Heights Players stage sleepy, unabridged revival of Harry Segall’s ’Heaven Can Wait’

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Ever since human beings came to realize their days on Earth were numbered, there have been myriad books, plays and films devoted to the notion of beings returning after death - to right wrongs, finish a job or just have fun.

Thus is the case with "Heaven Can Wait," now being staged at the Heights Players, directed by Bill Wood.

Written by Harry Segall in 1938 as an unpublished dramatic composition titled, "It Was Like This," the work was subsequently turned into a play, "Halfway to Heaven," and in 1941 became a Columbia Pictures classic, "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," starring Claude Rains as Jordan and Robert Montgomery as Joe Pendleton, a prizefighter who is accidentally sent to heaven by a bumbling celestial messenger after his plane crashes.

Six years later, Columbia produced "Down to Earth," a musical starring Rita Hayworth as Terpsichore, the goddess of song and dance, who looks down from heaven at the dress rehearsal of the play "Swinging the Muses," doesn’t like the way she and her eight sisters are portrayed and gets Mr. Jordan ("He’s done it once before, he can do it again") to send her down to Earth, where she becomes Kitty Pendleton and is given the lead role in the show.

As if this weren’t enough, in 1978, Warren Beatty produced, co-directed (with Buck Henry), co-wrote (with Elaine May) and starred in "Heaven Can Wait," a remake in which prizefighter Pendleton becomes a Los Angeles Rams quarterback who mistakenly ends up in heaven after a car crash.

And finally, in 2001, Paramount released a remake with a black twist, "Down to Earth," starring Chris Rock as Lance Barton, a budding comedian who is hit by a bus and returns to Earth, placed in the corpse of a rich, white Manhattan mogul.

So what’s so special about this story? Go figure.

In the Heights Players’ production, newcomer John Martin Keenan plays the saxophone-playing pilot who is also an aspiring prizefighter. Steve Platt is the overly anxious Escort 7013 who learns to his chagrin that Pendleton was supposed to live another 60 years and would have become world heavyweight champion if he hadn’t screwed up.

Now Platt’s superior, Mr. Jordan (Jim McNulty) must find a way to get them both out of this mess.

Ironically, McNulty, who is the production’s stage manager and was to play several minor roles, had to be called in days before opening night when Ken Dray, originally cast as Mr. Jordan, fell ill. Like Jordan, McNulty pulls through admirably.

Pendleton is first given the body of a crooked business tycoon named Farnsworth, who has been knocked off by his wife, Julia (Krista Gillen) and her lover Tony Abbott (Jeff Carpenter). Julia and Tony are quite naturally surprised but not delighted when Farnsworth reappears, not only alive, but "in the pink" and determined to enter the ring.

Pendleton has a hard time convincing his manager, Max Levine (Heights Players veteran Bernard Bosio) that Farnsworth is really his deceased prizefighter, and the confusion and reversals that ensue are a main source of the play’s comedy.

There’s also a romantic interest, Bette Logan (Brice McCoy), the daughter of a business associate Farnsworth has ruined, who falls for Pendleton after he convinces her (as Farnsworth) that he’s not such a bad guy after all.

Depending on your point of view, "Heaven Can Wait" can be either hilarious romantic fantasy or sheer claptrap. For this reviewer, the verdict is somewhere in the middle.

This production might have been more successful if it had been cut down (it has three acts and two intermissions) and if Wood had managed to speed up the action. Keenan is energetic, funny and convincing, but there are times when the slow pace, combined with the flatness of supporting actors who just aren’t funny, can be quite soporific. Fortunately, Bosio’s Levine often arrived, just in time to wake up dozing audience members.

"Heaven Can Wait" is not quite a must-see, but it’s still a show you might enjoy.

The Heights Players production of "Heaven Can Wait" plays through April 20, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm at 26 Willow Place, between State and Joralemon streets in Brooklyn Heights. Tickets are $10 adults, $8 students. For reservations, call (718) 237-2752.

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