It may seem an odd choice at first for Quotidian to revive a century-old comedy of manners in an era of #metoo. Happily, though he’s no George Bernard Shaw (that’s OK, I’m no Ben Brantley), Harold Brighouse’s 1915 comedy Hobson’s Choice is, for its time, a savvy study of gender and class politics of the late 1880’s. Director David Dubov brings a very contemporary polish, and the cast on the whole bring a colorful, lively and human dimension.
Although the family patriarch Henry Horatio Hobson is nominally the lead character (it’s his boot shop, after all), and the play is nominally about his exasperation with the increasing “uppishness” of his three unmarried daughters, the play’s principal plotline is the gender-swap Pygmalion relationship between eldest daughter Maggie, shrewd salesperson and rather cut-throat negotiator, and Will Mossop, the meek working class leatherman toiling away in the basement producing top-quality footwear that draws in top-tier customers.
Maggie has a plan for him, for herself, and her two younger sisters, and it involves Will becoming an aspirational, respectable and occasionally ruthless middle-class man of the world, regardless of his opinion of the matter, and getting Alice and Vickey married to their proper respectable middle-class beaux, as penny-pinching papa is squeamish at the notion of paying out dowries.
Though the proposal Maggie presents Will in their first scene may violate most if not all contemporary workplace sexual harassment policies, and I suspect Shaw would’ve bristled at the notion of a passive working class requiring a proffered hand from above, Rebecca Ellis and Matt Baughman nonetheless ably navigate this ethical thicket with lively chemistry. Baughman in particular is a gifted comic and physical actor, and brings a sparkling charm to Mossop.
Andrew Walker White and his walrus-like facial hair are engagingly blustery as Henry Hobson, and manages to remain humorously sympathetic as his life unravels and descends into alcoholism. And even when they only appear in one or two scenes, Bill Hurlbut (Hobson’s drinking buddy), Jane Squier Bruns (the rich customer) and Jean Miller provide excellent supporting work; Miller’s strong-willed Scotsperson Dr MacFarlane is particularly delightful.
Meredith Richard and Carolyn Kashner are the younger and slightly more spoiled daughters Vickey (the more family-oriented) and Alice (the more unabashed social climber) and Nick Duckworth and Logan Beveridge are their beaux Albert and Freddy, all providing solid secondary ingenue work. Grant Cloyd is a strong actor in a thankless role.
The details of Stephanie Mumford and Clare Parker’s costume (and makeup, presumably) design work are quite impressive. I especially noted the redness on Hobson and Heeler’s cheeks, emblematic of the onset of chronic alcoholism; these details helped to underscore the playwright’s connection to his characters — he set the play in his native Salford — and innate understanding of middle class urban life.
closes March 11, 2018
Details and tickets
There is no dialect coach credited in the program as best as I could find, which is significant as the production’s greatest liability is how the company hurls themselves headlong at a 19th century Lancashire dialect with widely varying success. We got a tour of Western and Northern England, Ireland, Wales, the American South, and many dialectical approximations and interpolations thereof (sometimes from line to line), while other actors opted not to tackle dialect at all, or hardly at all. In the worst cases, the actors’ dialect struggle overshadowed their character work. Dr MacFarlane’s Scots brogue, by contrast, is spot-on.
By the end, the Hobson daughters are happily married, Papa’s dictatorial hold on the family and the family business is broken, and young Willy Mossop is set up for life. How the audience feels about the means by which it all came about… that’s their choice.
Hobson’s Choice, by Harold Brighouse. Cast: Andrew Walker White (Henry Hobson), Rebecca Ellis (Maggie Hobson), Meredith Richard (Vickey Hobson), Carolyn Kashner (Alice Hobson), Matt Baughman (Will Mossop), Nick Duckworth (Albert Prosser), Logan Beveridge (Freddy Beenstock), Grant Cloyd (Tubby Wadlow), Bill Hurlbut (Jim Heeler), Jean Miller (Dr MacFarlane), Jane Squier Bruns (Mrs Hepworth). Director: David Dubov. Artistic Liaison: Laura Giannarelli. Director’s Assistant/Stage Manager: Regina Vitale. Set Design: David Dubov & Jack Sbarbori. Technical Advisor: John Decker. Lighting Design: Don Slater. Costume Design: Stephanie Mumford & Clare Parker. Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company. Review by John Geoffrion