The American Century Theater’s (TACT’s) current production of Stage Door at Arlington’s Gunston Theatre Two is a bit of a mess. Or at least it was last Saturday evening. That said, it’s frequently interesting, often amusing, and—albeit quite briefly—surprisingly sad.
But the stage chaos that’s kicked in motion by the sheer size of this play’s enormous cast seems more often than not to elude the control of director Marie Sproul. This, in turn, distracts the audience from focusing on the multiple plots and side plots that crucially define even the most minor of characters.
Penned in 1936 by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, Stage Door is one in a seemingly endless string of comic and occasionally musical hits churned out by Kaufman in partnership with Moss Hart, the Gershwins, Ferber, and others.
Stage Door was originally intended as a satire panning the growing power of Hollywood’s wealthy philistines whose new talking pictures—augmented with musical soundtracks as well—were beginning to sap the lifeblood of New York’s theater scene much in the way that the blogosphere siphons advertising dollars from newspapers today.
Yet ironically, Stage Door is probably best known today through its hit 1937 Hollywood incarnation, which bore only the most superficial resemblance to the Broadway play. The film script rewrote virtually the entirety of Kaufman’s and Ferber’s play, transforming it into a star-studded paean lauding the wonders of Tinseltown. Kaufman was incensed at the crafty denizens of La-La Land, but there wasn’t much he could do about it.
Faithful to its mission, TACT once again has gone back in time to reclaim this nearly-lost bit of Americana, restaging it as the authors originally intended it: as a biting satire favoring that timeless (and more than occasionally dubious) argument that crass commercialism, à la Hollywood, destroys true art forms such as live theater.
K&F’s original play eschews a linear plotline in favor of a slice-of-life approach, 1930s-style, depicting stage-struck single women scrambling to make a living—and a lot of one-liners—while camped out in a New York City Upper West Side boardinghouse. The residence is known quaintly as the “Footlights Club,” and it’s run by Mrs. Orcutt (Jane E. Petkofsky), a fading one-time actress herself. The Club’s specialty is housing breathlessly eager young women living from hand to mouth as they doggedly attempt to hit the big time as actresses in the city’s vibrant but slowly fading theater district.
As the play begins, both the depression and Hollywood have taken their toll on Broadway’s once-healthy job market. Most of the boardinghouse’s denizens are just missing the brass ring, forced instead by circumstance to eke out an existence selling underwear at Macy’s or shaking booty at a sleazy burlesque house.
The play’s central plot involves the misfortunes of Terry Randall (Kate Volpe), a dedicated actress who’s perfected her craft but can’t find a part, at least one in a play that runs for more than a week before closing. She soon becomes enamored of Keith Burgess (Joshua Dick), a budding playwright and tub-thumping Marxist. She also attracts the attention of dashing producer David Kingsley (Nicholas Hanson).
Terry and her roommate Jeanne Maitland (Allison Leigh Corke) suddenly get lucky and are offered Hollywood contracts. Jean jumps at the chance and heads for the train station. But Terry—standing in for Kaufman and Ferber, no doubt—refuses to be a sellout, deciding to remain in New York to stay faithful to her art. When Terry’s lefty boyfriend also sells out to Hollywood’s crass capitalists, however, it begins to look like her metaphorical ship has already sailed without her.
Key side plots include the clandestine nightlife of rich girl Linda Shaw (Leigh Anna Fry) and the sordid domestic backstory of Kaye Hamilton (Ashley Faye Dillard). Meanwhile, additional micro-plots spin like little dervishes in the background, each involving one or more of the wacky, lovably eccentric characters Kaufman loves to toss into his plays.
Almost needless to say at this point, Stage Door boasts a much larger than usual cast. That’s something a playwright could more easily imagine and work with in the ‘30s, since nearly all but star players came cheaply and unions and union work rules had not yet established their stranglehold on each production’s cost structure. Happily, even today, this TACT production doesn’t cheat on the numbers—much, anyway.
All the female characters (we count 18) are played by individual actresses. Only the male characters perform multiple roles, which makes sense since several of these are brief and ephemeral. But in an amusing touch, the grumpy butler Frank, if you watch carefully, is performed at various times by all the male actors including the two male leads.
In any event, it’s great to see a lot of players on stage instead of the usual claustrophobic few dictated by today’s economically pinched theatrical environment. On the other hand, working with such a large cast entails its own set of problems. All of which leads back to the primary issue with this production.
In a nutshell, director Marie Sproul has successfully managed to engineer the logistics of entrances, exits, and mass assemblies in this vast and unwieldy play. The actors have collectively done their part as well by memorizing and delivering effectively a daunting volume of lines.
But among the queues, entrances, exits, and the undoubtedly endless blocking issues, we discover a production where the technical issues are mostly solved but where comedy and deeper character development are still a work in progress. So much care is paid to not making mistakes that things don’t really cut loose, save for some delicious moments in the second act that leave us longing for more. The characters are there, but they need to come out and play more often than they do.
Characters in a Kaufman-style play tend to be eccentrics—like Paul Sycamore and Mr. De Pinna of You Can’t Take It With You, good-natured, charming goofballs who spend much of their time building fireworks and explosives in the basement. (A thought: can you imagine them trying to get away with this in post 9/11 New York?)
A number of the small parts in Stage Door are devoted to similar weird set scenes, as when two of the girls stalk through the house practicing scenes from a whodunit, or when another periodically sashays through the parlor practicing an exotic dance in costume. Such scenes are the heart and soul of a Kauffmann comedy. The cast members give it their best here, but they tend to get undercut and upstaged by the distracting entrances and exits of the other players.
After one or more characters exit through the boardinghouse front door, which is slightly hidden stage rear, they’re directed to trot off the stage area between the audience and the currently active players. And this they do, with shoes and high heels click-clacking away on Theatre Two’s hard concrete floor. The idea, one supposes, is to briefly create the sense of a bustling New York street scene. But in fact, what the audience and the currently onstage actors get is a noisy distraction that breaks the continuity of the action.
Admittedly, it’s a significant logistical challenge to move a substantial cast gracefully around Theatre Two’s relatively small black box space and get all them in position for their next scenes. But the sheer distraction of how it’s done here tends to blunt the play’s natural comic momentum.
This said, there are still quite a number of good performances in this production. The lead actors are strong, even if their efforts are sometimes stymied by all the too-obvious comings and goings.
Kate Volpe plays Terry Randall with spunk and conviction. Joshua Dick is marvelously two-faced as proletarian-turned-rich screenwriter Keith Burgess. Allison Leigh Corke is a glamorous Jean, and Ashley Faye Dillard is marvelous as the brittle, damaged Kaye Hamilton.
Interestingly, some of the best, most Kaufmanesquely comical performances are turned in by those thespians who play the smaller character roles. Jane E. Petkofsky is spot-on as the eccentric Mrs. Orcutt who relives her ingénue days through the lives of her guests, still embarrassingly grasping for that last little bit of fleeting glory and fame. Sherry Berg and Jacqui Farkas (Big and Little Mary) add much-needed comic touches as they mug their way outrageously through imaginary scenarios.
Likewise Katie Culligan’s eccentric pianist Olga Brandt. Culligan plays the role like a cross between Greta Garbo and Natasha Fatale, reminiscent, actually, of the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina in You Can’t Take It With You. Steve Lebens does a nifty turn as Nazi-like Hollywood film mogul Adolph Gretzl. And Emily Love Morrison is particularly effective as Linda Shaw’s imperiously nasty and very upper-crust mom.
Stage Door’s set, designed by Sarah Kendrick, gives this play an appropriately shabby genteel look. Christiane Markus’ costumes also do justice to the period.
TACT’s Stage Door will be primarily of interest to serious theater buffs who will welcome the chance to see a rarely produced 1930s classic comedy providing a broadly insightful, satirical look into that legendary decade. The production will probably improve during its run as various players get more deeply into the comic shtick that’s already there. But in the relatively cramped space of Theatre Two, it will remain a challenge to make all those entrances and exits far less obtrusive. That distraction, and the current approach to it, will remain in our opinion a continuing problem for this production.
by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber
Directed by Marie Sproul
Produced by American Century Theater
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Somewhat Recommended or Recommended for the serious historical theater buffs.
Running time: Two hours and forty-five minutes with two intermissions.
- Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly
- Barbara MacKay . Washington Examiner
- Brad Hathaway . Alexandria Gazette
- Bob Anthony. AllArtsReview4You