“Give me deeper darkness,” says the old man in Shaw’s Heartbreak House, when asked if he wants the lights turned up. “Money is not made in the light.”
The line could be the epigraph to The Boss, a startlingly fresh 1911 work, by the American playwright Edward Sheldon, just revived by Metropolitan Playhouse in an undistinguished, but crisp and cogent, production by Alex Roe. Acting, in the Metropolitan’s past few productions, has overall been better than this, but the performance contains no gross lapses, and Sheldon’s play, frankly, is such a grabber that you may not notice matters like acting at all, while you watch its story turn another unexpected corner and kick up another eyebrow-raising connection to today’s world.
Yes, it’s a melodrama, a painstakingly constructed “well-made play,” shaped to supply a succession of shocking climaxes, heartfelt emotional reversals, and confrontations with mounting tension. But people who use the word “melodrama” dismissively are idiots even when they apply it to cruder theatrical specimens, and the mode of melodrama that arose in New York in the years before World War I was far subtler and more sophisticated than the barnstorming stuff—all arm-waving and shrieking oversimplifications—that had wowed rural America before the turn of the century. The Boss is a political, economic, psychological, social melodrama, by an American writer who knew his Ibsen and Shaw.
The Boss‘s title character is a fairly nasty piece of work, of a type that seems permanent among us. A multimillionaire, Michael R. “Shindy Mike” Regan (Dave Hanson), has built his way up from the slums of a big Midwestern city, using all the tactics that make high-toned people disdain self-made multimillionaires: brawling, bullying, blackmail, price-clipping, wage-gouging, and pretty much everything else that business-school ethics classes tell you to avoid. As the play starts, his underhanded ways have put him in a position to take over the city’s grain-shipping industry, bringing the distinguished old firm of Griswold & Sons, which once dominated the field, to its knees. This, in turn, will render Griswold’s corporate debentures worthless, which will cause three major local savings banks to crash. FDIC insurance and government bailouts were not yet part of 1911 America’s vocabulary.
Much as Regan despises the stuffy Griswolds, who have snubbed him socially at every opportunity, he’s willing to let them off the hook. His reason for this kindness turns out to be old Griswold’s daughter, Emily (Meghan Hoffman), a strong-minded social worker who spends her days trying to relieve the misery that Regan’s cheap wages and other sordid tactics inflict on his workers’ wives and kids. To keep her father out of jail and the workers’ savings from vanishing in a bank collapse, Emily accepts his hand—on terms that prove she can drive a tougher bargain than her ineffectual father and brother.
The marriage, as might be expected, produces its own difficulties. The male Griswolds pour oil on the flames by urging Regan’s workers to unionize; Regan’s angry response involves union-busting tactics, some violent, that increase his distance from Emily. The local archbishop (John Fennessy), an ex-slum kid who grew up with Regan, tries to push him toward compromise and fails. Murder, riot, and the transforming trauma that finally sets Regan and Emily to rights are not long in coming.
Roe’s staging, cleanly laid out, never gets in the script’s tersely written, helter-skelter way. Those who equate melodrama with high effusions of overwrought language will be startled as much by the text’s blunt clarity as by its use of events that seem to come from current news stories, though with their drapery of affluence and media jargon removed. For a nation that, culturally, lays as much emphasis as we do on forgetting history, The Boss makes a salutary lesson in the first truth about conservatism: The part of our heritage that’s worth conserving is precisely what today’s self-styled “conservatives” (who should more accurately be called reactionaries) don’t want you to know about.