There’s no IP more innately suited for adaptation as a pure two-hander than the tale of Adam and Eve, a story in which, initially at least, there are no other characters, excepting the creator of the universe, who quickly gets relegated to a supporting role in the wake of more fleshed-out human leads. Legendary television scenarist Ed. Weinberger (the creator of “Taxi” and “The Cosby Show,” and a “Mary Tyler Moore Show” writing stalwart) has finally done the obvious and turned it into a two-person play in the style of “Love Letters,” read aloud from scripts, like A.R. Gurney’s highly portable, bare-bones model. Weinberger’s take on the world’s favorite creation myth, “The Journals of Adam and Eve,” premiered over the weekend with a very limited run at L.A.’s 110-seat Garry Marshall Theatre, where a total of six audiences saw that it was… good. (Apologies to the God of Genesis, still the tersest critic ever.)
How good? That might be a little tricky to exactly figure out, or at least take another production with a different cast to judge. Because it’s nearly impossible to separate how much of the warm glow being cast across the street from the Bob’s Big Boy neon was due to Weinberger’s wry script, and how much of it was due to the two other sitcom legends executing it, Hal Linden and Sally Struthers. Whoever bears the greater responsibility for all the collective good will, “Journals” goes beyond the bare requirements of a night of Comfort Theater to become something that really does feel like it’s ready for prime time, which is to say, a more extensive engagement. Weinberger hasn’t lost his knack for the dynamics of comedy writing, veering between pleasing schtick and heartfelt philosophizing in more or less the right measure. As for Linden and Struthers, who probably could have gotten away coasting their way through this staged reading, you could say they just about knock it out of the park, this show about being knocked out of the garden. They knock it out of Toluca Lake, at least.
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In the program notes, Weinberger acknowledges his paean to original sin isn’t completely original, admitting inspiration from “the anonymous writers of Genesis, the poet John Milton in ‘Paradise Lost,’ and, of course, Mark Twain.” One guess as to which of those three provided the most inspiration. The semi-irreverent short stories Twain wrote in the early 20th century, eventually collected as “The Diaries of Adam and Eve,” provide a fairly obvious template for what Weinberger is up to here: alternating between the couple’s slightly Rashomonic viewpoints on the new world and each other; spoofing gender roles almost to the point of burlesque, but also showing respect for the poetry of the original scriptural texts. The debt owed to Twain is a pretty huge one, but if you’ve gone back to his Adam and Eve stories lately, they’re clever but also a little belabored in the telling. The hour and 20 minutes that Weinberger and director Ben Donenberg (artistic director of the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles) have put on stage, meanwhile, is brisk and breezy. It feels blasphemous to say that Mark Twain could’ve benefitting from having the creator of “Taxi” as an editor, or script doctor, but there you have it.
Linden gets to open the show alone, naturally, given his character’s initial solo turn in the spotlight in the source material. He’s joined after about 10 minutes by Struthers, who, as Eve, has been secondarily created due to Adam’s piss-poor follow-through on exercising naming rights. Struthers looks a little dazed, emerging on stage as an initially quiet, slowly comprehending newborn, but she soon has a nice, thoughtful passage in which she explains why animals — and people — deserve more dignity than to be named after their physical characteristics or just the odd sounds they make. (There hasn’t been this passionate a labeler of pigs, cows, et al. since Bob Dylan wrote “God Gave Names to All the Animals.”) They argue a fair amount, which is fine, or there wouldn’t be much comedy here. One of the things they debate is whether God was telling the truth with the whole deal with a woman being created from a rib, with Adam reluctantly acceding to her skepticism, after he does a ribcage count and comes up with the same number as his partner. Anyway, it’s to the show’s credit that it never turns into the B.C. edition of “The Bickersons” that you might expect, or possibly dread. There’s a moment late in the show in which Struthers utters the word “marriage” with a blissful sigh, and it’s clear that Weinberger’s chief intention may have been to script a salute to lawfully wedded bliss. (Or common-lawfully wedded, in Adam and Eve’s case, given the lack of available officiants.) He’s a matrimony fan, in other words… even if the couple in his script does separate for a few hundred years, on the way to a contented ending for a story Genesis neglected to wrap up.
The tenderness in this treatment is what lingers longer than any of the script’s Borscht Belt leanings. But it’s hardly shy of low humor, and it’d be a grave disappointment if the script didn’t lean hard on certain ignoble firsts. Like Adam losing his erection in the couple’s first fumbling attempt at consummation, and swearing, “This has never happened to me before.” Or another occasion when Eve begins to wonder if Adam’s attentions might be divided, and he responds with another timeless line, sounding more credible here than it ever will again in the millennia to come: “There is no other woman.” The road out of Eden is paved with real wit, and also silliness, which Struthers and Linden deliver with the kind of comic timing that keeps anything like an actual groan at bay. Weinberger is even more of a sensualist than he is a satirist, in the end, and so he follows Twain’s lead in capturing that feeling that pretty much everything physical on this earth can feel deeply weird, when you focus objectively on it, before all these strange animals or dangling body parts become delightful again.
Speaking of pleasure, it’s hard to overstate just how enjoyable it is to see Linden and Struthers sharing a stage, in a production you would hope gets more than just this already-finished six-show run. Most attendees over the weekend were probably astonished to hit their smartphones afterward and look up the fact that Linden is 92, and that we’re bearing witness to the rare occasion when someone who was doing Broadway in the 1950s is still hitting the boards — with vigor. On the rare occasions that call for him to bellow, it’s a powerful sound. But what’s sweetest is that Weinberger and Donenberg don’t ask him to play a blowhard; Linden’s Adam is often befuddled but never buffoonish. And Struthers doesn’t play Eve as a protofeminist born to put a man in his place… well, maybe a little, but not to the point of stridency. She’s an Eve to fall in love with, which is good for the sake of fruitful multiplying, and also good for a production that means to evoke real emotion. It’s Struthers who gets to play real grief, when things go as they do with Cain and Abel… although, this show being as sweet as it is, she believes her son, when he says the fratricide was an accident, versus the Bible’s more damning account.
In deserving a wider audience, whether it’s in L.A. or off-Broadway, “The Journals of Adam and Eve” is a production that manages to scratch an itch that the recent Emmys telecast raised. On that prime-time special, the producers brought out a parade of trusted sitcom acting legends, to stand proudly and briefly bask in the glow of recognition, on facsimiles of their series’ original sets (including Struthers, joining Rob Reiner in the “All in the Family” living room). But gags did not come included, or much of anything else, before they were whisked off again. The gambit gave the Emmys a nice aura of nostalgia, but you couldn’t help wondering: What if all these veterans could be given something to do?
Weinberger has certainly done that here, for these two. Maybe they could mount “Journals” for a less exclusive run, for the larger audience that would undoubtedly enjoy it, and make the Eden of seasoned pros expertly doing their thing last just a little longer.
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