Things do change, and not always for the worse. We simply have a hard time remembering how bad they could get, in part because Americans have an odd, passionate need to live without history, and in part because the past half-century has accustomed us to an endless barrage of updates, for good or ill. Thinking back to a time when such things didn’t exist requires genuine effort. Try explaining to the young what Shakespeare had to do instead of e-mailing scripts to Burbage from his iPad, or why Lena Horne was not allowed to enter certain hotels by the front door even while she was headlining in their supper clubs, and you’ll see what I mean. To the young, such phenomena make the past look inexplicably clumsy, stupid, and wrongheaded.
The young aren’t wrong. One reason we bring back plays of the past is to remind us, at key moments, not to repeat its clumsy, stupid, wrongheaded ways. While we struggle with today’s grim economic realities, Depression-era plays keep cropping up, like little red flags, warning us that we are heading toward an election in which one party really believes we can cure today’s bad economy by doing away with the social safety net.
Well, that net was hardly more than a few barren threads during Herbert Hoover’s administration. The legislative chaos its absence provoked is chronicled, very amusingly, in Maxwell Anderson’s Both Your Houses currently viewable at the Metropolitan Playhouse. And now you can see the thoroughly unamusing effects of Hooverite laissez-faire on the unemployed, courtesy of ReGroup Theatre’s revival of Claire and Paul Sifton’s 1931- (Living Theatre).
ReGroup aims to revive, and republish, all the plays performed by the Group Theatre, the extraordinary company that brought a major shift of consciousness to the American theater in the 1930s and ’40s. Legendary theatrical names ring through the Group’s roster: Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg were its directorate. Along with prominent Group actors like Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, and Franchot Tone, the original cast of 1931- included three youngsters who would go on to do notable work as a director (Robert Lewis), an eminent acting teacher (Sanford Meisner), and one of America’s major playwrights (Clifford Odets).
The Group initially hesitated before making 1931- its second production, opening in December of its titular year. Clurman in particular had doubts about its comparative crudity as literature. The doubts were justified: Blunt and simplistic, 1931- derives its force as a script from its monolithic insistence on following a single path, and an Expressionistically streamlined one at that. Its hero, a worker named Adam (Stephen Dexter), loses his job as a freight handler in the opening scene, for talking back to a bullying foreman, and never goes anywhere after that except from bad to worse.
His girl (Kelsey Moore), identified in the script only as “The Girl,” follows an equally steep downward trajectory, brought about partly by his difficulties. Adam and Girl end up together, wrecked, penniless, and angry, at what turns out to be the forefront of a rebellion. Stylized choral interludes show an ever-enlarging mob of unemployed, increasing in fury and met with escalating force from the authorities, culminating in what the Siftons foresaw: a violent revolution, met by gunfire.
Even at the time, the Siftons’ prediction was fairly inaccurate. The anger that came with nationwide joblessness was real; so were the sporadic, but significant, violent clashes between striking workers and militiamen or management-hired anti-union goons. But what validated 1931- was less the outcome it envisioned than the bitter facts behind it, visible daily to Group Theatre members as they walked past the ever-longer lines of starving homeless outside the Times Square soup kitchen. ReGroup’s playbill intersperses the actors’ bios with newspaper stories of the era, under headlines like “HOMELESS COUPLE STARVING.”
Today’s economic agonies, equally real, exist on a mercifully smaller scale, chiefly thanks to all the Depression-spawned social programs that Romney and Ryan plan to abolish. A look at 1931- supplies a chilling reminder of the misery such “conservatives” dream of conserving. Allie Mulholland’s production, darkly lit and minimal, often speaks in the muttered tones of desperation, turning its 13-person cast into an ominous mass of shadowy shapes, with only Dexter and Moore given a strong chance, which they seize hungrily.