One of the really great things about growing up in New York City was the amazing off-Broadway theater. I used to enjoy going to the novel and often strange plays in the Village. One of my favorites was presented in 1973 on the local public broadcasting station, channel 13 for those that remember. The play was Steambath from the pen of Bruce Jay Friedman. For it’s time this presentation was incredibly risqué, it had language not found on normal television, male and female nudity and most importantly, dealt with subjects ignored by the typical fluff the regular networks pandered. When I played the DVD I remembered almost every scene, it was like watching a cherished memory come to life again. Tandy (Bill Bixby) finds himself in a steambath surrounded by shall we say an odd mix of characters. He is a young man, recently having worked for the police department teaching art appreciation but now working on a novel about the life of Charlemagne. As he chats with the others in the room he comes to the conclusion that he is dead. Now many pieces of fiction have taken on this concept but very few have done so with such a grip on the human condition. First there is the assortment of people represented. There is the broken down old cab driver (Stephen Elliott), the slob (Herb Edelman), a stockbroker (Kenneth Mars) and a beautiful girl (Valerie Perrine). Each has there own personal story of how they met their untimely end and how they lived their lives. Tandy discovers that the man in charge is Morte (José Pérez) a Porte Rican attendant. Just a little note here, the old timer mentions that his name is Spanish, indeed it is, a play on the Spanish word for death. At first Tandy is reticent to accept this rather crude little man as the Grand Creator of all things. The only proof offered is some lame magic tricks and a little philosophical chatter. Soon, Tandy come to accept Morte’s role in the universe and the recently dead man bargains for his life. This is an extremely dialogue drive play, each time I watch it I come away with more than before. When each person has to relate their life story for the amusement of Morte we see the hopeless desperation that life can be but underneath, just below the surface there is a person that did their best. If God was to ask you why you should live how would you respond? Do any of us really have better reasons than finishing a book on the life of Charlemagne?
Bill Bixby is best known for his television work with roles like My Favorite Martian, and the Incredible Hulk. His performances in the Hulk showcased this actors to ground an unusual character in such a manner that the audience can identify with him. This performance is one best. He brings something to Tandy we can all relate to, clinging to life no matter how unfulfilled my perceive it. Many may see the role Perrine takes on as pure fluff, it certainly is not. While on the surface it seems to be for shock value (in 1973 terms), walking around with only a little towel, but Perrine takes the role beyond that. There is innocence to her performance. She is worried about her Bloomingdale’s bill and the new line of shoes coming in but through out it all there is a concern for other people. She plays this young woman as a person with genuine empathy towards others. Pérez obviously has a lot of fun with his role. He is playful yet projects a undeniable sense of authority. At the end of the play as Tandy is explaining his life Pérez has almost no dialogue yet his movements and facial expressions are truly excellent acting. All of the actors in this play present different aspects of the human condition in a way that grabs the audience, drawing you immediately into their lives. Considering what passes for television now this is a gem, a real moment in the history of public broadcasting.
I remember seeing this production back in 1973. I also have seen it in Greenwich Village here in New York. This production is true to the incredible writing of Bruce Jay Friedman. Rather than opting for the usual staging of a stage play, director Burt Brinckerhoff takes the camera out of the front seats and moves to the stage. The camera is voyeuristic roaming around the stage providing an intimate look at the actors. With some plays brought to the screen the fixed camera approach works but here the closeness to the actors is vital to conveying the emotional impact of the writing. Brinckerhoff went on to direct a lot of television, this was his freshman effort. He shows an appreciation for the design of the set, using it to reinforce the drama that is unfolding. Considering how simple the set is this is a nice feat. He switches between tight close-ups and broader shots to keep the audience interested. Visually the show is compelling to watch.
This is an excellent example of how DVD can preserve great shows. While not up to what many expect of the technical potential of the media you should purchase this for the content. The full screen video is flawed, the focus goes to the blurry side a few times, and there is even a disclaimer before the show advising the audience of the limitations of the media at the time the show was created. Ignore these flaws and concentrate on the writing and acting. The sound is presented in mono which is generally clear but does not make full use of the potential of DVD audio. I switched to the Prologic Live mode to emulate the feeling I had seeing the play in person. Kultur has included this in there Broadway classics series of discs. Kultur may not produce discs that boom through your room but they provide something so many studios do not give the consumer, quality, thought provoking entertainment. For those out there willing to overlook the technical flaws of the presentation you will be rewarded with something that has staying power. I waited over thirty years for this disc and felt it was worth it.