Local Heroes

Crude Can Be Good—If It’s Subtle Enough

Betrayal, in fact, is Cradle's actual subject: overt in its climax, where Mr. Mister offers Larry Foreman a massive bribe to sell out the union; covert in the stories of the working professionals, each of whom gets the opportunity to resist Mr. Mister's pressure, and doesn't take it. Even Mr. Mister, in the scene with his doctor (who receives a plummy research grant for serving as the Liberty Committee's chairman), gets a moment in which he can reject his soul-crushing ways and become his own best self. Though a Communist, Blitzstein was a knottily troubled one, like his inspirer Brecht, and no fool about the need for tension in drama. If capitalism had no chance to save itself, Cradle would be no play. Because the system always profits by the better impulse and follows the worse, it's something like a musical tragedy instead: Larry Foreman's imagined revolution never happens; instead we go through alternate phases of cushioning workers into the middle class, and then, when there's a downturn, pulling the cushion away. The striking MOMA workers, who probably once thought of themselves as higher in status than the immigrant Chinese women locked in sweatshops, would recognize a lot of their compeers in The Cradle Will Rock, while the Chinese women—and any number of other exploited immigrant groups—could tell you all about Mr. Mister's dubious transactions with Larry Foreman, who isn't always so heroic in real life.

Angela Madden (Mrs. Mister) and Jolie L. Garrett (Dauber) in Cradle Will Rock: unpatronizing art
photo: Gerry Goodstein
Angela Madden (Mrs. Mister) and Jolie L. Garrett (Dauber) in Cradle Will Rock: unpatronizing art

That Cradle should be produced by a non-Equity theater like the Jean Cocteau is quite in keeping with its paradoxical tradition: After all, its original staging at a government-subsidized theater was famously shut down under pressure from a right-wing Congress (has anything changed since 1938?); the work was rescued at the last minute by small-enterprise capitalism—of which the Cocteau, sustaining a permanent repertory company at subsistence level, is a contemporary equivalent. Thanks particularly to Charles Berigan's strong musical direction, and stronger pianism, they catch the work's gritty spirit, though David Fuller's clodhopper staging lacks both clarity and cartoon panache, and some of the vocal execution is more like the death row kind. Among those exempted from that last category are Jolie L. Garrett's Dauber, Tim Deak's Editor Daily, Jason Crowl's Larry Foreman, and—to my surprise—company doyen Craig Smith, whose lucidly acted Mr. Mister has an appealing cheese-grater sort of singing voice. I would have praised Elise Stone's singing, too, in the two key roles of Moll and Ella Hammer, if I weren't so put off by her obvious pleasure at having the show's two hit songs, which seems to have erased from her mind any concern for their emotional content.

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