At the 78th Street Theater Lab, an old photograph of the New York skyline hangs over the dime-sized stage, showing glittery skyscrapers and fog-shrouded streets. No one better understood this mythic Manhattan siren call than Dawn Powell, who arrived from the Midwest in 1918 with a serious case of little-town blues. In the novels and plays she wrote until her death in 1965, Powell pointed her scabrous wit at the city’s climbers and strivers, transmitting history through wonderfully incisive satire.
Laura Strausfeld’s As We Were Saying (Or Were We?)—directed by Eileen Phelan for the Sightlines Theater Company’s Powell Festival—is billed as “a fantasy interview” with this brutally frank author. Blending fact and fiction, the play draws on Powell’s real-life remarks to imagine discussions with a ’50s Herald Tribune reporter named Peter Drake; over time reportage turns to love. The piece works best when presenting Powell’s whiskey-coated voice as she sits in a hotel bar located so close to her apartment that, she quips, “when I look out the window I can see my checks bouncing.” Where did she spend the 1920s? “Unconscious.” The ’30s? “They already had a Depression and didn’t need me.” When drunken Drake toasts the raw honesty of a novelist “who shows us as we really are,” Powell adds, “And to the three or four of you who really want to read that.”
At their first meeting, Drake expresses admiration for Powell’s The Happy Island. The scenes then alternate with episodes from that novel, in which an upright, aspiring playwright from Ohio visits vice-infested Gotham. After looking up an old hometown flame, the young scribbler finds himself simultaneously attracted and repulsed by her new honky-tonk lifestyle.
In both book and life, the couples must choose between conformity and bohemianism in an era when doing so was irrevocable, and Strausfeld obviously wants to demonstrate the relationship between Powell’s biography and fiction. But only the doyenne, played winningly by Patricia A. Chilsen, comes off with any charm; Laura Flanagan and Chris Hutchison never define the Happy Island characters strongly enough to justify their inclusion. Powell’s chewy prose requires a certain old-fashioned diction, and it’s a shame the cast doesn’t capture that better, because this portrait of a lost New York could have been as evocative as a timeworn snapshot.