Handily timed to coincide with the reappearance of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People on Broadway, the Metropolitan Playhouse has put up a tight, bright, solid revival of Maxwell Anderson’s 1933 Pulitzer Prize winner, Both Your Houses (Metropolitan Playhouse). Produced just as FDR entered the White House, the script is a stylishly mean-spirited piece of Hoover-era political snark that, in effect, sends Ibsen’s story to Washington, D.C., where things work out somewhat differently than in old Norway.
Those who recognize the full quote (from Romeo and Juliet) to which Anderson’s title alludes will instantly grasp his view of America’s elected legislators. His updated edition of Ibsen’s obstinately virtuous Dr. Stockmann is a squeaky-clean freshman congressman from Nevada, aptly named McClean (Brad Makarowski). Sent to Washington to push through an appropriations bill that will give his constituents a desperately needed dam, McClean finds the bill foundering under a ton of added pork. Learning, to his horror, that the earnest committee chair, Gray (Kelly King), plans to trim out only enough added items to dodge a veto, the newbie first tries to block the bill altogether, but then finds, with the aid of a know-it-all secretary (Teresa Kelsey), what he thinks will be a much subtler way of sinking it, with unexpected results that, ironically, delight everybody but him.
While McClean struggles simultaneously with conniving committee men and with his own soul, Anderson supplies a contorted panoply of money-grubbing, lobbyist-loving, double-dealing Congressional tactics, prodded onward by frequent, stinging barbs about how democracy’s wheels get greased for private and corporate profit. The juiciest moments come from Fitzmaurice (Warren Katz), an alcohol-fueled old pol, whose final half-ironic paean to capitalism (“Brigands built this country”) sounds unnervingly like some just-surfaced video clip of Romney exhorting his donors. It’s no problem, he says, because “the natural resources of this country in political apathy and indifference have hardly been touched.”
Katz’s vociferations, coarse but energetically comic, provide the chill wind that sweeps Michael Hardart’s production speedily along. The acting sustains a smoothly mid-level tone, not greatly heightening the work’s glories but also never dragging it down. Even Hardart’s choreographed scene changes are astute, unfussy models of efficiency, and the period music very smartly chosen: The audience comes back after intermission to the strains of Dick Powell singing “With Plenty of Money and You.”