Friday, February 22, 2019

164 (2018-2019): Review: MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (seen February 21, 2019)

“Still Rolling”

Ever since its massive flop on Broadway in 1981 (52 previews; 16 performances), Merrily We Roll Along (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, and original direction by Hal Prince), has refused to die, or like old generals, simply fade away. Sondheim is such a gigantic figure in modern musical theatre history that even his lesser efforts inspire legions of fanboys and fangirls, and every fan-gender in between, to shout for their revival. None more so than Merrily, whose checkered history has made it a cult favorite. 
The show, with its numerous national and international revivals, has undergone multiple tweaks to the book and score. New York alone has seen a well-received Encores! rendition in 2012, an Off-Broadway version at the York in 1994, and, now, a modestly successful, greatly scaled-down, Off-Broadway revival directed by Noah Brody for the Fiasco Theater at the Laura Pels Theatre, under the aegis of the Roundabout Theatre Company. This, I must confess, is my first experience of the show, so I won’t compare it to any of its predecessors.

Fiasco—whose critically praised revival of Into the Woods at this same venue in 2015 I missed—has gained a quality reputation for its original rethinking of established material, as in their Two Gentlemen of Verona (2015), so it’s no surprise that they’d take an unconventional approach to Merrily. Most radically, they've reduced the company from over two dozen in the 1981 show to a minuscule six, three of them playing two or three roles, with many minor characters gone with the wind. Surprisingly, the concept mostly works, although there are several confusing moments when it doesn’t.

Sondheim, by the way, offered his help and support during the show’s creative process.

Merrily We Roll Along is a very loose adaptation of a well-received 1934 comedy-drama by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart that ran for 155 performances and was certainly not the “flop” Martin Gottfried calls it in his More Broadway Musicals. While remaining a story about theatre figures, the musical version covers the years 1980-1957 instead of 1934-1916, changes the characters' names, alters their artistic occupations (for example, the original’s playwright, Richard, becomes Frank, a composer), uses different locales, and takes many other liberties. Interestingly, some lines from the original have been inserted into the Fiasco version.

But, while using a roughly similar storyline, it maintains Kaufman and Hart’s most significant innovation, showing us two decades in the lives of its characters in reverse chronological order.

Such reverse-order plotting, which begins with the end result of the characters’ trajectory and then returns to the events that led to it, has become more familiar over the years, as in plays like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. In 1934, it was considered quite experimental for a play, in spite of its increasing familiarity in movie flashbacks. Burns Mantle, who chose the Kaufman-Hart play as one of the 10 best of the 1934-1935 season, wrote:

There have been dream plays in which the sleeper’s consciousness was projected through past experiences, or through fantastic imaginings. But even the recovered story employing the flashback screen method, as did Elmer Rice’s On Trial, had their beginnings in the present and came back in the end to their starting point, as by the rules of musical composition, a song or a symphony must end on the key in which it has begun.

Sondheim and Furth, however, cheat a bit by adding a prologue of sorts, set in 1980, in which we briefly meet the three core characters. These are Franklin Shepard (Ben Steinfeld), a composer turned movie producer, whose marriage is on the rocks; Charley Kringas (Manu Narayan), a playwright/lyricist now in therapy, and Mary Flynn (Jessie Austrian), a wise-cracking, alcoholic novelist turned critic (whose 1934 original was inspired by Dorothy Parker). Each gives a capsule account of how, regardless of their apparent success, they’ve become disillusioned, personally and professionally, concluding with each reciting, “If I could go back to the beginning.” 
The script then takes us to a coke-snorting, booze-swilling, Hollywood party at the home of Frank, who’s sold out on the ideals of his youth to become a mediocre but rich movie producer. His wife, Gussie Carnegie (Emily Young), an aging Broadway star unhappy she’s not in Frank’s new movie, is disgusted that instead of her, it stars Frank’s young mistress, Meg (Brittany Bradford, who also plays Frank's first wife, Beth).

As the play slips further back into the past, we discover the background to the tragic culmination of Frank and Gussie’s aspirations via scenes involving the dissolution of Frank’s partnership with Charley, his musical theatre collaborator. Although the men have written highly profitable Broadway musicals, Charley feels betrayed when Frank’s grasping for money and fame leads him to abandon his artistic ambitions.

Time keeps sliding past, each year announced by a character, as we watch the highly promising careers and professional and personal friendships of Charley, Frank, and Mary fall apart, develop, and begin, in that order, with the final scene set in 1957, when Mary first meets the fellows on the rooftop of a building in which they all live. 
Obviously, showing the events in this backward order emphasizes the irony implicit in the evolution of their lives. It also maps the difficult path of collaboration and friendship, not to speak of the conflict between personal ideals and the pragmatism of reality, a theme that would have had particular resonance during the Depression, when the original was born.

Despite a lively pace that keeps things rolling for an intermissionless hour and 45 minutes, proficient staging, and nimble and creative choreography by Lorin Latarro (for actors who move well but aren’t dancers), nothing can disguise the thinness of the characters. Each has one or two dominant traits that vary little through the evening.

And, while it’s obvious how business issues drive a career-influencing wedge between Charley and Frank, Mary’s carrying a torch for Frank (quickly mentioned in passing) is never explored as a reason for her post-bestseller writing career to have tanked. Overall, the characters have such solipsistic, charmless personalities that cheering or sympathizing with them is barely an option. 
None of the performances, despite their technical adeptness by players who seem to be more actor-singers than singer-actors, possess the magical appeal that suggests future stardom. Steinfeld, in particular, is miscast as a leading man, and Young’s Gussie lacks the diva-like glamour the part demands.

Technically, the individual numbers are worthy of applause, several demonstrating virtuosic mastery of Sondheim’s extremely difficult verbal demands. The one that sticks most in mind is Narayan’s performance of Charley’s ultra-complex “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” which is probably an eternal show-stopper.

Sondheim’s tricky score, which contains such perpetually listenable numbers as “Old Friends,” and, perhaps the show’s most oft-recorded melody, “Not a Day Goes By,” is filled with dazzling lyrics, which the company renders with aplomb.

Sondheim’s tunes are written to express they lyrics, which they do in devilishly clever ways. There’s even a scene where Sondheim, obviously citing his own experience, has a producer urge Frank to write songs the audience can hum. As this production, orchestrated by Alexander Gemignani, and performed by an eight-member orchestra, makes clear, though, Sondheim’s melodies may not be conventional but they catch your ear and, with each listening, grow increasingly habit-forming. Which isn’t to deny that some aren’t top-drawer Sondheim. 
Brody’s production takes place within Derek McLane’s beautifully designed vision of a prop master's paradise, with tiers of shelving curving across the stage, holding neatly packed assortments of all sorts of things for potential theatrical use. A large upstage separation suggests either a concrete wall or a background for scenic effects, like a shimmering curtain. There also are alcoves for the actors to sit in and watch from when not in a scene. Furnishings, of course, are shifted swiftly by the cast itself. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting distinguishes one locale from the other, regardless of the general lack of familiar markers. 
Paloma Young and Ashley Rose Horton’s costumes are attractive but, regardless of the many changes, seem relatively period-neutral rather than making a big effort to stress fashion differences. For a story emphasizing time differences, the lack of more distinct, perhaps mildly satirical, fashion differences is a drawback. The same is true for hair, male as well as female; you won’t, for example, see mustaches, beards, and sideburns come and go. 
Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane) hit the nail on the head when trying to assess why even those who liked the original play had trouble sympathizing with it. His words describe the play, not the musical, but are still worth quoting: 

Here’s this playwright who writes a play and it’s a big success. Then he writes another play and it’s a big hit, too. All his plays are big successes. All the actresses in them are in love with him, and he has a yacht and beautiful home in the country. He has a beautiful wife and two beautiful children, and he makes a million dollars. Now the problem the play propounds is this: How did the poor son of a bitch ever get in this jam. (Quoted in Scott Meredith’s George S. Kaufman and His Friends.)

Laura Pels Theatre: Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 W. 46th St., NYC
Through April 7


Sunday, February 17, 2019

168 (2018-2019): Review: THE PRICE OF THOMAS SCOTT (seen February 16, 2019)

“For What Will It Profit a Man”

Ever since 1995, when Jonathan Bank became its artistic director, the Mint Theatre (founded in 1992) has made a name for itself by reviving forgotten plays, mainly British or American. A few once had something of a reputation but most came and went without much fanfare and then drifted downwards to the theatre’s version of Davy Jones’s locker.  

Emma Geer, Nick LaMedica. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
While few such plays, even in the Mint’s generally well-respected productions, prove to be overlooked masterpieces, most have had historical interest for theatre buffs and several have proved surprisingly vibrant. The Mint’s latest, Elizabeth Baker’s (1876-1972) The Price of Thomas Scott, fits the first description but, despite several moments of dramatic interest, fails to match the second.

Very little of substance is readily available about Baker’s life and work. Although active for a considerable span of years, none of her dozen produced plays ever were seen in New York. Among major reference works, neither the Modern World Drama: An Encyclopedia nor the much more expansive, two-volume Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama, among others of their sort, so much as mentions her. Clark and Freedley’s comprehensive A History of Modern Drama (1938), written while she was still active, gives her a paragraph, but the best Baker summary I could find in the limited time available is the one in the program for the Mint revival, written by Maya Cantu.

Cantu notes that Baker's plays, which occasionally received raves, "focused attention on the lives of London's clerks, shopgirls, and suburban strivers," while exploring "the constraints of class, gender, and social convention upon individual agency," 
Tracy Sallows, Donald Corren, Emma Geer. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
The Price of Thomas Scott, whose only performance was in 1913 at the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, starring Sybil Thorndike, is not enough to gauge Baker’s achievement. Theatregoers, however, will have more opportunities this year and next as the Mint is presenting the play as part of its ambitious “Meet Miss Baker” project. This will include not only readings of her work but, in the summer of 2020, overlapping productions of two of Baker plays, Partnership and Chains, at two Theatre Row venues. The latter, which received a lauded London revival in 2007, is her chief claim to fame.
Emma Geer, Andrew Fallaize. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
In fact, Clark and Freedley thought so little of Baker’s oeuvre that, with Chains in mind, they called her a “one-play author (to all intents and purposes).” The one other Baker play they bother to mention in passing is The Price of Thomas Scott, which, while it’s certainly of interest as a peep at what might have been considered thoughtful in 1913, now seems dated and its resolution decidedly disturbing.
Andrew Fallaize, Emma Geer. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
The Price of Thomas Scott is a problem comedy-drama in which the central tropes are those old conflicts between conscience and commerce, religion and secularism, and conservatism and liberalism. The play also sets the power of a willfully old-fashioned patriarch against the needs and desires of his up-to-date children. Further, it features a leading female character who, while sharing features with the New Women emerging at the time, comes off as a much more wishy-washy than others of her theatrical cohort, like those created by Bernard Shaw. Much of it actually reflects Baker's life as the daughter of devout Nonconformists who like the family in The Price of Thomas Scott were drapers, and who likewise held the theatre and like divertisements in very low esteem. Baker herself didn't see a play until she was nearly 30.

Thomas Scott (Donald Corren) owns a failing draper’s shop in a London suburb. Each of his family members is held back from achieving their dreams by the lack of money. Daughter Annie (Emma Geer), a talented milliner who creates stylish women’s hats, wants to go to Paris to advance her career; 15-year-old Leonard (Nick LaMedica) yearns to get a scholarship to a prestigious school, if only he could afford the additional expenses; and wife Ellen (Tracy Sallows) would like to give up her shop duties to buy a home in Tunbridge Wells.
Emma Geer, Arielle Yoder, Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Each of the play’s three acts, played without intermission over 90 minutes, is set in the same large room of the shop, where we meet Annie’s girlfriends, May Rufford (Ayana Workman) and Lucy Griffin (Arielle Yoder), and the Scott’s neighbors, Tewkesbury (Jay Russell) and George Rufford (Mark Kenneth Smaltz), May’s father.
Andrew Fallaize, Josh Goulding. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Other principals include Johnny Tite (Andrew Fallaize), an awkward young man who boards with the Scotts and is in love with Annie; Hartley Peters (Josh Goulding), Johnny’s friend, a dapper young banker who takes lodgings with the Scotts; and Wicksteed (Mitch Greenberg), a businessman and old friend of Scott’s who wants to buy the well-located shop.
Jay Russell, Mark Kenneth Smaltz, Donald Corren. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Baker spends much of the time establishing these people, focusing on the contrast between the younger ones, who want to enjoy the then popular pastime of dancing in public dance halls, and the older folks, who differ on whether or not dancing (or similar forms of public expression, like theatre acting) are innocent or iniquitous. To these people, a girl dressed as a boy to play Viola in Twelfth Night is nothing short of shocking. Still, one young man boldly declares, "These religious people sicken me." The movie and show Footloose had a similar foundation.
Josh Goulding, Andrew Fallaize, Ayana Workman, Emma Geer, Nick LaMedica. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
So happy are the the young folks to kick up their heels that a scene in Act One shows them pairing off to waltz. With Leonard struggling at the piano to pick out a tune and keep time, the others begin dancing somewhat clumsily until—in a dreamlike coup de théâtre choreographed by Tracy Bersley—they suddenly glide gracefully about to recorded waltz music before reality intrudes, and the dream ends as the adults come home.
Josh Goulding, Emma Geer, Andrew Fallaize, Ayana Workman. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Thomas Scott, however, despite being a loving dad and respected citizen, is a hymn-humming, religious zealot and temperance supporter who sees the devil in dancing and only reluctantly overcomes his puritanism to allow Annie to attend a local dance. This pious member of the local Methodist church, whose young preacher he greatly admires, is having trouble finding a buyer for his business until he gets the offer from Wicksteed, who gives him $25 down on a $500 pound purchase.
Emma Geer, Nick LaMedica. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
The news brings instant joy to one and all until Scott learns that Wicksteed is buying the shop on behalf of the Courtneys, a firm that wishes to add it to its string of respectable dance halls. In Courtney dance halls, not the only alcohol allowed on the premises is what you bring from the outside, and you’re thrown out at the first sign of inebriation.
Donald Corren, Mark Kenneth Smaltz. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Scott, whose only sin is smoking (oddly, nary a fag is lit during the entire play), wrestles with the need to wrench his family out of looming poverty (£500 in 2013 would be around £56,000/$72,000 today) and fulfill their dreams.
Emma Geer, Ayana Workman. Photo: Todd Cerveris. 
Wicksteed, anxious to buy the property, makes every reasonable appeal to the narrow-minded Scott, not neglecting to call him a religious bigot. Scott, doubtful at first, believes—even though his involvement with the place ceases the minute he doesn’t own it—that selling the store is the same as selling his soul. Will Scott prove the truth behind someone else's observation, "Every man has his price"?

The Price of Thomas Scott is, until its ending, more light comedy (albeit with only scattered laughs) than drama; that ending, though, is likely to leave a sour taste in your mouth. That’s not only because of Scott’s unilateral decision-making but because of the disappointingly innocuous reaction to it of his wife and daughter.

The latter is a particular letdown, not only because it betrays Annie's presumed independence of mind, but because her surprising choice is so damned foolish, regardless of the ideal to which it aspires. Baker’s point may have been to honor integrity at any cost but, given what that integrity supports in this case, I suspect most theatregoers then and now would have sided with Wicksteed. Annie comes off seeming as foolish a martyr as her father.
Tracy Sallows, Emma Geer. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
And then, almost as if director Banks and company realized that this conclusion is a downer, the younger cast members step out of the curtain call to deliver an anachronistic, upbeat, leg-kicking, Charleston-type routine performed to a swinging jazz accompaniment. The only sense it makes is as a ploy to get the audience watching these dance-hungry characters to feel better after how the play ended. Or perhaps it's an expression of the company's urge to stick its finger in Thomas Scott's eye.
Mitch Greenberg, Donald Corren. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Vicki R. Davis’s realistic shop interior, ceiling and all, and adorned here and there with women’s hats and dresses (on tailor’s dummies), is effective, Christian DeAngelis provides expert illumination (with nice colors for the dances), Jane Shaw’s sound design is up to her high standards, and Hunter Kaczorowski provides a decent simulacrum of 1913 clothing.
Donald Corren, Tracy Sallows. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Banks’s production, polite and pleasant enough, slogs along with lots of small talk about women's hats and necklines but few emotionally rousing moments. It’s all pleasant enough but it often drags. And the acting is uneven.
Mitch Greenberg, Tracy Sallows, Mark Kenneth Smaltz. Photo: Todd Cerveris.
Donald Corren’s Scott is reliably believable but lacks fire, which could also be said of most of the cast, not least of them being Emma Geer’s Annie, who could use a jolt of feminist spirit. Mitch Greenberg does best as Wicksteed, making us want to shake his hand for offering such reasonable, persuasive arguments to the obdurate Scott. I did sometimes wish he’d be a little less nice and a bit more frustrated by Scott’s reactions.

Hunting for lost treasure can pay off when precious metals and jewels are recovered. But sometimes you have to admit that your discoveries are unsalvageable and that all the polish in the world won’t remove the rust and barnacles. The Price of Thomas Scott might better have been left in the Davy Jones locker of moldering scripts.

Beckett Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 23


Friday, February 15, 2019

Thursday, February 14, 2019

166 (2018-2019): Review: SWITZERLAND (seen February 12, 2019)

“Believe It or Not”

Confession: I’ve never read a novel by Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), bestselling American author of the Tom Ripley novels, about a homicidal impostor. Nor have I plunged into her other psychological thrillers, like Strangers on a Train. I’m familiar with her books only through the medium of film. So, seeing Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland, in which Highsmith herself is one of the two characters, and in which the plot is inspired by her writing, and the dialogue concerns that writing, was perhaps not as enthralling for me as it might otherwise prove for Highsmith fans. (By an odd coincidence, there's an article in this week's New Yorker about Dan Mallory, author of the best-selling novel The Woman in the Window, whose relationship to the truth is reminiscent of Tom Ripley, and who is a Highsmith aficionado.)
Daniel Petzold, Peggy J. Scott. Photo: Rana Faure.
Originally produced in Sydney in 2014, Switzerland had its American premiere in Los Angeles in 2015, with Laura Linney as the considerably older Highsmith. The Hudson Stage Company’s production at 59E59 Theaters, directed by Dan Foster, was first seen last spring in Armonk, NY, with the same actors, Peggy J. Scott and Daniel Petzold.

The intermissionless, 90-minute play—which very vaguely brings to mind Deathtrap, Ira Levin’s 1978, hit murder mystery—imagines that, in 1995 (the year she died), Highsmith’s New York publisher has sent an ambitious, sexually ambiguous, young editor named Edward Ridgeway (Petzold) to Switzerland, where Highsmith lives in a modernistic, Alpine bunker (quite smartly designed by Ralph Fenton), surrounded by her collection of rare guns, knives, and swords, as well as an abundance of LP albums favoring Broadway musicals.
Peggy J. Scott, Daniel Petzold. Photo: Rana Faure.
His mission: to convince the reluctant author, who’s been in a literary funk, to sign a contract for a new Ripley novel. Edward’s youthful appearance, seeming nerdiness, and thorough knowledge of Highsmith’s oeuvre (which, for a cheap laugh, he mispronounces oovray) bely hidden motives that occasionally peep out through subtle changes of tone or expression.

Edward’s eager beaver urgency is counterpointed by Highsmith’s imperious, nasty, sarcastic, racist, antisemitic, misanthropic, and foulmouthed diatribes, including against such literary lights as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Kurt Vonnegut. The publisher’s emissary before Edward was so distressed by her that he ended up in therapy.
Peggy J. Scott. Photo: Rana Faure.
She insults not only blacks and Jews but many others, spouting generalized assaults that embrace entire populations, including Americans, comments that seem at odds with her alleged literary genius. Then again, geniuses don’t always play by the rules. The play also reveals her as a lesbian, an alcoholic, and a lover of the show tunes on all those albums, like the ones we sometimes hear in Garrett Hood’s sound design.
Daniel Petzold. Photo: Rana Faure.
Living in Switzerland for so long has cut Patricia off from changes in American culture, requiring Edward to disabuse her outdated notions by informing her of things like faddish dietary trends (young women have switched from pie to romaine lettuce, and white bread is in decline). And, given our heroine’s nicotine habit, let’s not forget the drop-off in smoking.

There’s also a discussion about Highsmith’s dislike of email following the negative reaction to a decidedly unpleasant message she sent; the moment gets a laugh but, while it may be based on fact, it seems a bit anachronistic for 1995, given not only the technology’s recent introduction but the presence on Highsmith's desk of a typewriter where a computer might otherwise have been.

A sidebar on my frequent bugaboo, stage smoking: Highsmith, as the key art on the play’s program and ads reminds us, was a heavy smoker. As so often evident in current day acting, those who must smoke herbal tobacco on stage or screen, often don’t handle their cigarettes the way real smokers do nor inhale their content as if it were anything other than castor oil. Once having established that their character smokes, such actors can’t wait for the first opportunity to snuff out their cigarettes (or cigars, as the case may be). Neither actor here passes the tobacco bar. 

As the action proceeds, Edward, whose evolution is marked by look and attitude in each new scene, sets in motion a collaborative discussion with Highsmith about the plot for a new Ripley novel. He himself begins to assume a Ripleyesque persona, more than which spoiler etiquette prevents me from describing.

The premise of placing Highsmith in a situation mirroring her own writing is unquestionably provocative but it falls short of conviction. What few thrills exist come mainly from Hood’s scary sound effects and haunting original music, as well as Andrew Gmoser’s creepy lighting.
Daniel Petzold. Photo: Rana Faure.
The back and forth, cat and mouse, war and peace variations that mark the action, with the balance of power continually shifting, incorporate a bit too much literary discussion, although some of it, like that about a writer’s morality vis à vis that of her readers, is interesting. There are also too many one-liners that fail to get much of a comic rise. The surprise ending may or may not satisfy you, regardless of whether you’re a Highsmith follower. Given the setup, however, it’s necessary, which doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.
Daniel Petzold, Peggy J. Scott. Photo: Rana Faure.
Scott gives a perfectly reasonable portrayal of the mean-spirited novelist but her dismissive anger and cynicism too often seem the mask-like externals of a nice person playing wicked. Petzold makes a suitably innocuous cum dangerous partner.

Is Switzerland a nice play to visit? Perhaps, but only with reservations.

59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through March 3


165 (2018-2019): Review: STATE OF THE UNION (seen February 11, 2019)

“Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows”

Following the review of the Metropolitan Playhouse’s Off-Broadway revival of Lindsay and Crouse’s State of the Union is a slightly edited entry for the play taken from my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1940-1950. I've tried not to repeat most of its contents in the review. 

The play originally opened at Washington, D.C.’s National Theatre, November 5, 1945, and opened on Broadway, November 14, 1945, at the Hudson Theatre, where it ran for 765 performances. The director was Bretaigne Windust.  
Anna Marie Sell, Kyle Minshew. Photo: Elizabeth Shane.

When I first heard that State of the Union, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s 1945 political comedy-drama about a millionaire being groomed for the presidency, all I could think was, “It’s about time!” There was a Ford’s Theatre revival in Washington, D.C., in 2006, but New York has had to wait till now to see if the play’s scrutiny of backroom politics still holds up, 73 years later, and whether an audience could still appreciate a play that drops contemporary references like flies sprayed with DDT.

The big surprise is that the play, even with the sting taken out of its tail by its lack of topical tang, and given a necessarily low-budget, less-than-sterling revival, remains interesting. This, however, is primarily because of the play’s existence as a document allowing us to compare current practices with those the playwrights pictured during the last year of World War II, which had ended only a few months earlier.
Jamahl Garrison-Lowe, Kyle Minshew, Jennifer Reddish. Photo: David Patlut.
The play is set two years later, in 1947, Truman is still president, the Democrats have won four presidential races in a row, and the Republicans are desperate for someone exciting to run in 1948. Imagine a modern version being produced in 2019, with Trump the president and the Democrats struggling to overthrow him in 2020. Wonder where that notion came from.

If any play ever needed constant Wikipedia alerts to ward off a pall of datedness, it’s State of the Union, which mentions journalist Drew Pearson, and politicians like Wendell Willkie, Harold Stassen, Robert A. Taft, and Henry Wallace, among many others, as well as legislation like Taft-Hartley and the Hatch Act. One can easily imagine a 1945 audience chirping every time one of these items was mentioned, the way today’s audiences bark at every Trumpian insinuation.

An updated telling would mention not only Trump, but journalists like Wolf Blitzer and Rachel Maddow, as well as politicians like Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, and Chuck Schumer, not to mention Beto O’Rourke, while Dodd-Frank and other controversial issues would also be referenced. But that, of course, would mean a completely new play, one that didn’t have people listening in on extensions to what folks on the phone in the next room were talking about.

Ultimately, State of the Union’s generalized domestic policies, focused mainly on labor, unions, and farmers, and foreign ones, like the postwar rebuilding of Italy—for all their historical attraction—aren’t as crucial to the plot as is its treatment of the POTUS-making machinations.

These are in the hands of Republican kingmaker James Conover (Michael Durkin), who tries to convince idealistic, determinedly honest Grant Matthews (Kyle Minshew), a millionaire (who’d be a billionaire today) airplane manufacturer, to run. Although we get to hear classic Republican positions, like that favoring privatization versus government competition, Matthews sometimes sounds like a liberal donkey in conservative elephant’s clothes.
Michael Durkin, Jennifer Reddish. Photo: Gloria Nelson.
Conover’s maneuvers require the cooperation of Matthews’s estranged wife, Mary (Anna Marie Sell), who hates public appearances, as well as of his mistress, powerful newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke (Jennifer Reddish). Mary must pretend all is well, while Kay must step into the shadows for the nonce.

It’s a setup with lots of potential and considerable relevance, especially when we consider the marital and extra-marital imbroglios of recent presidential candidates, one of whom even has a movie about his misstep (The Front Runner) in theatres at this very minute. And the notion of a candidate, like Matthews, a businessman with no political experience who prefers to follow his own principles rather than those of his party, rings a deafening bell.
Anna Marie Sell. Photo: June Siegler.
State of the Union is as much a domestic comedy about a marital rift as it is a depiction of political methods, many of them still in use; one of its greatest virtues for its original critics was how funny much of it was. On paper, much of the humor shows promise, but, in director Laura Livingston’s lively but comically flat production, the laughs come few and far between. There are a number of quotable zingers but most, like the tipsy Mary’s “I’d rather be tight than president,” are thrown away without the well-timed pointing they deserve.

Livingston deserves praise, however, for squeezing this rather sizable show, with its several different settings, and cast of 12, onto the Metropolitan’s teeny, three-quarter-round stage, where designer Vincent Gunn has cleverly managed—with the help of the actors serving as choreographed stagehands—to create a set that shifts from a wealthy man’s study, to a fancy hotel, and then to a New York apartment.

Given the company’s need to economize, one must also applaud Sidney Fortner’s period-based costuming, especially the women’s outfits. The period feeling, though, is thinned by the lack, not only of smoking, but even of a single ashtray as part of the décor. The attempt to introduce a traditional seltzer bottle went awry the night I attended as the poor actor trying to spritz a drink with it had to keep shaking the bottle just to get a narrow trickle of water. And one could certainly begin a conversation about whether the production’s color-blind casting serves or distracts in the context of a play written at a very specific moment in history when racial issues hung heavily in the air.

In fact, if I may digress, the 1945-1946 season was a remarkable one for politically-oriented theatre that spoke directly to current concerns. If Burns Mantle’s 10 Best Plays of the Year can be taken as a basis, seven had political themes, including two, Home of the Brave and Deep Are the Roots, that specifically addressed issues concerning African Americans and racism. Others were The Magnificent Yankee, about a famous Supreme Court justice; Jean Anouilh’s modern version of Antigone, with its updated take on the individual versus the state; Born Yesterday, about graft in Washington; and The Rugged Path, about a liberal journalist and the politics of the recent war. It’s fair to say that State of the Union was the best of the interesting lot.

The acting ranges from sprightly to serviceable to mediocre to better luck next time. It might help those familiar with famous old actors to know that Adolphe Menjou played Conover in Frank Capra’s 1948 movie version, which is available on YouTube for a couple of bucks; Margalo Gillmore played Kay on Broadway, while Angela Lansbury took the role in the movie; and movie star Ruth Hussey handled Mary on Broadway only for Katharine Hepburn to play her on the screen.

Durkin, Reddish, and Sell may not be in the same constellation as these stars, but they hold their own respectably enough to keep the play afloat. In smaller roles, Jon Lonoff brings jollity to wealthy donor Sam Parrish, and Linda Kuriloff has a nice bit as Lulubelle Alexander, the boozy wife of a southern judge (Doug Hartwyk), but few others make much of an impression.

The casting blip that sinks this ship is Minshew, who is so out of his league as Grant (Ralph Bellamy on stage; Spencer Tracy on film: ‘nuff said), and so lacking in the presidential light the others ascribe to him, that what might have been politely recommendable for a wider audience is hard to endorse for any but political junkies and cognoscenti in search of lost Broadway treasures.

STATE OF THE UNION from The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1940-1950, by Samuel L. Leiter

Burns Mantle selected this highly regarded wisecracking satire—originally called I’d Rather Be Left—as one of his ten best plays of the year; even more prestigiously, it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It was one of the most successful politically oriented works of its day, satirizing, among other targets, voter practices and corrupt campaigning.

It was inspired by actress Helen Hayes asking Lindsay and Crouse if they might not like to write a political play with a hero based on Wendell Willkie, an idealistic politician who had run in the controversial 1940 presidential campaign. Hayes turned down other opportunities as she awaited the promised script, but writers’ block kept the collaborators from putting pen to paper. One night, Crouse was at a party where a Ouija board was being used. He asked it when he and Lindsay would write the play. The planchette immediately spelled “tonight.” Crouse immediately made a dash for Lindsay’s house and began to write the piece.

When the play was completed, Hayes turned it down as being too political for her. “I could smell the cigar smoke coming from the back room,” she said (as quoted in Cornelia Otis Skinner’s Life with Lindsay and Crouse). Crouse, asked later if the leading character was, in fact, based on Willkie, replied, “He’s not Willkie. But he’s certainly Crindsay—and maybe Louse.”

To keep it as up-to-the-minute as possible, certain lines were changed periodically and there was a new newspaper headline read each night to reflect the actual headline of the day. The dialogue was peppered with the names of current political figures to give the play a cachet of even greater authenticity.

The story, designed to demonstrate that political leaders are chosen not by the people but by other politicians, is about Grant Matthews (Ralph Bellamy), a well-to-do, idealistic airplane manufacturer, married to the cynically amusing Mary Matthews (movie actress Ruth Hussey, in her Broadway debut), from whom he is estranged. His view of postwar America is of a nation whose unity is becoming unraveled, and it his desire to reunite the nation as it was during the war.

His mistress is a powerful newspaper publisher, Kay Thorndyke (Margalo Gillmore*), who seeks to ride his coattails to the White House. She uses her persuasive powers to get the Republican party interested in him as a potential 1948 presidential candidate, and Grant is himself bitten by the bug. The party bigwigs insist that he make his speaking tour with his wife, while his liaison with the publisher is discreetly hidden. Mary’s jibes are a healthy tonic for keeping Grant’s overweening self-esteem in perspective.

But Grant’s manager, the hard-boiled ex-reporter Spike McManus (Myron McCormick) comes to see the danger in the marital relationship because Mary’s uncompromising sense of truth is not the stuff of practical politics. Grant and Mary must host a dinner for various politicos, and Mary, despite her vow to keep from drinking so as to avoid saying anything untoward, finds herself sipping a potent concoction. Soon her inhibitions fly out the nearest window. Rebuked by Grant, she responds, “Personally, I’d rather be tight than president.”

Before long, each of the guests, including the tough party boss, James Conover (Minor Watson), is devastated by her tart remarks. Pushed to the limit, his integrity on the line, Grant realizes that to gain the nomination, he will have to make too many compromises and too many deals; he thereby loses his presidential bid. He and Mary are reconciled, and Grant promises to fight for his ideals and the “state of the nation.”

One major reason many enjoyed the play was its ability to provide solid entertainment while offering an appropriate lesson in morality for both those in politics and those outside it. “Cynical as it may be to demonstrate that a candidate for president can rarely preserve his personal integrity, a capitalist is exhibited who prefers to remain true to his wife and without any sticky sentiment,” averred Euphemia Van Rensselaer Wyatt in Catholic World. “With wonderfully funny lines and situations, the new comedy . . . also has enough sentiment to keep it from being farce, enough idea to show that its heart is in the right place,” noted Lewis Nichols in the New York Times. “In spite of all its little tricks, its smartly tailored laughs, it is really a human play,” wrote Louis Kronenberger in PM. “Its characters, as far as they go, are lifelike.” Howard Barnes commented in the Herald-Tribune that “It tosses barbs at a great rate, but they are honeyed with good fun and persuasion.”

There were, however, some criticisms of its occasionally sagging action, unfocused dramatic issues, and contrived happy ending. George Jean Nathan noted in Theatre Book of the Year that it was a rewrite of various similar plays of fifty years before and thought its politics naïve.

The performances by the leads were first-rate. . . . In general, the production was considered virtually flawless and an excellent example of slick Broadway showmanship.

Bellamy, in When the Smoke Hit the Fan, remembered how adept coauthor Crouse was at coming up with important lines in an emergency. This was illustrated when it became evident that a strong curtain line was needed for the backroom political discussion that served the play as a prologue. When nothing had been provided to end the scene and the company began to grow nervous, Crouse’s collaborator, Lindsay, asked him please to ] climax of the political argument someone mention the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. Minor Watson improvised, “The only difference between the two parties is: they’re in, were’ out!” This became the scene’s all-important curtain line.

As mentioned, a daily headline was read in the play to keep it fresh [obviously, this is not done in the revival]. Bellamy had the nightly task of thinking of an appropriate one and would scan the papers and listen to the radio as part of his daily research. The line would be delivered after Mr. and Mrs. Matthews came downstairs to await a room service meal of hamburgers and martinis before he delivered a major political address.

One night, when British prime minister Winston Churchill was in the audience, Bellamy, wanting to come up with something especially pertinent, concocted the headline, “After two strenuous weeks, Churchill relaxes in New York seeing plays,” which precipitated a huge laugh. The following day, as Churchill prepared to embark on the ship back to England, he was asked his opinion of State of the Union. After a brief pause, he declared, “I don’t know what kinbd of speech a man could make on a hamburger and only one martini.
. . .
*An error in the original entry attributes the role to “Kay Johnson.”

Metropolitan Playhouse
220 E. 4th St., NYC
Through March 10


164 (2018-2019): Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (seen February 13, 2019)

“Each Man Must Have His Dignity”

Unless you’ve been living with that now-deceased robot on Mars, you probably know that the late Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, about racism in a 1934 Alabama town, which may be even more widely known for its 1962 movie adaptation by Horton Foote, is now a widely, if not universally, acclaimed Broadway play. 

Although previous dramatizations exist, this one, by renowned TV writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), billed as a “new play,” is the first to reach the Great White Way, where it opened in mid-December. Titled by its traditional name on the program cover but as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird on the credits page, it has been breaking box office records. That, though, happened after considerable controversy stemming from two federal law suits (amicably settled) concerning deviations from the original taken by Sorkin’s script. 
Jeff Daniels. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The chief issue of the legal dispute concerned the degree of moral ambiguity in the heroism of the central character, the white lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defends a black man from charges of raping a white woman. Atticus’s nobility had come into question with the 2015 publication of another Lee book, Go Set a Watchman, where his racism is evident. Also controversial was the increased importance given to the feelings and thoughts of Calpurnia, Atticus’s black servant, as well as the expanded attention to the views of Tom Robinson, the man Atticus defends. These, and others, clearly outlined here, were made to reflect present-day concerns about racial issues.
Company of To Kill a Mockingbird. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Over these past two months,, New York’s theatre review aggregator, has (as of today) provided excerpts from, and links to 42 “critics’” reviews, along with brief assessments from 429 site members, each with a numerical score attached. The aggregate score from the 42 critics is 76, with the 79% designated as “positive” ranging from the rarely granted 100 (of which there are two) to 70; the 9% considered “mixed” going from 65 to 55; and the 12% in the “negative” slot covering 40 to a shockingly low 15. The aggregate score from the members is 93% positive, 5% mixed, and 2% negative. My own score of 80 places me in the positive category. 

Sorkin’s consistently engrossing, entertaining, and enlightening play is a cinematically episodic treatment that centers on Tom Robinson's trial, in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. It is almost immediately introduced, after which what happened before and after are revealed through numerous flashbacks. 
Gideon Glick, Will Pullen. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Filling in the blanks are frequent narrative passages spoken, not (as in the movie) just by Atticus’s young daughter, Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger, Peter and the Starcatcher, terrific), looking back on the events several decades in the future, but by her brother Jem (Will Pullen, Sweat) and Dill (Gideon Glick, Significant Other), a boy spending the summer in Maycomb who befriends the Finch children. Dill joins the others in their childhood obsession of trying to spy on the town’s mysterious recluse, Arthur “Boo” Radley, whose name keeps popping up, while his person remains invisible. 

This trio of constantly intruding narrators isn’t the best of Sorkin’s innovations, especially since the kids are played by adult actors. While it’s almost as easy to accept Keenan-Bolger’s overall-wearing, tomboyish Scout as it was to buy adult Julie Harris’s 12-year-old Frankie in Member of the Weddingthe device weakens with Pullen’s Jem and Glick’s Dill. Pullen, a rising young actor who’s stood out in every role I’ve seen him tackle Off Broadway, is simply too mature-looking and behaving, while Glick, playing a character Truman Capote claimed to have been based on him, seems merely odd as a gangling boy with manhood issues. Overall, the effect of having the children played by adults damages the story’s emphasis on the loss of childhood innocence. 
Frederick Weller (foreground). Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
There are other questionable performances as well, notably Frederick Weller’s (Mothers and Sons) overacted Bob Ewell. I’ve often admired Weller, but as the monstrously racist, n-word-spouting, white trash (as we’d say today) father of the girl claiming to have been raped, his villainous theatrics are reminiscent of someone from a 19th-century melodrama. Another usually fine actor, Stark Sands (Kinky Boots), as the ferocious prosecutor Horace Gilmer, also tends toward excess. 
LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Jeff Daniels. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
But the solid acting of others, such as the thoroughly convincing Dakin Matthews as the fair-minded judge Taylor; the tragically sympathetic Gbenga Akinnagbe as the falsely accused Tom Robinson; the believable Danny McCarthy as the decent Sheriff Heck Tate; the shabbily sad Neal Huff as the so-called town drunk, Link Deas; the warmly maternal LaTanya Richardson Jackson as the socially aware servant, Calpurnia; and the credibly frightened Erin Wilhelmi, as the victimized Mayella Ewell, cover the few thespian flaws.
Erin Wilhelmi. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Topping them all, of course, is the brilliant Jeff Daniels (Blackbird) as the wise, paternal, brave, and noble Atticus, who undertakes the defense of a black laborer in an intensely racist environment. One may want to take issue with his character’s refusal to condemn evil for what it is, insisting that “each man must have his dignity,” even Bob Ewell. It sounds dangerously close to Trump’s post-Charlottesville “some very fine people on both sides” equivocation, but Daniels, who brings dignity and intelligence to everything he says, can almost make you accept it. He’s not Gregory Peck, who won an Academy Award for his screen portrayal, but he’s a new standard against which other Atticus Finches will henceforth be judged. 

As the over two and a half-hour production hurtles toward its conclusion, the plot’s melodramatic occurrences begin to pile up. There’s also a too-noticeable tendency to craft highly dramatic monologues for most of the principals almost as if to satisfy each actor’s need for a standout moment. Regardless, what’s sufficient to sustain the blazing business of Tom Robinson’s trial as a grippingly dramatic tale begins to cool down once he’s been convicted, with what follows slipping into anticlimactic territory as loose ends are tied up and a more or less happy ending contrived around Bob Ewell’s death and the rather awkward appearance of “Boo” Radley (Danny Wolohan). 
Jeff Daniels, Gbenga Akinnagbe. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Director Bartlett Sher (My Fair Lady) scores highly once again with his swiftly moving production, tying scenes together with Miriam Buether’s (Three Tall Women, The Jungle) piecemeal setting, exquisitely lit by Jennifer Tipton. What seems a huge, concrete warehouse, with a long, horizontal skylight, and thick columns, shifts from locale to locale—including the front of the Finch home, the courtroom (where a dozen empty chairs represent the jury), and the prison exterior—with choreographic precision as pieces fly and slide in with considerable help from the actors themselves.

In addition to the fourteen-member company, dressed in pitch-perfect 30s costumes by Ann Roth, are two always-visible musicians, an organist (Kimberly Grigsby) down left and a guitarist (Allen Tedder) down right, accompanying the action with an excellent original score by Adam Guettel.

Even with its drawbacks, Sher’s production gives theatregoers willing to shell out up to $179 for an orchestra seat a satisfactory return for their investment: a powerfully dramatic story, with emotional depth, comic relief, potent performances led by a world-class star giving his best in an iconic role, visual dynamics, directorial imagination, and social relevance. It’s why, when the tag line, “All rise,” is spoken, nearly everyone does.

Shubert Theatre
225 W. 44th St., NYC
Through March 17