Johnny Horton is about 40, and completely dominated by his mother. When, one day, he meets a girl in a Pennsylvania nightclub and marries her on impulse, one of the first things he does – while his bride is changing into her pink negligee for the wedding night – is ring his mom to let her know that he won’t be home tonight. He’s also very reluctant to tell her the reason, to the extent of lying that he has been out on the town with a mate called Dave. But he makes the mistake of telling her the name of the hotel he’s staying at. In the morning, the elder Mrs Horton turns up and learns to her dismay that ‘Dave’ is actually a pretty blonde whom she takes to be a woman of easy virtue and insists on calling ‘Bubbles’, though her name is actually Eadie. She is even more distraught to discover that ‘Bubbles’ has just become the younger Mrs Horton.
Don Appell’s comedy Lullaby premiered at the Lyceum, New York, on February 3, 1954, with Jack Warden as Johnny and Kay Medford as Eadie, and closed March 13 after 45 performances. It went on to two decades of revivals, including a television production in 1960 with Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, and a 1962 production in Chicago with Rita Moreno, then best known for playing Anita, the sister of Natalie Wood’s Maria in the 1961 film version of West Side Story, and best known around here for The Vagabond King five years before that:
Not that that has anything much to do with Lullaby, either on Broadway or in Chicago.
It’s a comedy about the interfering mother-in-law from hell, or looked at another way, the difficulty of cutting apron strings. There’s an uncomplicated frankness about its acknowledgement that sex is a big part of the newlywed experience, and there’s a moment early in the second act when, soon after Johnny and Eadie have moved into his mother’s New York apartment, ‘he pats her backside playfully’. But after the honeymoon the sexual charge drains away because Johnny feels inhibited with his mother in the next room.
The story pivots on two blazing rows. After the first, Johnny decides to buy a house on Long Island so that they can move out. But that isn’t enough for Eadie: she doesn’t want his mother continually dropping by, and insists that he stand up to her. ‘I want proof you’re a man!’ she demands – which she gets, but only in the form she wanted, Sonny Boy confronting Mom, and not involving any kind of less playful encounter between her backside and his hand.
But when the play was produced at Keuka College, New York, in July 1960, here’s what Stillman Mostovoy did to 18-year-old player Ardys Voorhis at the publicity session for the press photographer:
It’s one of those publicity images that works as a symbol for a play rather than a literal representation of what happens in it, and it’s especially clever because it can be taken two ways. Is Johnny being encouraged to do it by his mother (Susan Donnell), making it an emblem of her dominance in the troubled three-way relationship? Or is Johnny in charge, finally proving that he wears the pants in the marriage, in spite of the powerless frustration of his fist-shaking mom? Only two things are reasonably certain: that Eadie’s at the lowest point of the domestic power triangle; and that Ardys Voorhis wasn’t spanked in the play itself – unless of course they did some pretty major rewrites!