What do you get when you take a 1953 classic, update it with snazzy new seats, carpeting and accessories, but keep the chassis? In Studio Theatre’s fitfully entertaining retrofit of Howard Teichmann and George S. Kaufman’s The Solid Gold Cadillac, what you get is a chance to spend a couple of entertaining hours in the company of a dozen D.C. classics, actors and anchors, most of whom seem to be enjoying the ride, even if they’re not always sure where they’re headed.
Director Paul Mullins and his associates on the whole succeed in bringing this Cadillac and its era to life — and into our lives, sometimes directly — with polish, assurance, affection, and sly humor. And yet there’s a feeling, barely perceptible but insistent, that in the half-century since its initial success on Broadway and then on film, this Caddy has shifted into second gear, and while the folks have brought along lots of nifty new toys to keep you occupied, the ride has lost some of its kick.
Entering the Metheny, our gaze is drawn to set designer Jim Kronzer’s corporate woodgrain panels, a rich, authoritative mahogany subtly accented with a lighter wood. Less subtle is the large “GP” logo in deep orange that comes suggestively to a curving, deep red, horn-like point on either side. We are in the boardroom of General Products Corporation (a name that may be even more suggestive now than it was when the play was written). Robert Aubrey Davis, his familiar, resonant voice in fairytale mode, sets the narrative stage for the story of the big, bad corporation out to eat the poor little partridge. To be specific: Laura Partridge (Nancy Robinette), a grandmother and small shareholder who rises from the Metheny audience, all diffidence and apology, to ask an innocent question: How much does the chairman of the Board make, and what, pray tell, does he do to get paid so much?
This is clearly not the question T John Blessington (David Sabin, in fine bloviating form) had been expecting from the unassuming little lady. Already under pressure in the wake of the company president’s appointment to a government position in Washington that has rendered him worse than useless to them — that great sucking noise you hear is the leadership vacuum compounded by billions of dollars in government contracts going down the drain (can you say “conflict of interest”?) — Blessington is eager to placate this Harriet Homemaker of a shareholder and, by extension, her thousands if not millions of shareholder sisters across small-town America. Operating on the time-tested principle that if you can’t defeat your opponent, take him under your wing and either compromise him or keep him under close observation so he can’t do you any harm, he offers her a job: Head of Shareholder Relations.
In time, it will take her to Washington on a dual mission: ostensibly, the one the Board sends her on; in reality, the one she has decided to undertake to save not the corrupt corporation, but the shareholders’ money. To do so, she will enlist the help of the bird in a golden cage who flew the corporate coop – former president Ed McKeever, whose disillusionment with the ways of Washington is another commentary, here from the political side, on the emptiness of power and the need for validation, often destructive or self-destructive, it can breed.
Those with fond but faded memories of the 1956 film as a vehicle for the Oscar-winning “dumb blonde with a brain” Judy Holliday may be surprised to learn that the role was written to be played as a grandmother. In theory it should be a perfect fit for one of Studio’s (and Washington’s) favorites, Nancy Robinette, who this early in the run has taken firm hold of the steering wheel, but still seems to be mapping out the route. Whether this is a conscious choice — the uncertainty of a small-town grandmother in unfamiliar urban surroundings who realizes that the skills that have served her well back home will serve her equally well in the big city — or whether this is a weakness in the script itself, only time (and, too, each theatregoer’s individual reaction) will tell.
As McKeever, Michael Goodwin almost glows with goodness; his puppy-dog eagerness to demonstrate his acting chops to Mrs. Partridge with a histrionic rendition of a scene from “Spartacus” (think: “Our Gang’s” Alfalfa) only endears him to her (and to us). James Slaughter’s Alfred Metcalfe, Leo Erickson’s Warren Gillie and Paul L. Nolan’s Clifford Snell are appropriately faceless men in the gray flannel — or in this case brown (rayon blend?) — suit, although each tries to find and suggest his character’s personality, be it with nervous tics, facial expressions or speech patterns.
As Blessington, Sabin gets a chance to roar in rage at his subordinates and squint in pain at Mrs. Partridge’s temerity; like his fellow Board members, he is more or less a one- (or perhaps two- ) dimensional character. But it is the cartoon-like quality of these characters that sets them up as easy objects of ridicule for the audience, and the occasional hint of humanity we may glimpse is too quick to distract us from the main game, succinctly described by the first Laura Partridge, Joesphine Hull, to The New Yorker in a 1953 interview: “It isn’t a regular play” — did she identify so closely with the role? (“I’m short and fat and funny, you know, and not easy to fit into a play”) — “but it is first-rate entertainment.” Apparently, it ran into some roadblocks in D.C. on its first outing: “My, but they were vicious in Washington!” The audience was far more welcoming at the performance I attended, thanks in part, perhaps, to the revised script (“George Kaufman has done wonderful things with it”).
Studio’s production is enlivened and simultaneously contemporized and period-dated with guest appearances by famous Washington news people (Gordon Peterson, Doug McKelway, and Greta Kreutz, in addition to Robert Aubrey Davis who, appropriately, is not seen). All play either themselves or archetypes of themselves — but in ‘50s-era garb, their manner (which sometimes descends to hilariously broad mannerisms) exaggeratedly true to the style of the day. Adding to the time-warp sensibility they are seen, in grainy black-and-white, on a huge, ‘50s-style TV screen suspended above the stage, where they either earnestly, snidely or breathlessly relate the latest turn of events in the Partridge saga. Further enhancing the you-are-there experience are the anonymous “shareholders,” who may be sitting next to or across from you, rising from the audience to ask a question of, or make a point to the Board. And then of course there is the buxom, swimsuited, pin-waisted Miss L’Arriere (a perky Chelsea Christensen), whose name is continually pronounced so that it sounds more like “derriere,” who is called in repeatedly by randy old Blessington to model ever more outlandish costumes for GP’s advertising campaign.
The costumes and hairstyles (kudos to Alex Jaeger) are spot-on, from the vintage fitted lavender hat that covers Laura Partridge’s crown and the row of hanging thick curls that set off a triple-strand of white pearls, brought back decades later by Barbara Bush; to the plain shirtwaist dress and black horn-rimmed glasses which, we are given to believe, unjustly dull Amelia’s natural beauty and charm.
There are some fine lines in The Solid Gold Cadillac whose currency hasn’t depreciated in the half-century since the play was written. This can be seen not only as a testament to Teichmann and Kaufman’s perspicacity, but as evidence of the fundamental ways in which the financial scandals of the late 20th century — and their perpetrators — were common enough (at least in theory) fifty years earlier to have made them credible fodder for a hit Broadway play. The crackle of those lines, their sharp delivery and inventive staging will stay with you, even if all of the words do not. So, too, will the fairytale hopefulness and faith between individuals that improbably infuse what would otherwise be a disheartening tale of corporate greed and corruption.
While it won’t bring an end to the health-care crisis or to traffic tie-ups on I-95 (and let’s not even go to “goodwill towards men”), putting it on our holiday to-do list and reflecting back on it at those inevitable times that drive us around the bend, may be just what the doctor ordered.
The Solid Gold Cadillac
Written by Howard Teichmann and George S. Kaufman
Directed by Paul Mullins
Produced by Studio Theatre, Metheny Theatre
Reviewed by Leslie Weisman