Simon Says: Merry-Go-Round's 'Promises, Promises' offers retro humor
Fran (Stacie Bono) and Chuck (Danny Gardner) share their love of basketball at Merry-Go-Round's "Promises, Promises," running through July 28. (Photo by Glenn Gaston)

"Promises, Promises": Book by Neil Simon, music by Burt Bacharach, and lyrics by Hal David. Directed by Paul David Bryant; musical direction by Mark Goodman; choreography by Lori Leshner. With Danny Gardner, Stacie Bono, Scott Willis, and ensemble. At Auburn's Merry-Go-Round Playhouse through July 28.

Seduction, adultery, drunkenness, manipulation, mendacity, and general foolishness - human foibles have been the stuff of comedy since the Greeks. All these and more abound in Neil Simon's 1968 musical, "Promises, Promises," the second show of Merry-Go-Round Playhouse's summer season.

The current (and first) Broadway revival has more than a whiff of "Mad Men" to it, and you'll be hard put to ignore that here as well. Though director Paul David Bryant (of "Ragtime" and "The King and I" at MGR) more properly sets the action in the late '60s, this world still seems far in the past. Businessmen in conservative suits and hats, women in the secretarial pool, extramarital hanky-panky the guys' prerogative and the gals' best way to get ahead...O.K., maybe not so much has changed after all.

Based on Billy Wilder's classic 1960 film "The Apartment," itself a bittersweet comedy, Simon's show manages to make humor out of sexual exploitation and endless inebriation, topping it off with an attempted suicide (treated seriously, but providing lots of comic moments). "Manages" is the operative word here, because despite a talented, energetic cast, the story - at least in act one - feels dated (not just retro but retrograde) and a wee bit dull.

The tale may be tiresome, but the production is top notch. A succession of handsome sets by designer Czerton Lim takes us to New York City - the haunting skyline, the towering insurance building where our hero Chuck Baxter toils unacknowledged, a raucous bar where he sucks up solace. And of course Chuck's drab but tidy W. 67th St. apartment that, hoping to get promoted, he gradually begins lending out to company executives for their sexual trysts.

As more of his colleagues take advantage, accommodating Chuck finds himself literally out in the cold most evenings, waiting till he can return home. He's such a nice guy he can barely speak to the young lady at work, Fran Kubelik, he's smitten by. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the idealistic Chuck, she's having a serious affair with their married boss, J.D. Sheldrake (just one of his many flings, as she later discovers). "It smells like disillusionment," as the line goes, but Chuck's decency and earnestness are ultimately rewarded with a happy ending.

Lithe and lean Danny Gardner (an Ithaca College alum) has all the right moves as Chuck - polite, eager to please, romantically innocent. He negotiates beautifully the self-doubting young man's optimism and disappointment, his inexperience and yet competence when it's most needed. His energy sets the mark for the rest of cast (though unfortunately undercut by his lighting, which, in an otherwise solid design by Adam Frank, is too often sallow).

Among other memorable scenes, there's "A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing," Gardner's marvelous comic duet with Joyce Nolan's Marge, a desperate barfly in an owl-feather cape. Kudos to Lucy Brown for the cape and a cornucopia of period costumes - styles that we should be thankful never to have to wear again (though I don't recall quite so many men sporting checked pants).

Lori Leshner's choreography gives us the ensemble high point, "Turkey Lurkey Time," the over-the-top office Christmas party number that triumphantly closes the first act. Another favorite (just ignore the sexism) is "Where Can You Take a Girl," a lament from the four philandering execs - delivered hilariously by Geno Carr, Kevin Shumway, Martin C. Hurt, and John T. McAvaney.

Mark Goodman's orchestra reliably renders all the Burt Bacharach/Hal David tunes, though like the story, these seemed trendier 42 years ago. But cads never change much, and Scott Willis's top boss Sheldrake has maximum cool and as few morals as he can muster. (Willis's splendidly sung "Wanting Things" helps compensate for the callousness.) Stacie Bono's Fran is putty in his hands, though you spend too much time wondering what she sees in him. Bono is charming and persuasive as the fallen innocent who finally finds her spine.

And she's not the only one - Sheldrake's brusque secretary (played with engaging cynicism by Kristen Gehling) ultimately comes into her own, as does Chuck. On opening night the audience spontaneously cheered and booed on cue - their way of coping with the play's traditional social mores.

Funny that the most winning role comes from a comic type that's rendered as timeless. A doctor, whose apartment is next to Chuck's, is in awe of what he assumes to be Chuck's own nightly escapades. Self-deprecating, practical, kindly, this Jewish G.P. - "you want sympathy, you go to a specialist" - is a complete mensch, and Anthony Santelmo Jr. plays him as an original, with easy humor in every glance and gesture. "Promises, Promises" delivers; you just have to go along with the joke.

Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.

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