Since we live in a time when nobody’s ever heard of anything, I feel sure that you’ve never heard of Augustin Daly (1838–1899). Yet he was a major power in the theater of his time, on both sides of the Atlantic. He ran a theater in New York — named Daly’s, of course — for twenty years. In 1893, he built another — also named Daly’s — in London, which he ran until his death. A Shakespeare aficionado and a dab hand at melodrama — his first hit, Under the Gaslight (1867), is often used as a standard example of the form — he wowed his urbane audience by building a stock company headed by four stars: the comic heavy James Lewis; the comedy dowager Mrs. G.H. Gilbert; the dashing romantic comedian John Drew; and the beautiful, musical-voiced Ada Rehan, whom Bernard Shaw declared spoke Shakespeare more perfectly than anyone else alive.
Other than melodramas and Shakespeare, what Daly loved most in the theater was the kind of farcical comedy that he could adapt from the German, giving the text a high-fashion New York twist that would fit it to his stylish company. The invaluable Metropolitan Playhouse, in its tiny upstairs space on East 4th Street, has now revived one of the most obscure of these de-Germanized Daly adaptations, and it’s a complete treat. Daly titled it A Test Case in 1892, and the drab name was probably a contributor to its extremely short run. The Metropolitan, while making a few sensible trims to keep the old script’s joints from creaking too loudly, has modestly and sensibly retitled it A Marriage Contract, while retaining Daly’s subtitle, Grass Versus Granite.
Yes, it’s a city-country comedy, the 1892 version of red-state/blue-state polarization, with occasional sharp-edged lines that strike altogether contemporary chords. The city slickers all have highly flexible morals and a rather carefree attitude toward money; the small-towners all cluck disapprovingly over the city folks’ behavior while dwelling on it with a prurient preoccupation that shows where their hearts really lie, notwithstanding their pious talk of small-town virtues. The title of Daly’s German source, a comedy by Oscar Blumenthal and Gustav Kadelburg, gives the moral away: Grossstadtsluft (The Air of the Big City). (And don’t worry if you’ve never heard of Daly: Even I had never heard until now of Blumenthal and Kadelburg, who turn out to be a rather redoubtable pair. One of their other comedies was turned into the Thirties operetta White Horse Inn, which, like Daly’s Under the Gaslight, is still cited and occasionally revived as a prime specimen of its form.)
In Daly’s version, the small-town folk come from “East Lemons,” apparently in New Jersey. Pognip (Michael Durkin), the prosperous owner of a “tin plate factory,” reluctantly visiting New York on business, has brought along his pretty, marriageable daughter, Sabina (Anna Stefanic). To his dismay, he finds her pursued by young men about town, notably the penniless architect Robert Fleming (Trevor St. John-Gilbert). When Pognip accuses Fleming of having already had one “open, public, and desperate flirtation,” Fleming replies proudly that it’s not true: He’s already had several. And, he adds cheekily, the fact that he always spends more than he earns gives him an advantage; his prospective bride must accept him for himself alone, whereas she comes weighed down by her father’s money — a defect he generously offers to overlook. In New York, he adds, “we may have more youthful sinners perhaps — but we have fewer old hypocrites.”
Pognip’s indignation at Fleming’s breezy attitude has been heightened by his own experience of New Yorkers’ extramarital shenanigans. A house guest of his married niece, Juno (Jennifer Reddish), he has just spent a rowdy night on the town with her lawyer husband, Ned (Nick Giedris), the latter’s alibi for which is immediately exposed by the suspicious Juno. Pognip poses Fleming a challenge: He will let Fleming marry Sabina if the architect agrees to give up New York and live in East Lemons instead. Ned draws up the contract, and we’re off for two scenes of small-town prudery, gossip, and big-city visitors’ attempts to avoid prying eyes, before everybody finally returns to Manhattan and moderate sanity, bringing along a few small-town escapees.
Daly is neither a subtle thinker nor a socially/politically minded one. But he is, in playwriting, a highly skilled charmer who knows how to keep an audience amused. And as his company’s history indicates, he knew, as writer and director, how to shape a performance and get the best out of his actors. (One possible reason for this play’s quick failure in 1892 is that Drew had left Daly’s troupe, dissatisfied that the choice of plays always seemed to favor Rehan. Daly replaced him with the young Englishman Arthur Bourchier, whose somewhat broader style might not have blended well with the company’s.) It’s fun, if one has read a bit about Daly and his actors, to imagine, while watching Alex Roe’s Metropolitan production, what Lewis as Pognip, Rehan as the sly and forgiving Juno, and Mrs. Gilbert as a small-town doctor’s bossy spouse might have made of these roles.
While it’s no use pretending that Roe’s cast comes anywhere near the classy ensemble Daly would have mustered, A Marriage Contract nevertheless generates a great deal of enjoyment. If Roe’s company plays a tad rawly, they also play with a bouncy spirit that seems to mirror the urban brashness with which Daly infused the script. (Roe has honorably kept directorial tinkering with the text to a minimum.) St. John-Gilbert, whose stage name itself seems a period artifact, makes a dapper, cheerfully energetic Fleming; Durkin grumbles effectively, if loudly, as Pognip; and Reddish supplies a sweet elegance as the understanding Juno. Costume designer Sidney Fortner also deserves particular congratulations: Putting a dozen actors in clothing that evokes 1892 both reasonably and attractively is no easy task at the Metropolitan’s budget level. And for its enterprise in unearthing a wholly forgotten antique that is not only playable but worth playing, the Metropolitan once again deserves our heartfelt thanks.