Sunday, February 25, 2018

165 (2017-2018): Review: A MARRIAGE CONTRACT (seen February 23, 2018)


Alex Roe, artistic director the tiny Metropolitan Playhouse in Alphabet City, nobly devoted since 1992 to the exhumation of long-forgotten American plays, has dug more deeply than usual this time. His discovery: Augustin Daly’s 1892 A Marriage Contract, now showing as part of his company’s current Season of Resilience. 

In fact, you won’t even find the play’s title in the standard histories because it was actually staged at Daly’s Theatre as A Test Case: Grass vs. Granite, a broad satire on suburban vs. urban living.
Mike Durkin, Nick Giedris, Trevor St.John-Gilbert. Photo: YuFei Liang.
Daly (1838-1899) was one of the most prominent New York theatre figures of the late 19th-century, being a critic, producer, director, and very prolific playwright. He was known mainly for melodramas, like Under the Gaslight (that’s the one with the girl tied to the railroad tracks) and Leah, the Forsaken, both of which have played the Metropolitan. He also adapted many comedies from translations of French and German originals he commissioned, one such example being A Marriage Contract, based on a German farce by Oscar Blumenthal and Gustav Kadelburg called Grofßstatdluft (The Air of the Metropolis). 
Anna Stefanic, Trevor St. John-Gilbert. Photo: Hannah Stampleman.
In the 15th and final volume of his monumental Annals of the New York Stage, chronicler George C. Odell, after noting that the play opened on November 10, 1892, says it “held the stage for barely three weeks . . . , and, then, disappeared forever from our ken.” A later chronicler, Gerald Bordman, points out that it was a “major disappointment.” And thus it would have remained had not the Metropolitan given it—after 125 years of moldering in a forgotten grave—a new life.
Tyler Kent, Florence Marcisak. Photo: YuFei Liang.
And, indeed, the old farce still does have some laughs left in her, although one has to appreciate the limited circumstances of budget and casting under which she wheezes. As the headline on page 1 of the Sunday, February 25, 2018, New York Times Real Estate section reminds us, the play's central conflict over the relative values of residing in New York City or moving to the suburbs continues to embroil local yokels on both sides of the divide: “Suburban Idyll: Once You Have Decided to Move Out of the City, How Do You Determine Which Location Will Suit You Best?”
Jennifer Reddish, Anna Slefanic. Photo: Hannah Stampleman.
In A Marriage Contract, the suburban manufacturing magnate Jessekiah Pognip (Mike Durkin), devoted booster of his (fictional) New Jersey village, East Lemons, is seriously disturbed by the fast life of New York (although, hypocritically, not so much he can’t enjoy his own night on the town).
J.M. McDonough, Trevor St. John-Gilbert. Photo: YuFei Liang.
He’s so uptight, in fact, that, before allowing man-about-town, proudly profligate New York architect Robert Fleming (Trevor St. John Gilbert) to marry his daughter, Sabina (Anna Stefanic), Pognip insists the reluctant architect sign a contract (“a regular test case”). Its purpose is to make him promise to move to what—in those pre-Trump days—Fleming calls the “hole” of East Lemons, where Pognip can “keep his optics on him.”
Nick Giedris, Jennifer Reddish. Photo: YuFei Liang.
Writing up the contract is Ned Jessamine (Nick Giedris), gallivanting lawyer husband of Pognip’s niece, Juno (Jennifer Reddish). For much of the play, Juno will keep Ned in sweaty suspense by refusing to disclose just what secret she knows about his gadding about that could be used to divorce him.
Donna Eshleman, Teresa Kelsey. Photo: YuLei Fiang.
Life in East Lemons is a sour experience for Fleming, who, after six months, is bored up to his stiff collar with the lack of anything interesting to do, apart from a shooting gallery, village musicales, poetry readings by the local Browning society to the accompaniment of ice cream and cider, or games of euchre.
Andrew R. Cooksey, Jr., Mike Durkin, Tyler Kent. Photo: Hannah Stampleman.
Old Pognip, for his part, couldn’t be happier or more self-satisfied, thus only further irritating his son-in-law, who feels as much married to the old buttinsky as to the complacent Sabina.
J.M. McDonough, Tyler Kent, Trevor St. John-Gilbert, Terence Dineen. Photo: Hannah Stampleman.
And then there are the gossips, the need to maintain the puritanical town’s “moral average,” the lack of an express train, the day-late telegrams, the old news in the papers, the clockwork regularity of things, and everybody and his brother’s knowing your business. “It’s only among a million people we can be really alone,” Fleming laments.
Tyler Kent, J.M. McDonough, Trevor St. John-Gilbert. Photo: Hannah Stampleman.
Unable to bear it any longer, Fleming packs up and returns to the city, followed soon after—to her father’s amazement—by Sabina, wrapping up not only the main plot but several subplots when the entire cast gathers in Fleming’s new city flat.
Mike Durkin, Trevor St. John-Gilbert, J.M. McDonough. Photo: Hannah Stampleman.
Those subplots involve Juno’s distant cousin, the foolish Natty (Tyler Kent), who keeps coming in second when it comes to asking for a girl’s hand; East Lemon’s liberal-minded Dr. Tinkey (J.M. McDonough), fed up with the town, but ruled by his henpecking, nosey wife, Columbia (Teresa Kelsey); and, of course, Juno herself and Ned.
Trevor St. John-Gilbert, Tyler Kent, J.M. McDonough. Photo: Hannah Stampleman.
The contrived plotting is charmingly old-fashioned as are much of the stagey dialogue and constant asides. There’s nothing here that other turn-of-the-century farces haven’t done better, but its occasional wit and lack of prolixity are in its favor. It’s also interesting to see how Daly refashioned the German original to capture touches of New York life in the gay 90s, when up-to-date meant being “twentieth century.”

When Sabina and Juno go to a matinee it’s to “Ibsen’s last play,” with the admonition that they “leave the theatre at the first objectionable word.” Bedlow’s Island and the Statue of Liberty, as well as the steeple of Trinity Church, are touted as must-see tourist spots, and, as today, someone notes that the city’s occupants only see the local sights when accompanying someone from out of town.

And the flat that Fleming must abandon for East Lemons is on Broadway at 23rd Street, “right in the midst of the noisiest—gayest—brightest—maddest crowd on the continent.” You can decide for yourself how much this remains the case.

One of the liveliest sequences involves several of the men getting drunk on champagne and singing “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,” a tune introduced a year earlier that became so popular in 1892 it was on everyone’s lips. So ubiquitous and, to some, annoying, was it that, given its ongoing familiarity (and its place at the end of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters), it’s intriguing to see what the play’s New York Times reviewer had to say about it on November 11, 1892.

But why must we have ‘Ta-ra-ra’ on this stage? It is not pretty, or funny, or graceful, or even naughty. It is worn out already, and the bootblacks—the progressive bootblacks—have found another tune to whistle. There are a dozen variety shows in town where they do this sort of thing better!

Of course, the introduction of the tune is probable enough, but the thing itself is so stale and common, the fun of the incident involving it is so obvious, that it gives people who look to this stage [Daly’s] for the best, the brightest, the gentlest, most poetic and fragrant in contemporary comedy, an unpleasant shock.

Readers, the shock is gone.

The production, performed in an intimate three-quarters-round space, uses director Roe’s own simple setting, with furniture moved by the actors when the action shifts between city and country. Sidney Fortner’s eye-catching costumes, close enough to period accuracy to pass muster, help greatly, while Roe’s competent but mostly unexceptional cast—the best work comes from Reddish, McDonough, and Giedris—keeps things lively. Still, with four acts running well over two hours, interest often flags.
Mike Durkin, Trevor St. John-Gilbert. Photo: Ed Forti.
A Marriage Contract maintains the Metropolitan’s reputation as a dependable theatrical curiosity shop. The play’s chief value lies in demonstrating the kind of thing our not-that-distant ancestors attended just as Ibsen, Chekhov, and modernists far more extreme were changing the dramatic landscape. On the other hand, overlong and dated as it is, it’s more entertaining than many other current plays I could mention. Who knows? Perhaps it won’t take another 125 years before its next revival.


Metropolitan Playhouse
220 E. 4th St., NYC
Through March 18

"Did the Folks Next to Me Like It?"

My plus-one, a scholar in his mid-70s, gave the play a 55.