Theater archives

Big City Blues


Like so many of Dawn Powell’s heroes and heroines, the young lovers of her 1931 play Walking Down Broadway are small-town kids at sea in the Big Town, alternately awestruck with its enchantment and bitterly angry at its disillusioning stone-faced apathy, which can seem a lot like cruelty when you’re down and out. Powell herself, originally a small-town girl from Ohio, was able, thanks to her brilliant comic sense, to sustain a more objective view of New York all through her creative life. To her the city’s frightening aspects—its anonymity, its potential for brutality—held no fears; she had seen too often how they could give way to absurdity, to unexpected delight, even to romance. Her own largely miserable, unsuccessful, and alcoholic life was constantly offset by her ability to take pleasure in these small entries on the credit side of New York’s big gray ledger. Yes, the city’s hell, she seems to be telling her characters, but it’s a fun hell; relax a little and you can learn to enjoy it.

In Walking Down Broadway, the small-town kids trapped in New York at the tail end of the Roaring ’20s are two buddy couples: Marge and Elsie are from some upstate nowheresville called Marble Falls (a buried poke at the popular Victorian song “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls”); Chick and Dewey are from “outside Wheeling.” Upper West Siders, the two pairs pick each other up one evening while strolling on Riverside Drive. Clothes-conscious Dewey is quickly attracted to pretty, vapid Elsie; the more serious-minded Marge and Chick bicker fiercely through Act I before settling down to the love affair that leads to grim consequences in Act II and a somber, uneasy resolution in Act III. Powell’s novels sometimes appear to sprawl; their looping structures are validated by the elegant way in which, here, she varies and crisscrosses incidents to make her seemingly simple structure reveal multiple facets, not only of the few characters inhabiting it, but of Manhattan’s vast human landscape. From one evening in a cramped apartment and two in an even more crowded rooming-house bedroom, Powell evokes drudging day jobs and fast-set nightclubs, Harlem and Staten Island, Park Avenue and Wall Street, theaters and movies, hair salons and libraries, shady doctors and street photographers. It’s like pulling rabbits out of a hat: In Powell’s hands, New York is a perpetual magic act—one in which some of the tricks happen to hurt.

Powell’s play itself was the victim of a different kind of painful trick. Purchased by a Hollywood studio before it could even be offered for stage production, it was planned as a post-Greed talkie vehicle to reunite director Erich von Stroheim with star ZaSu Pitts, but Stroheim, following his usual pattern, was fired while in production; his loose ends were clumsily tied up by an otherwise obscure drudge named Alfred Werker, and the resulting inchoate, overdone mess was released under the off-putting title Hello Sister. Seen today, its shadowy look and emphasis on the grotesque reveal plenty of leftover Stroheim, as does Pitts’s over-the-top, neurasthenic performance, but of the rich material Powell provided, the movie offers next to no trace; the play has had to wait for the current production to be heard publicly.

The charm of Powell’s bittersweet comedy is that its characters are all hopelessly unsuccessful poseurs, ordinary folk trying desperately to live up to their notion of what New Yorkers are supposed to be like. Even the two voices of experience—the older man-about-town who shares the two boys’ apartment and the brassy, aging chorine who shares the girls’ rooming-house bathroom—turn out to be, in their more experienced respective ways, as soft-hearted and mush-brained, under their cynicism, as the newly arrived small-town kids. For honesty and spontaneity, Powell turns to the character who, in the hands of almost any other writer of the era, would have been a stereotyped embarrassment: the Negro maid. (One can hardly say “African American” in this context.) The standard Broadway carpentry of the era cheapened these stock figures with minstrel-show clichés; Powell, in contrast, endows hers with a no-nonsense vision of life that suggests a 20th-century Wife of Bath, and Cherene Snow seizes the opportunity to make her few pages the high point of the evening.

She can do so, partly, because Steven Williford’s smoothly staged production promotes an overall sense of style at the expense of the subtler acting values needed. The four young lovers’ roles, especially Chick and Marge, present a casting dilemma akin to Juliet: Actors old enough to understand them are generally too old to play them. Williford tends to allow his quartet, all relative newcomers, to lapse into an undifferentiated callow pathos. This leaves Carol Halstead and Antony Hagopian, as the voices of experience, to liven things up—which they do, handily, whenever the show is in danger of turning into a whine-fest. Still, between their vitality and Snow’s, and the sure-handed inventiveness that Powell’s script displays, the sense of discovery is so great that you rarely feel the evening flag.