In a word, Treadwell: Bright and Dark, now in its world-premiere run at Arlington’s Theatre on the Run, is dull, dull, dull. Actually, that’s three words. But you get the picture.
Directed by Stephen Jarrett and starring Melissa Flaim in the title role, this brand new, not-ready-for-prime-time one-woman show was penned by Allison Currin and brought to the stage by the American Century Theater.
A ninety-minute dramatic monologue performed without an intermission, Treadwell showcases the life and times of Sophie Treadwell (1885-1970), a path breaking feminist journalist, playwright, novelist, and sometimes actress whose strange, uneven career blossomed and faded largely in the first half of the twentieth century.
Hailing from rural Stockton, California, Treadwell’s initial claim to fame was her multipart investigative newspaper series on the hypocrisy and mendacity of San Francisco charities. Driven to excel in what was at that time clearly a man’s world of journalism, she grabbed headlines yet again by copping a major interview with Mexican outlaw Pancho Villa—a considerable act of courage, given Villa’s history of criminal and revolutionary violence.
Moving to New York and turning to acting and play writing, Treadwell scored headlines yet again when she sued superstar John Barrymore, nabbing the actor for plagiarizing chunks of her unproduced play on Edgar Allen Poe and passing it off as his own wife’s work. Treadwell’s laudable efforts to protect her own original material subjected her to withering attacks by the usual stage-door journalistic toadies who smeared her as an unprincipled gold-digger.
Having initially underestimated his opponent, Barrymore prudently bailed on his dubious enterprise. Treadwell’s own material was eventually staged in 1936 under the title Plumes in the Dust, starring Henry Hull—filmdom’s original “Werewolf of London”—in the title role.
But Treadwell’s main dramatic claim to fame was her 1928 play Machinal, a thinly fictionalized account of a sensational domestic murder plot and subsequent trial that eventually sent the chief perpetrator—the victim’s wife, Ruth Snyder—to the electric chair. The story was controversial enough that it was later transformed into two popular films, “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (which in turn was based on James Cain’s novel). But Treadwell was the first to make use of the material in Machinal—which, by the way, featured then-unknown Clark Gable as the heroine’s lover when it premiered in New York.
Treadwell had actually attended Snyder’s trial where it became unambiguously clear that she was guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. Nevertheless, Treadwell’s expressionistic, Freudian play on the murder and trial turned received wisdom upside down by transforming its Ruth Snyder character into a sympathetic, oppressed woman locked in a loveless marriage and desperately seeking a way out. The play was well received by many critics but panned by others who refused to buy into the drama’s highly original premise—a gender-feminist slant that wouldn’t come to the forefront until the early 1960s.
The remainder of Treadwell’s long career was essentially a postscript to the New York production of Machinal. Her odd, “open” marriage to a sports journalist many years her senior ended abruptly with his sudden death in 1933.
That same year, she had eagerly traveled to the Soviet Union to oversee a new production of Machinal in Moscow. At that time an avowed socialist, she was stunned and profoundly disillusioned by what she observed in the unexpectedly stark, oppressive workers’ paradise, then under the ruthless eye and fist of Josef Stalin. She eventually expressed her dissatisfaction in a new play, The Promised Land. Written even as Stalin’s subversive “Popular Front” effort commenced in the US, that play, in hindsight, was undoubtedly a bad career move, serving to damage her leftist credentials at precisely the wrong point in American literary history.
To be sure, a career as chaotic and controversial as Treadwell’s is tempting material for nearly any writer searching for something interesting and new. But in Allyson Currin’s play, Treadwell is perhaps unintentionally transformed into a self-centered bore, prattling on endlessly that she’s “a writer” and proud of it. Treadwell may be a fabulously interesting historical and literary figure, particularly for authors in search of neglected feminist superheroes. But she doesn’t come across as interesting here. Only tedious.
Where this material really runs into trouble is in its attempt at revisionist history; i.e., in its effort to make Treadwell into a vastly more significant historical figure than she was or is. Granted, her early accomplishments were significant, made even more so by the fact that, at the time, women weren’t “allowed” to be enterprising journalists or significant playwrights. Even so, noted eccentrics like Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, and Edna St. Vincent Millay could still crack the glass ceiling on occasion, making this argument ring a little hollow.
It’s entirely probable that Treadwell’s own prickly personality and her unfortunate susceptibility to debilitating panic attacks—unpleasantly but realistically erupting in the course of the play—were not helpful to her career trajectory.
Nonetheless, Currin attempts to promote Treadwell as a neglected twentieth-century literary giant, which she clearly is not, at least based on the evidence presented in this play. In trying to buttress a weak case, the playwright becomes preachy and didactic and her heroine comes across as more than a bit of a whiner.
For better or worse, budding writers are still counseled in college to “show not tell” when it comes to laying out a story, whether fiction or even a slice of real life. Currin’s play spends an hour and a half telling us that Treadwell is an important writer. But nowhere is this really shown. Nowhere can we see it for ourselves, unless, perhaps, we’re intimately familiar with Treadwell’s oeuvre, which is tough since a lot of it is unavailable.
Arguably, Treadwell’s life needs the broader assessment that a fresh biography or even a nonfiction-style novel might occasion. Or, better yet, a biopic at the cinema. Hers is a perpetual motion life that’s loaded with action, intrigue, and conflict, all stitched together with a stout thread of endless controversy. Whatever Treadwell’s ultimate literary merits, her dynamic life-story requires a lot more than a preachy monologue to get her character and personality across.
As far as the performance of Currin’s play itself is concerned, Melissa Flaim does a phenomenal job in trying to get this material off the launch pad. She seems to embody the character of Sophie Treadwell insofar as that character is knowable, and her sharp, sudden descents into momentary madness are shocking yet believable.
But in the end, her heroic efforts are largely wasted. The minimalist staging—a bit of furniture and a motley backdrop consisting of what seems like hundreds of letters and manuscript pages hanging from wire clotheslines emphasize that this play is a drama of inscape, something that gets worked out in the mind and not in the world. In fact, the thrust of the drama seems oddly divorced from external activity. It’s functionally similar to the inward-directed, expressionistic-style of play writing that Treadwell herself embraced, particularly in Machinal. But it lacks the punch and the power that would have been provided by additional characters and changes of scene.
The only time Treadwell really jumps at the audience is when Flaim performs both sides of the verbal joust between Treadwell and John Barrymore. Her brilliant characterization of Barrymore’s dimwitted superciliousness is dead on. As a result, for a brief, shining moment, this play actually bursts into real, dramatic fireworks.
But then it’s back to the defensive “I’m a writer” stuff, and the swirling, dark waters of Treadwell’s stormy life once again close in, fading slowly to black.
Treadwell: Bright and Dark
by Allyson Currin
Directed by Stephen Jarrett
Produced by American Century Theater
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Treadwell: Bright and Dark runs thru June 19, 2010 at Theatre on the Run, Arlington, VA.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.
TREADWELL: BRIGHT AND DARK