The sentiment flowed early in Tuesdays with Morrie, the tearjerker currently on view at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, and it began with the applause that greeted the entrance of Bernie Passeltiner in the title role. Perhaps the opening-night audience was welcoming the arrival of Morrie, the lovable old mensch doomed to die from the debilitating ravages of Lou Gehrig's Disease. Morrie Schwartz has become a celebrity, having sparked a best-selling book and, millions of copies later, a television movie. But I hope the applause — rather than anticipating death — was instead a tribute to life and continuity in the very healthy personage of Passeltiner, who acted on this same Loretto-Hilton stage 41 years ago on its very first opening night.
When the Webster Drama Festival debuted on July 1, 1966, regional theater was still a new idea to America. The next day Post-Dispatch theater critic Myles Standish, in hailing that inaugural production of Peter Shaffer's The Private Ear and the Public Eye and endorsing the prospect of professional resident theater in St. Louis, enthusiastically wrote, "Bernie Passeltiner's ramblings and babblings...were hilarious." Four decades later Passeltiner has returned to what is now the Rep, acting with assurance in another rambling role that is often hilarious. Even when Morrie is forced to suffer the paroxysms of an undignified death, the persuasive simplicity of Passeltiner's deft work is a stirring testimony to a life in the theater lived well.
But once you get past Passeltiner's delightfully impish performance, it's hard to summon forth any enthusiasm for what remains of the evening. "You'd better be prepared to learn something," Morrie tells Mitch Albom, the former student who has returned for weekly visits sixteen years after graduation. But the text of this play tells us nothing we haven't heard before. Love, we are informed, is better than hate. Who would disagree with that? As stated here, the sentiment is about as insightful as a homily on a Hallmark card. The real Morrie was a sociology professor at Brandeis; here he's reduced to a kibitzer who might enjoy trading quips with Henny Youngman.
Clocking in at an intermissionless 85 minutes, Tuesdays with Morrie is easy enough to take in its simplistic way. But even director Mark Cuddy, in his program notes, acknowledges that the play lacks "a certain gravitas" — which is putting it politely. Cuddy's production provides scenic metaphors that strive to give the evening a meditative Zen feel. But as is usually the case, design elements — no matter how originally conceived or stunningly executed — cannot substitute for an insufficient script.
This script is very strange indeed. Although its authorship is credited to both Jeffrey Hatcher, a real playwright, and Mitch Albom, sportswriter turned cracker-barrel philosopher, apparently the play's official (if unused) title is Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie — as if Albom doesn't want anyone to overlook his association with the material. (Did he learn nothing from Morrie about generosity?) So we have a two-character play, presumably co-written by one of those two characters, based on a memoir whose accuracy is unchallenged because the protagonist is dead. At what point does all this begin to sound a little self-serving?
Remi Sandri's portrayal of Albom never settles into a center, perhaps because the character as presented here is too — here's that word again — self-serving. Yet the actor could help himself if he would stop underscoring his dialogue. A typical example: "For the first time, Morrie isn't there to teach them," and the last three words get italicized. Sandri should try talking his lines. Attitude is not required; simple utterance is.
But no matter how simply you play the piece or how elegantly you disguise it, there remains a discomforting sense of exploitation about this entire endeavor. "I love a good cry," Morrie tells us. It's a safe bet that Albom loves one too: He's surely crying all the way to the bank.