More Bitter Than Sweet

A man receiving a blowjob from a call girl as his fiancee watches is admittedly a bit shocking for the stage. But these things do happen-or, at least, many of us would like to believe they do-and whether you're horrified or stimulated by the image, the scene actually furthers the plot of Swifty: it shows how far people will go to please Swifty, the lucky bastard at the center of the triangle.

But there's one important piece of information that transforms this from a Penthouse Forum testimonial into something far more gripping-and disturbing: the man in question is an 86-year-old near-invalid whose feet are rotting and who has weeks, if not mere days, to live.

Swifty is the problem with Christopher Hart's Swifty, which is receiving its world-premiere production at the Grove Theater Center. Hart expects the audience to forgive-and like-his protagonist, the real-life eccentric literary agent to the stars, Irving "Swifty" Lazar; he expects them to like him as often and as much as the women engaged in fellatio. And we are supposed to like him for little more than the occasion of his miserable decline. To W.C. Fields' list of sure-fire crowd pleasers-small kids and dogs-we can now apparently add old people who still have their wits and sex drives about them.

Indeed, while Hart doesn't give us many authentic reasons to like Swifty, he gives us plenty of reasons to hope he drops dead sooner rather than later. Swifty rails at his cancer-riddled wife as she lies on her deathbed. Swifty attempts to bribe an apparently reputable journalist to write a glowing piece on him in Vanity Fair. Swifty is about as detail-oriented as Mike Davis when it comes to writing his autobiography-an "autobiography" he hired another writer to write.

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He's not an evil man, but he is a man with fairly serious character flaws. That doesn't have to be a problem; the conventional wisdom-that a character must be likable-is utterly wrong (it's far more important that characters be believable). But it's a problem for Swifty. This is supposed to be a bittersweet but ultimately fond reminiscence of a colorful man's colorful life. And if we don't find Swifty likable, the bitter can't help but outweigh the sweet.

Like Irving Berlin and countless other children of immigrants living amid the urban squalor of the Lower East Side in the early part of this century, Lazar rose from humble origins to a life of wealth. He was a high-powered literary agent with clients ranging from Humphrey Bogart and Ernest Hemingway to Roseanne and Larry McMurtry. (Lazar trivia: he was the person behind the legendary Oscar-night parties at Spago's on Sunset Boulevard.) While not sugar-coated, this is undeniably a fond recounting of Lazar's rise to fame. And that's no surprise. Playwright Hart is the son of Moss Hart (one of Lazar's earliest clients), a fact that may account for Hart's laziness in assuming that we'd love the seamy devil as much as Hart did growing up.

Swifty is framed around the device of a Vanity Fair reporter (Linda Gehringer, who wrings strength and character from a character who isn't written with much of either) interviewing Lazar (David Wohl, who had moments of brilliance on opening night but gave the impression he hadn't yet claimed the character) for a profile. This allows Hart an easy-often too easy-way to relate anecdotes from Lazar's life. One of the earliest of those introduces us to Swifty the teenager, who was bullied by neighborhood toughs and forced to give his mother intravenous injections for her diabetes.

The combination of intense poverty and sickness contributed to two of Lazar's lifelong obsessions: a hatred of germs and an emphasis on personal appearance. Two of the best stories in a play that works better as a storytelling session than compelling drama involve these twin obsessions. In the first, Lazar describes a harrowing experience in which he's trapped in a men's room with the notorious germ-hater Howard Hughes. Both were too terrified to touch the door handle and had to wait until someone entered. Lazar's sartorial obsession is revealed during World War II. Entering as a low-ranking officer, Lazar discovered he would have to wear a uniform he loathed. So he found a costume shop in New York and bought a flashier captain's uniform, which leads to uncomfortable encounters with higher-ranking officers.

Similarly engaging stories dot the play, which often reads like the memoirs of Hedda Hopper or some other name-dropper. There's Swifty being roughed up by Frank Sinatra's goons. There's Swifty hanging with Hemingway at the bull fights. There's Cole Porter writing a birthday song for Swifty's 50th. Less engaging are the scenes about Lazar in his later days, when we're introduced to his gold-digging fiancee and slimy protg, who tries to steal Lazar's clients. But the play's best scene is also set in this period, when he and Milton Berle (played with impeccable comic instinct by Stephen Mo Hanan) engage in a hilarious attempt to recall the days of vaudeville and swap stories. The conversation is meandering, frustrating and hilarious in the way that only smart, funny old men slowly losing their powers of concentration can be.

Swifty falters on theme. The thread between the stories never really amounts to more than a thread. We're never given a firm read on just who Lazar is, what made him such a great agent, and what really drove his apparently insatiable thirst for high-powered friends and clients. We don't know how his clients truly felt about Lazar and whether Lazar was haunted by what seems like a fairly obvious question: Who are you if your one talent in life is getting work for people with real talent? We see that Lazar had a streak of intrepid bravery-and foolishness-that prompted him to stand up to Mafia hoods and high-powered Hollywood producers like Jon Peters (characters who probably aren't all that different in the wash). But we don't understand how Lazar could shrink before Sinatra's goons.

Hart's point is an elusive one. Is it merely to inform us that the man lived? To rehabilitate his image? To show that the old way of doing business in Hollywood was far more human than the cutthroat way of today-or that it was worse? What's clear is that the enduring impression of Swifty's Swifty is less that of a real man and more of a charming Groucho Marx-like old coot, still able to get it up when he was pushing 90. All in all, that's not a bad inscription for a venal man's tombstone or as the premise of a made-for-TV movie, but it's a bit lightweight for the stage.

Swifty at the Grove Theater Center, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 741-9555. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through April 25. $18.50-$22.50.

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