Tuesday, November 24, 2020

391. PENTHOUSE LEGEND (aka The Night of January 16th). From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Kay Gillian, Harvey Solin, Robert Fitzsimmons.
PENTHOUSE LEGEND (aka THE NIGHT OF JANUARY 16TH) [Dramatic Revival] A: Ayn Rand; D: Phillip J. Smith; S/L: David Houston; P: P.J. and K. Smith; T: McAlpin Rooftop Theatre (OB); 2/22/73-3/18/73 (30)

Originally titled The Night of January 16th, this 1935 courtroom drama was unimpressive in its second New York revival. It’s a stunt play in which a case concerning the facts behind a man’s fatal fall from a penthouse (murder? suicide?) are developed with people from the actual audience playing the jury and submitting a verdict. The play is written to support alternative conclusions of “guilty” or “not guilty” for the case against defendant Karen Andre (Kay Gillian).

The revival lacked dramatic tension and realism, and was tiresome, “murky,” and poorly acted, thought Clive Barnes. Richard Watts declared it “amazingly and distressingly tedious.” Douglas Watt said “the whole affair looks like a high school production,” and Julius Novick noted that” the staging and the acting are conventional and obvious.”

The script was a revision by the author of her original. Because of Ayn Rand’s (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged) notoriety as an author, I’m adding here an edited version of my description (from my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1930-1940) of the original production, which opened at the Ambassador Theatre on 9/16/35, where it ran for the considerable sum of 232 performances. Rand was credited under the penname Ann O’Connell and the play was staged by John Hayden.

Producers A.H. Woods and Lee Shubert employed promotional gimmicks to increase interest in the work, such as having boxer Jack Dempsey and other celebrities in the opening-night jury, or having Helen Keller act as foreman for a jury of blind persons. Those serving were offered three dollars apiece in return for their services.

The crime on trial was apparently inspired by a real-life incident involving a Swedish match magnate named Ivar Kreuger. In the drama, Karen Andre (Doris Nolan) is being tried for the supposed murder of her financier employer, Faulkner, for whom she served as secretary and mistress. She is accused by the prosecuting attorney (Edmund Breese) of having shot him in the heart and thrown him from a penthouse terrace because of jealousy over his marriage to a banker’s (Clyde Fillmore) daughter, Nancy Whitfield (Verna Hillie). The defense attorney (Arthur Pierson) claims suicide.

When Karen takes the stand, she declares the entire thing to be a hoax, that what was sent over the parapet was the body of gangster Lefty O’Toole, already dead, so that Faulkner could fly off to Buenos Aires undetected with millions borrowed from his father-in-law. Gangster “Guts” Reagan (Walter Pidgeon, debuting on Broadway before becoming a screen star), in unrequited love with Karen, appears to tell a tale that the plane was stolen, crashed, and burned, that the corpse inside had a bullet in it, and that the banker offered him $5,000 to keep quiet. The case is then handed to the jury for a decision.

The opening night jury found the defendant not guilty, and it was reprimanded for its decision by the judge (J. Arthur Young), who had their names stricken from the jury lists. The critics’ jury, however, came up with a split verdict. In general, they opined it was a better stunt than a play.