Let’s face it: the 2009-2010 Broadway season was the worst in memory. How many wasted nights were spent sittiing in the dark, either bored out of my mind or deeply offended – or both – and always with the realization that I’d wasted valuable hours of my life that I’d never get back. Going to the theater became an absolute chore – and a penance. The New York Times critics Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood gave the season a rating of B-/C+; they were far too kind – the lineup of offerings was strictly D-list, if that.
A grim hint of what was to come occurred early in the season last fall when BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS, a beautifully acted, deeply moving production (which proved that Neil Simon could actually be bearable), was, despite glowing reviews, shuttered early by spineless producers who never gave it a chance to build an audience and figured that, since it was bereft of those all-important star “names” these days deemed necessary for any stage success, it was better to cut their supposed losses. And then, with this almost lone decent show neatly out of the way, the horrors came fast and furious. (In a blog to follow, I shall steel myself and recount in detail the tortures this reviewer had to endure for the past 8 months.)
The season left me exhausted, depressed and almost ready to swear off New York theater forever (or at least a great while), but manna from Thespis’ heaven came in the form of Metropolitan Playhouse’s DODSWORTH, which, sadly, ends this weekend. Ever since seeing a spectacular 35mm print of the brilliant William Wyler-directed 1936 film adaptation of Sidney Howard’s stage dramatization of Sinclair Lewis’ book, at a Cinecon Festival in Los Angeles years ago, this work has fascinated me, and I was determined to catch this rare revival of the play which has never been done in New York since its original 1934 Broadway run. (That original production, incidentally, had been unaccountablyt dismissed as “an aimless chronicle” by the Times’ Brooks Atkinson, who mostly showered leading man Walter Huston with plaudits.) I was also frankly wondering, how on its beyond-tiny stage, Metropolitan would be able to transcribe this elaborate show, which in its original incarnation included 14 scenes enacted by a cast of 34 with Jo Mielziner sets portraying Zenith (middle America), a luxury liner, London, Paris, Montreux, Berlin, and Naples.
It was, frankly, terrific, the best show I’ve seen so far this year. And, taking into account Lewis’ and Howard’s superb writing, Yvonne Opffer Conybeare’s cannily smooth and wondrously sensitive direction, startlingly good design and lighting and a pitch-perfect cast, I doubt that I will see anything better. The production struck me as a little miracle in the way it presented the story of Sam Dodsworth (Michael Scott), a powerful car manufacturer who takes a celebratory retirement/first-time trip to Europe with his wife, Fran (Lisa Riegel), and finds himself losing her to the temptations of the Continent and an array of attractive suitors who help her stave off the aging process she is so terrified of. The show retained its episodic structure, really so much more suited to film, but the way its cast not only performed so beautifully, sometimes individually playing a myriad of roles, but executed all the set changes was a stirring example of the highest form of theatrical commitment and love. Alex Roe’s simple, handsome Deco set revealed astonishing versatility, Christopher Weston’s lighting was spot-on, particularly conveying the blinding heat of southern Italy, and Lena Sands’ multitudinous costumes were magnificently Jazz Age and detailed.
One realized again that these are great, archetypal characters Lewis wrote (as well as a portrait of a marriage in disintegration following Strindberg’s DANCE OF DEATH and prefiguring WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?): solid/stolid, decent Sam; capricious, pretentious, selfish Fran; Edith Cortright (Suzanne Savoy), the emigree divorcee who provides Sam with solace from his fascinating termagent of a wife; the impoverished but regal Baroness Obersdorf (Wendy Merritt) and her son Kurt ((Michael Hardart), who is dying to marry the older, richer Fran but terrified of defying his disapproving mother, and a whole array of down-to-earth Zenith types and contrasting, parasitic European decadents. The Wyler film has implanted itself on the minds of generations of intelligent movie lovers, but the wonder of this new production is how those familiar lines and situations are given new freshness by a cast giving their own interpretations of the material, unfettered by overt reverence for the past.
Scott doesn’t employ the sly hints of ruthlessness which the great Walter Huston injected into his film portrayal, but proves quite wonderfully how an utterly sincere presentation of normal decency, once America’s stock-in-trade, need not be a monotonous bore, but devastatingly appealing and moving, like James Stewart, at his unmannered best. His Sam is tragically hide-bound, not only by his terrible obsession with Fran, but his commitment to the institution of marriage, with all its years of familiarity, and one completely feels his pain and torment. Ruth Chatterton’s Fran in the Wyler film is one of the great female performances of the screen, superlatively gowned by the incredibly adroit Omar Kiam, in the best nouveau riche wardrobe in flm history, replefe with decorative bows made of cellophane, then a strict luxury novelty -and wholly umcompromising in its harshly elegant depiction of vanity and insecurity, sparked by this fine actress’ startlingly powerful trademark moments of dramatic intensity and deep-toned vocal color. Riegel’s interpretation is a lighter but equally valid affair: she makes Fran an ultra-feminine, daintily attractive bauble, and her tantrums are less earth-shaking and menacing, more the willful tantrums of the indulged child that she is. The hysteria she displays at the devastating climax of the play is higher-pitched, more querulous than Chatterton’s momentous sense of encroaching doom, but no less affecting. One can totally understand the “strange hold” she has over Sam, that her romantic rival, Edith, comments on.
As Edith, the role played onstage by Huston’s wife, Nan Sunderland, and on the screen, by the delicious, impossibly classic beauty Mary Astor, Savoy is warm, witty and quite wonderful. Here, the casting actually improves on the film: Astor was so irresistibly lovely and kind, the ideal sexy helpmate for any man, that one had a hard time believing that Dodsworth would ever desert her to return to the impossible Fran. Astor was obviously younger than Chatterton – in this play, Savoy is older than Riegel, with a matured seasoning and innate sadness, which, however appealing, has a rough time competing with the creamy, dewy allure of this particular wife, however much of a bitch she might be. The urge to continually protect and coddle this pretty emotional infant is a recognizably male impulse, superseding any comfort Edith might offer.
Casandera Lollar is a youthful delight as Sam’s daughter (especially funny when he pitches a fuss over the absent Fran and upsets her jigsaw puzzle), as well as an assortment of exasperated Italian maids and obnoxious American tourists. As her husband, Hardartt displays impressive versatility, enacting this typical, slightly clueless Midwest son-in-law, as well as Mama’s boy Kurt (with a puckishly on-target German accent). Stepping into the formidable shoes of Maria Ouspenskaya, so memorable as the Baroness, Wendy Merritt makes a dramatically scrumptious meal of her havoc-wreaking encounter with Fran. Tubby, Dodsworth’s old Zenith buddy, is jovially played by Oliver Conant, who you may remember as young-and-in-love Benjie in the film SUMMER OF ’42.
In this last quoted scene, as in so much of the play, I found myself instinctively and silently reciting beloved lines (“What happiness can there be for the older wife of a younger man?”, “You’re simply rushing at old age,” “I live in Europe by the thousands,” “I haven’t gotten to where I am without being somewhat ruthless”) and, far from being a wallow in nostalgia, I found this Metropolitan Playhouse experience to be an absolutely eye-opening revelation.
After this and last fall’s smashing TACT revival of Sidney Howard’s THE LATE CHRISTOPHER BEAN, I have even more respect for the talent of this writer, whose life was tragically cut short in 1939, after he completed the screenplay for GONE WITH THE WIND. As for Sinclair Lewis, coincidentally, he will be celebrated on on Turner Classic Movies tonight, with showings of filmizations of his BABBIT, ANN VICKERS (one of the most intelligent women’s films, featuring Irene Dunne’s greatest performance), ARROWSMITH, CASS TIMBERLANE and, yes, DODSWORTH.
Incidentally, the reason you may not have heard too much about this particular DODSWORTH is the fact that, as I was told, the play’s licensors forbade it from being either officially advertised or reviewed. Evidently Alfred Uhry is working on a new adaptation of it, and I have also heard rumors that George Clooney (like Gregory Peck before him) plans to remake it. Whatever the case, just be sure that you do not miss it. It runs through Sunday, June 6.
for tickets: http://www.metropolitanplayhouse.org