Theater archives

This week’s hot new plays? They’re all rediscoveries from yesteryear


The library of world drama, where I used to find myself browsing alone, has unexpectedly become a very crowded place. Carl Forsman of Keen Company and Jack Cummings III of Transport Group race each other through the stacks of the post-1950 American wing; a few shelves ahead of them, Peccadillo’s Dan Wackerman grabs for every large-cast work he can find from the ’30s and ’40s; one stack beyond him, Alex Roe of Metropolitan Playhouse busily blows dust off the pre–World War I repertoire. Their clamor has driven the Mint’s Jonathan Bank, who used to leaf through the Edwardian catalog undisturbed, over to the Russian shelves in the far corner, while Eduardo Machado of INTAR, which formerly concentrated on new plays, has dashed in to claim a chunk of Latin-inspired Broadway tradition. I love a quiet library, but I couldn’t be happier. Nothing cures the ache of loneliness faster than finding friends who share your concerns. If most Americans are clueless about the past, clearly the rising generation doesn’t intend to remain that way.

For their sake, this week I’ve foregone Hamlet and The Misanthrope, and have postponed commenting on Mauritius at MTC. Hamlets and Misanthropes, hardy perennials, will bloom again; Mauritius (rhymes with “factitious”) can wait. The chance to discuss Tolstoy in a theater column, or to experience American rarities like Margaret Fleming or Night Over Taos, comes only once in a critic’s lifetime, and must be seized.

The press release for The Power of Darkness made much of its suppression by czarist censors when Tolstoy wrote it in 1886, but what’s kept it off English-speaking stages is the darker hand of silent disapproval. Adultery, illegitimate pregnancy, murder to gain an inheritance, and even quasi-incest could pass, but infanticide just offstage, harrowingly described while it’s happening, remains largely a no-no for theaters that don’t want to drive off subscribers, no matter how much Christianity Tolstoy pours in to sweeten this parade of villainies. Much produced on the Continent after its world premiere in Paris in 1888, the play was banned in England till 1904; the ban was one of Shaw’s principal arguments against British stage censorship.

You can see what provoked the censors. Darkness, spiritual and often literal, is the play’s prevailing condition. Its characters behave as rottenly to one another as those in any of today’s low-down stage ventures. But Tolstoy, unlike our contemporary sensationalists, roots his story in the social and psychological realities that have shaped his peasant-farmer characters, drawing on their folkways and their flickering religious sense, as well as supplying their village perspective on abstract matters like law and economics, so that his grim story illuminates the larger world. God and a guilty conscience may win a meager triumph over evil at the end, but you could no more accuse Tolstoy of being preachy than you could expect Joel Osteen to write the next War and Peace.

The play’s dark powers are vested in a greedy, ambitious mother, Matryona (played with burning-eyed ferocity by Randy Danson), who edges both her weak but arrogant son (Mark Alhadeff) and the frustrated young wife (Angela Reed) of his tightfisted employer (Peter Bretz) toward a steadily worsening series of crimes. Tolstoy doesn’t settle for blaming Mom, though. Instead, he juxtaposes Matryona’s materialist hungers with the miseries of her hardscrabble marriage to a prattling, rigidly pious loser (Steve Brady). The mordant comedy scene in which an old soldier turned farmhand (a lovely, ripe performance by Jeff Steitzer) explains the mechanics of banking to this saintly codger is, in fact, Tolstoy’s hidden key to the human viciousness his story displays. The fetishizing of other humans as lust objects goes hand in hand with the materialism aroused by commodified wealth. Goodness, as Mae West once remarked, has nothing to do with it.

Martin Platt’s production, on a somber set by Bill Clarke that effectively shifts from indoors to outdoors with minimal fuss, falls into the tolerable, modest category that we put up with because New York lacks a major repertory theater. Apart from Danson and Steitzer, nobody in Platt’s cast rises much above adequacy. Alhadeff, a resourceful actor not ideally fitted for the role, makes a game try at it; Brady’s elocutionary approach effectively sets him apart from the others, but also occasionally makes him sound like a holdover from the Mint’s John Ferguson. The anomaly may come partly from the uncredited translation, a maddening jumble of contemporary and archaic, British and American, urban and rural. Still, obstacles notwithstanding, Platt’s staging provides a clean map of the play, letting both its horrors and the richness of Tolstoy’s vision seep through.

Much the same could be said for Estelle Parsons’s production of Night Over Taos, though the acting of her large cast wavers far more erratically, sometimes dipping well below the adequacy mark. Written for the Group Theatre, Maxwell Anderson’s 1932 drama deals with the band of wealthy hidalgo planters who, in 1847, when cut off from royalist Spain by Mexican independence on one side and U.S. annexation on the other, hoped to preserve the ways of feudal monarchy in their chunk of New Mexico—-a hope about as feasible as Brigadoon’s. It ended in a massive attack by U.S. troops, who illustrated egalitarian principles by slaughtering hidalgos, peons, and enslaved Indians alike. Anderson’s play, which ends shortly before the expected slaughter, focuses on the conflict inside the feudal leader’s hacienda, with his antiquated principles opposed by his two rebellious sons, the elder a cynical appeaser who’s secretly conspiring with the U.S. military, and the younger a loyal but hotheaded juvenile burning for his father’s designated new bride.

If the family intrigue recalls centuries of domestic melodrama, the political situation—brave, violent ultra-reactionaries against ruthless secularizers—unmistakably evokes Iraq today, an excellent justification for bringing Night Over Taos back to life. Although prosy and clunkily constructed, Anderson’s play offers scenes that could easily turn to lightning in the hands of a more vibrant company. Lacking the likes of the young Franchot Tone and Stella Adler, Parsons’s crew hardly electrifies, though Jack Landron and Mickey Solis, as feudal father and younger son, sustain their roles with dogged competence.

Nor does the Metropolitan’s cast for Margaret Fleming generate much electricity, though Alex Roe’s efficient production makes clear both the play’s importance and the reasons that it only succeeded after audience taste had caught up with it. Sweet-natured Margaret, the pampered wife of a wealthy mill owner, has her eyes opened like Mrs. Alving’s when she finds the living evidence of her husband’s adultery nursing at her breast. Herne’s sagacious moves include a comic subplot that adds bitter twists to the main theme, and a sly, unspoken parallel between husband Fleming’s personal morals and his business practices. Regrettably, the ineffectual actor playing Fleming sinks much of Roe’s lucid staging, despite everything his more competent colleagues can do. But grit your teeth and stick with it; your reward is a play well worth knowing.