Hearts and Soles

You might put up Harold Brighouse (1882- 1958) as a sort of counter-visionary to Foreman, a regionalist and naturalist playwright for whom the outside world was the principal governor of onstage details. But that was in another country, nearly a century ago. Time has had its little joke, gently, not at Brighouse's expense but on his behalf. Practically the only play of his anyone remembers, Hobson's Choice (1915) is one of Britain's hardy stage perennials—often revived, twice filmed, multiply televised, and even, unwisely, transmogrified into a Broadway musical. (To be fair, the musical had Norman Wisdom, though no other kind.) The reason for the play's popularity is simple: It's as much a fairy tale and a magic spectacle as any of Foreman's pieces, only with trappings that come untransformed from everyday life: a sort of songless Christmas panto set in a cobbler's shop, where Cinderella, this time around, conquers the ogre (her tyrannical father) while playing fairy godmother to the spineless shoemaking genius whom she changes from a worm into a man.

Brighouse may or may not have known that fantasy was at the play's core; what he couldn't have guessed is how elegantly time would coat his rough realism with a patina of quaintness. To him a Lancashire boot-shop, with its goods made on the premises, must have been a sweaty, gritty place. For us it's purest nostalgia: How much, one wonders, would audience members pay today for a pair of Willie Mossop's perfect-fit, handmade shoes? We wear sneakers made in places like China and Indonesia, which relive the most nightmarish days of Manchester's Industrial Revolution, with child labor crammed in windowless rooms earning nine cents an hour. Brighouse's naturalism, a century ago, walked hand in hand with the clamor for workers' rights and industrial reform. Maybe it's time to look at his forgotten plays on subjects like the Luddite movement and the capital-labor conflict.

If the Schumann fits: Juliana Francis in Maria del Bosco
photo: Paula Court
If the Schumann fits: Juliana Francis in Maria del Bosco


Maria del Bosco
By Richard Foreman
Ontological at St. Mark's
131 East 10th Street 212-533-4650

Hobson's Choice
By Harold Brighouse
Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20th Street 212-239-6200

Meanwhile, there's Hobson's Choice. David Warren's production, on a bright, spacious set by Derek McLane, slides with summery cheer over the play's dark underpinnings, making it seem more of a fairy tale than ever. There's clearly no harm, though a great deal of skill and relish, in Brian Murray's Hobson, a teddy bear pretending to be an ogre. But what fun it is to hear the teddy growl: Has anyone ever pronounced the words "pork pie" with the resonant revulsion of Murray's hung-over Hobson? I'd have spent the evening jotting down favorite Murray phrases if my attention hadn't been distracted by two more substantive achievements. Martha Plimpton as Maggie, the comedy's resourceful Cinderella, gets the role's firmness and softness blended in exactly the right proportions. This isn't easy; a Maggie who plays too hard can turn the work into the boss's taming by a shrew, while playing too tenderly can turn it into arrant nonsense. Plimpton's Maggie is what Brighouse envisioned: a caring, rather than a controlling, modern woman, her father's daughter by instinct but intelligent enough to perceive his mistakes. David Aaron Baker, as her target of choice, not only matches but betters Plimpton, etching his whole trajectory, from trembling wallflower to budding tycoon, with a grotesque realism that roots the fairy tale in everyday comedy. Warren has let some of the supporting cast slide by too glibly, but Judith Roberts and Peter Maloney, in the no-nonsense roles of a wealthy customer and a Scots doctor, do admirably, and Laura Bauer's well-cut costumes are a good cut above what this period usually looks like Off-Broadway.

Related Stories:

Michael Feingold on Richard Foreman's Now That Communism Is Dead, My Life Feels Empty

Michael Feingold on Foreman's Bad Boy Nietzsche!

Charles McNulty on "The Foreman Festival"

C.Carr on Foreman's Paradise Hotel

Michael Feingold on Foreman's Paradise Hotel

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