(1964 Broadway Comedy/Drama)

POOR BITOS hardback artwork

STARRING: Donald Pleasence (Bitos/Robespierre), Charles D. Gray (Maxime/Saint-Just), Norman Barrs (Philippe/Jesuit Father), Bernie West (Charles), Roy Poole (Julien/Danton), Jane Lowry (Lila/Marie Antoinette), Nancy Reardon (Amanda/Madame Tallien), C.K. Alexander (Vulterne/Mirabeau), John Devlin (Brassac/Tallien), Michael Lombard (Deschamps/Camille Desmoulins), Diana Muldaur (Victoire/Lucille Desmoulins), Gino Conforti (Joseph), Marco St. John (Delanoue/Merda), and Bryant Fraser (Young Robespierre)

DIRECTOR: Shirley Butler
PLAYWRIGHT: Jean Anouilh (translated by Lucienne Hill)
PRODUCERS: Harold Prince, in association with Michael Cordon and Pledon Limited

This production opened at the Cort Theatre in New York on November 14, 1964.
It closed on November 28, 1964 after 17 performances.

Bernie West, Diana Muldaur, and Donald Pleasence

A review by Norman Nadel of THE NEW YORK WORLD-TELEGRAM and THE SUN

"Poor Bitos," laments the stately Diana Muldaur, addressing Donald Pleasence's departing back---bent though hardly humble---as the curtain falls on Jean Anouilh's new play.

The two words, tenderly motivated, leave her lips on a soaring current of compassion, then hang, irresolute, at mid-stage, as if they have no place to go. Indeed they haven't because Anoulih has just finished proving that compassion is, at best, a lonely island in an alien and antagonistic world.

Even Bitos repulses her concern, though he is its beneficiary. She has just warned him against accompanying his tormentors, after a ruthless social evening, to a night club where they plan to humiliate him further.

Bitos isn't big enough to be grateful, or to forget that Victoire (Miss Muldaur) belongs to an upper class he hates. Ever the small-minded, cruelly meticulous deputy public prosecutor of his French town, he warns her that when his chance comes to get even, he'll start with her.

This is typical of the sentiments to be encountered in Poor Bitos, which arrived at the Cort Theater Saturday night following a run in London. Never, I think, has Anouilh exposed mankind with such caustic candor, nor with such thoroughness. And the device by which he accomplishes this is a bitter and brilliant tragicomedy.

It is set in the vaulted great hall of a French manor which is about to be converted into a garage. The host (Charles Gray) uses this as the excuse for a party.

His real reason for assembling his aristocratic friends is to humiliate Bitos, whom they had hated since they were children, partly because Bitos was poor and "second-rate," and mainly because he was always first in his class at school.

The guests are in modern evening dress, but they wear wigs of the French Revolutionary period. Each has been assigned a role, which he or she must enact in speech and behavior all evening. Saint-Just (the host), Danton (Roy Poole), Mirabeau (C.K. Alexander), Camille and Lucille Desmoulins (Michael Lombard and Miss Muldaur), Tallien (John Devlin), Madame Tallien (Nancy Reardon), Marie Antoinette (Jane Lowry), and Merda (Marco St. John), who shot Robespierre but left him alive to be guillotined the next day, all are represented. Bitos is Robespierre, and he alone is in full costume; that's the first humiliation.

Before Bitos arrives, the guests are given the groundrules: "Do not attack Bitos with anything but historical references." This is not kindness, merely a maneuver to heighten the evening's sport.

From then on Poor Bitos etches in acid every artifice and betrayal in the attitudes of the French Revolution (on both sides) and their modern counterpart in provincial French life. At one point, the play moves entirely into the Revolutionary period, then back to the present. The transitions are smooth and dramatically effective.

Despite the barrage of intellectual spite directed against Bitos, you aren't apt to pity him. Both as Bitos and as Robespierre, he reveals pettiness and rancor to match the arrogant cruelty of his tormentors.

Producer Harold Prince is to be thanked and praised, not only for bringing the play and its two London stars---Pleasence and Gray---but for introducing Broadway to a native Chicagoan, Shirley Butler, who established herself as a director abroad. She directed Bitos in London, and now here.

Watching Pleasence as Bitos, you realize that for an actor of his genius and scope, there are no limits. There is more superb theatre to be seen in his portrayal than in three ordinary plays. So far this season, there hasn't been a stronger, sharper play or a richer characterization.

There are a few weak scenes; the dialogue of the two jailers, for example, falls flat here, though it made a sprightly interlude in the London production. Generally, however, the cast is excellent.

Poole's cruelty as Julien-Danton, Alexander's flamboyant self-indulgence as the pock-marked Mirabeau, Devlin's caustic wit as Tallien and Lombard's smouldering Deschamps-Desmoulins are indelible characterizations. The women are strikingly gowned, with Miss Muldaur resisting the tide of viciousness, and Miss Lowry and Miss Reardon as willing partners to the men's attack on Bitos. Norman Barrs brings a chill note of corrosive self-righteousness as a Jesuit father punishing the boy Robespierre (Bryant Fraser). Bernie West, as a butler, introduces a note of non-malicious comedy.

From the November 16, 1964 edition of THE NEW YORK WORLD-TELEGRAM and THE SUN.

Review 1964 THE NEW YORK WORLD-TELEGRAM and THE SUN. All Rights Reserved.

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Photos by Friedman-Abeles

Photos 1964 Friedman-Abeles / Prince / Cordon and PLEDON LIMITED. All Rights Reserved.

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