By Kenneth R. Clark
Chicago Tribune, 11/15/91
NEW YORKAs theaters go, the Village Gate is Quasimodo at a beauty pageant. It has the soul of a warehouse, floors of grimy cracked tiles, furnishings that resemble rejects from a Salvation Army Thrift Shop, and its interior, black on black, is as dark as hell's craw.
But to Chicago's Soloway sisters, Faith, 27, and Jill, 26, it is the big time: a genuine off-Broadway house where actors actually get paid to practice their craft. But even the Village Gatein the heart of Greenwich Village, where weird has been the norm for generations of off-beat peoplenever has seen what the Soloways have wrought.
Under their touch, "The Brady Bunch," that last of the sanitized sitcoms that ran on ABC from 1970-74, has been reincarnated from TV in eight episodes, with every line of original dialogue intact, to live again in a play called "The Real Live Brady Bunch."
The play, delivered on a bare stage with minimal props, was born as an amateur production in Chicago in Metraform's Annoyance Theater, where it ran for a year to packed houses. Faith said she and her sister-partner were about to close it when they got a call from New York producer-promoter Ron Delsener, who offered them a chance to turn pro.
"We were scared the whole way," Faith said over lunch at a sidewalk cafe after rehearsal. "We went back and forth on it, but we decided if we didn't go we would be kicking ourselves because we'd never know."
The Soloways had good reason for trepidation. Their cast was young and inexperienced; Chicago critics long had refused to review their work on grounds that it was not a play, and friends warned them that the "Brady Bunch" cult, made up primarily of adults 18 to 34, was strictly a Midwest phenomenon with no hope of playing well to sophisticated audiences in New York
Faith said that in a New York run so far of more than a month, nothing from the doomsday scenario has come to pass
'"We've had pretty good houses, and Pretty hysterical houses and that's one thing we were not sure we'd get," she said. "It's pretty cross cultural, I think. If you're of that age, you know the Bradys."
The sitcom almost went off the saccharine scale during its network run and subsequent long tenure in syndication, where its younger fans learned to regard it a part of their after-school routine.
In the first prime-time treatment of amalgamated families formed by the marriage of single parents with children, "The Brady Bunch" featured a father with three sons wedded to a mother with three daughters. The extent of their `"problems'' was typified by one episode, dutifully reprised by the Soloways, in which son Greg is caught smoking a cigarette.
The Soloways would be the last to call the series a great work of art - in fact, they say its appeal lies in its very vacuity.
"When you look at the Bradys, you think it was a simpler age, but it wasn't" Faith said. "It was on in the height of the Vietnam War and it was running against 'All In The Family which was a show that really dealt with what was going on. That made it even more surreal because it was a '50s mentality placed in the early '70s"
From the New York Post to The New York Times, critics panned the sisters' effort mercilessly, almost accusing them of some dark, ulterior motive.
"We're not saying let's turn all live theater into sitcoms," said Faith. "We're just doing this with an air that you come and you see how silly it is to watch it as a play. The New York Times critic wasn't scathing, but he did ask why 'Why do this when you can watch it on TV for fee?'"
"He just didn't get it" said Jill . "He just didn't get the point"
But New York audiences have gotten the point, reacting, the sisters said, exactly as their counterparts reacted in Chicago by cheering the heroes, hissing what passes for villains and chanting the dialogue, which they know by heart, along with the actors.
For the actors themselves Pat Towne, Becky Thyre, Benjamin Zook, Melanie Hutsell, Tom Booker, Susan Messing and Mari Weiss the play has turned into a personal triumph. This is the first taste of the big time for all of them, the play is running with no end in sight, and they have landed agents, auditions and career-boosting attention.