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‘On the Bum,’ A Play by Neal Bell, Opens Off-Broadway

December 2, 1992

NEW YORK (AP) _ ″On the Bum or The Next Train Through″ by Neal Bell is a screwball comedy with a social and political conscience.

Imagine ″Sullivan’s Travels″ crossed with ″The Grapes of Wrath″ and you might have some idea of what Bell is trying to get across in his ambitious saga of 1930s Americana. The uneasy mix makes for quirky, if not particularly successful, theater.

The play, the first offering at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons under the regime of new artistic director Don Scardino, veers from sass to seriousness and then back again with unnerving speed. It’s too bad many of the jokes aren’t funny enough and the social and political observations are more than a little obvious. The quick change of tone is disconcerting, too, not to mention tiring after the third or fourth flip-flop.

Bell’s Depression-era tale concerns a struggling young actress who travels from New York to a small Midwest town called Bumfork, where she plans to work in a theater project sponsored by the federal government.

The project turns out to be a play in verse about Bumfork’s greatest disaster, a flood that nearly destroyed the town. In researching her role, the actress learns the calamity may have been man-made and the culprit one of Bumfork’s more prominent citizens.

Scardino has directed the play imaginatively, as if it were cinematic story theater. Scenes flow quickly and with a simple theatricality that contributes to the folksiness of Bell’s homespun epic.

Many of the actors take on multiple roles. One who doesn’t is Cynthia Nixon, playing Bell’s actress-heroine with an appealing grit. She gets able support from Campbell Scott as a destitute farmer with whom she has a budding romance, Jim Fyfe as a moon-faced New York actor and Joyce Reehling as a gorgon of a would-be playwright with the impossible name of Jessie May Burst. You can imagine the humor, especially about an author who has written something called ″The Flood.″

The superb J. Smith-Cameron, as a tart-tongued Tinseltown actress who never made it beyond ″extra″ status, gets most of the laughs, and she delivers them with gum-chewing snappiness.

″On the Bum″ is a strange, strange play. The language is often fanciful and fun, but it never quite delivers on the story. Bell leads the audience into a web of intrigue that eventually has the government assuming more than a benevolent role in the making - and then elimination - of a work of art. Sounds familiar?

Scardino’s evocative staging and a fine company of actors give ″On the Bum″ more than the necessary support. Yet the end result is less than satisfying. It’s the play that eventually lets them down.

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