on what we now call “The Silent Generation,” those too old to have suffered through The Great Depression but already settled into their married lives by the time the late ‘60s rolled around and “The Baby Boomers” took over, and Paul’s and Anne’s remarks reveal how left out they feel when observing the changing world around them.
Still, despite the specificity of its 1970s social mores and a time frame whose complete lack of 21st-century technology thankfully prevents either Paul or Anne from cell phoning their way out of their trapped confinement, there’s nothing at all dated about feelings that can draw a married-to-others couple like moths toward a dangerous flame, feelings anyone in the audience can identify with regardless of age or sexual orientation.
6 Rms Riv Vu is also the quintessential “star vehicle.” Broadway legends Jerry Orbach and Jane Alexander originated the roles of Paul and Anne, Alexander scoring a Tony nomination, and both Alan Alda and Carol Burnett were Emmy-nominated when 6 Rms Riv Vu was televised in 1974, and though Randall’s play does not depend on star power, one can see how it would greatly benefit from Orbach and Alexander or Alda and Burnett.
Fortunately for Sierra Madre Playhouse audiences, though leading players Guskin and Bouton aren’t household names, they have the kind of acting chops and charisma that turn unknowns into sitcom regulars, and as such are precisely the Paul and Anne to make a production of 6 Rms Riv Vu soar.
Guskin, whose “curly-haired Italian pixie” of a Mr. De Pinna was a highlight of the Antaeus Company’s You Can’t Take It With You two years ago, uses those same black curls and big soulful eyes to terrific effect in creating a quirky New York Jewish everyman more than capable of stealing the heart of a blonde, blue-eyed Catholic girl like Anne, a role the radiantly sunny Bouton fits to a T, the twosome generating some of the hottest and most palpable romantic sparks I’ve seen and felt onstage in a good long while.
Director Lofton provides further proof that “90 percent of directing is casting” in the talented sextet who support Guskin and Bouton in roles ranging from featured to cameo, with Rodriguez’s burly, crusty super, Scott’s sassy Southern neighbor, and the young married-and-pregnant couple portrayed by Albert Garnica and Jill Maglione all making for finely-etched creations.
Still, 6 Rms Riv Vu’s hands-down supporting stars are frequent collaborators Kristin Towers-Rowles as Paul’s women’s-libbing Jewish-American Princess Bride Janet and Craig McEldowney as Anne’s tightly-wound button-down hubby Richard, both of them playing against type to outrageously droll effect.
6 Rms Riv Vu not only closes Sierra Madre Playhouse’s 2013-2014 season with a bang, it provides the perfect introduction to the Playhouse’s upcoming first complete season under the artistic directorship of Christian Lebano, whose mission henceforth is to “celebrate America in plays by American playwrights,” and in fact the production’s marvelous New York apartment set by John Vertrees will return in altered states for the upcoming Los Angeles Premiere of Amy Herzog’s wonderful Pulitzer Prize-nominated 4000 Miles and later in 2015 for Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.
6 Rms Riv Vu’s topnotch production design benefits greatly as well from Sammy A. Ross’s expert lighting design and even more so from costume designer extraordinaire Naila Aladdin Sanders’ nostalgic period-perfect garb. Only Barry Schwam’s sound design needs improvement, including a period musical soundtrack to situate us in the early ‘70s and sound effects beyond a dog’s barks, i.e. the street noises you’d hear in NYC even three floors up, the sounds of running water from a broken bathroom sink, etc.
A special treat is Diane Siegel’s lobby exhibit, which fills the Playhouse’s entryway with images of the many period-and-place references in Randall’s play, from the Great Shanghai Restaurant to Mike Nichols and Elaine May to bellbottoms to Mort Sahl to Miss Subways to the IRT, making for either a nostalgic trip down memory lane or a crash history course for the younger set.
6 Rms Riv Vu is produced by Anisa Hamdan and Lebano. Alyssa Champo is stage manager and Emily Joe assistant stage manager.
You may never have heard of Bob Randall before seeing 6 Rms Riv Vu, but check it out at the Sierra Madre Playhouse and I guarantee you, you will be singing the praises of his forgotten gem. As this review makes abundantly clear, I most certainly am.
Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre.
August 10, 2014
Photos: Gina Long