One of the pleasures of trawling the depths of the Broadway HD streaming channel is digging up obscurities. Often, they are obscure for good reason. I can’t say that Don Appell’s Lullaby is any great shakes as a piece of dramatic writing. But I can say that it features something rare: a great performance in an underwhelming play.
Lullaby, which had a brief run on Broadway in 1954, is about a truck driver named Johnny who impulsively marries a nightclub cigarette girl called Eadie. He has done so without the knowledge, much less the permission, of his mother (who is billed as “The Mother” in the credits). His mother has plenty of objections, and much of the play is about the warfare for the possession of Johnny’s love and loyalty the two women conduct. (We learn enough about the mother’s backstory to suggest her toughness–her late husband apparently flourished during Prohibition as a bootlegger and she herself can still whip up a mean batch of gin in her bathtub.)
The first chunk of the play, though, takes place before the mother makes her entrance. The setting is a hotel room in Scranton, and the main action (though phrased delicately so as not to offend the morals of the time) is the experienced Eadie’s attempt to lure Johnny (probably a virgin at 38) into bed to get the show on the road. The scene looks impossibly naive and contrived today, but …
I didn’t see the Broadway cast (I was four at the time); the 1960 TV version features Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson as Johnny and Eadie. Wallach is funny and touching, trying to cover his insecurities with bluster and evasions. Anne Jackson is funny and heartbreaking. She glows with sensitivity and understanding (though her patience is not infinite). Her commitment to the character is so intense that I utterly believed that the power of her love held the potential of rescuing Johnny from his immaturity and making a competent adult out of him.
As for the mother … I gather it was quite common for shrinks of the time to blame maladjusted children on hideous, possessive, infantilizing moms. You see versions of her in Bye, Bye Birdie, Marty, The Manchurian Candidate and the famous Nichols and May sketch about the rocket scientist on the phone with his mother. I wonder if this had its roots in the fact that older women in the 1950s, not having access to jobs once child-rearing was done, may have been less willing to relinquish the mothering role than women today. (Of course, today, unlike the 1950s, most women are in the workforce, children or no.) In any case, the mother in this (played by Ruth White) is just short of monstrous in her mendacity and manipulation, suggesting a lack of empathy in the author.
Lullaby is also a bit grating in its condescension to working-class characters. Their grammar is comically lacking and they often stammer wide-eyed, simple-minded platitudes. With Marty and other plays and screenplays, Paddy Chayefsky would do much to invest similar characters with dignity and depth, but Appell was no Chayefsky.
Still, he came up with a character and scenes for Eadie that gave Anne Jackson an opportunity to create a performance that, 61 years later on black-and-white video, took my breath away. This is heroic acting and it’s more than enough reason for me to commend Lullaby to your attention.