Thursday, February 14, 2019

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