Marathon ’33 By June Havoc Directed by Jack Marshall; At American Century Theater to Aug. 25 The trance trance revolution of June Havoc

A Foggy Motion: There is more sluggish shuffling than dancing in Marathon’33.

American Century Theater’s production of Marathon ’33 never gets any better than when you first walk in. The black box theater at Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center has been transformed into the Silver Slipper Ballroom, a venue that feels half middle-school dance, half county fair. In the far corner, a pretty decent jazz band (fronted by Ted Fuller) is warming up. Costumed ticket takers lead patrons to their seats while more than 30 actors roam the theater, some popping popcorn, others warming up for the dance marathon to come. A lanky older fellow wearing a medical coat asks patrons if they’ll be dancing. Play along by inquiring about your own medical conditions, and the “doctor” (Colin Davies), may slip you a Tic Tac. “It’s one of my special pills,” he said, prescribing a cure for my broken toe.

This exercise in improvisation and Americana is immensely amusing. But once the scripted interaction starts, the fun stops, and this two-and-half hour play about stubborn couples trying to win a Depression-era dance marathon turns into an excruciating test of patience. (I spotted newly empty seats after intermission.)

Marathon ’33 is an incredibly ambitious undertaking. The show was written in the late 1960s by June Havoc, but the name June Rose Lee might sound more familiar. Havoc was the younger sister of the Vaudeville-era stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, and Marathon ’33 picks up where Scene 10 of the musical Gypsy leaves off. Baby June, you may recall, escapes her show-biz mother’s clutches by eloping with another dancer in the family act. The marriage doesn’t last, and the opening of Havoc’s play finds Baby June starving and shoeless and auditioning for a dance marathon.

In the 1920s and 1930s, dance marathons set up shop across Middle America. Like traveling circuses, they entertained the masses while performers endured deplorable workplace conditions. Sidney Pollack depicted the phenomenon in his 1969 Academy Award-winning film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

The movie was a compelling slow burner; the script of Marathon ’33 is an autobiography with an ax to grind. Jennifer Richter has a pathetically whiny role as June, who complains about Mama Rose in every scene. Bruce Alan Rauscher stars opposite her as Patsy, the veteran marathoner who claims her as his partner.

As depicted onstage, the marathon lasts for more than 100 days and involves very little dancing and lots of sluggish shuffling. The show’s most entertaining moments are fleeting dance scenes and character bits from the stronger female supporting actors. Several have good voices, which are made too sing far too many chestnuts from the American songbook. Reportedly, Kander and Ebb tried to talk Havoc into selling the rights to Marathon ’33 so they could revise it. She declined.

What a shame. Even in this problematic production, you can see the potential: Add character development, pacing, and audience participation, and Marathon ’33 could be as exciting as watching Usain Bolt win the 100 meters.

Well, maybe not, but you get the point. There’s a reason NBC only shows the marathon’s highlights.

Correction: This review originally contained two reporting errors: It incorrectly stated that a character was repeatedly called a “young man” while, in fact, he is not referred to as a “young man” in the script. Also, while the piece correctly described some audience members leaving at intermission, it should not have stated that “at least 15 people” walked out. That number was an estimate, not a precise count.

Our Readers Say

Talk about axes to grind.

1) Ritzel's review is an outlier; the show is a hit, and the word of mouth from audiences has been stellar.

2) There were exactly 5 walk-outs the evening she attended, and two of those told the usher that the show was too intense. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the audience stayed. If you don't have walkouts in a show like this, it isn't being done right.

3) I just checked the script. Patsy, who is described by Havoc as "ageless", is NEVER called a "young man," or "young." What show was she watching? (Bruce looks 40.)

4) As environmental theater, Marathon '33 needs to be viewed like a baseball game (keep looking around), and like baseball, in Red Smith's famous quote, is dull only to dull minds.

Discerning theater-goers should be able to spot the review of a critic who wishes she was watching a slick "Steel Pier" rather than what Havoc had in mind, a shocking and accurate depiction of what real, 3000 hour dance marathons were really like (and yes, that meant about 2,950 hours of dragging)that places the audience in the middle of the carnage.

And by the way, those "chestnuts" are called classics,and they should always be welcome to anyone who doesn't think Madonna's a genius. This show was obviously mismatched to the reviewer, and I don't think I'd care to see the show that was a good match.

{Jack Marshall is the director of Marathon '33, and the Artist Director of TACT)
In a paper that's been home base for some smart, insightful theater writers, this review stands out for both its amateur point of view and just plain awful writing.

This writer is clearly unfamiliar with June Havoc and the phenomenon of dance marathons. That "June Rose Lee" crack is excruciatingly stupid; Havoc survived the Depression to become a noted Broadway and film actress. She's not just a character who disappears halfway through "Gypsy."

The piece is riddled with factual inaccuracies: the musical director is Tom, not Ted, Fuller, and June never shows up shoeless. And talking about "deplorable workplace conditions" makes it sound as if she were putting together a term-paper report on 1930s labor. Suggesting that the script could be improved by "character development, pacing, and audience participation" isn't a valid critical response. It's the sign of an uninformed, unsophisticated writer. And what kind of critic makes an assumption about an actor's age?

Though she's not been done any favors by sloppy copyediting ("...made too sing far too many chestnuts", this embarrassing review marks the writer as someone whose cred as a responsible, informed critic needs some serious bolstering.
Jack Marshall is right. I attended a recent performance and thought it was a worthy show--not a light-hearted romp, no, but a really good show. As for walk-outs, who can tell why people leave? Sometimes I leave a show because my babysitter called. Marathon 33 is a solid production of an important play. We need to remember the things people were driven to do to survive the Depression. As for the age of the lead actor, he doesn't look 60. Kind of creepy, yes, but that's because he's an actor and that's what the role calls for.
I'm surprised the City Paper hasn't dropped this critic earlier. She makes a point of ridiculing actors' features in a number of her reviews, blurring the line between character and performer. Snarky sells, and Ms. Ritzel is a pro at channelling her inner bitch, but can't the City Paper afford an actual critic with actual reporting skills?
I thought the play was highly entertaining, well designed, and provocative. While I would agree that the script had some structural problems, it didn't detract from my overall enjoyment of the show. I also didn't notice anyone leaving the packed house during the intermission.

Incidentally, Sydney Pollack’s 1969 movie "They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?" did not win nor was it nominated for Best Picture. Though the film received 9 nominations,it took home an Oscar only for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Gig Young).

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