The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted
by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others
by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review
the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.
Minttheater.com January 2021
New York's Mint Theater specialises in rediscovering lost or under-appreciated plays from the early Twentieth Century. In this case, despite the admirable hard work of director and actors, the play does not seem to have been worth the bother of rediscovering.
Lillian Hellman's second produced play was a failure, and it is not hard to see why. Even in 1936 it must have been evident that there was not a single element in the play – no character, no plot turn, no speech – that wasn't a cliché of cartoonish single-dimensions.
The play addresses big issues and personal emotions, but nothing in it rings true.
A small company in a small town is facing a workers' strike. While the ineffectual owner dithers, his more hard-nosed lawyer hires some professional strike-breakers – not scabs to do the work but toughs to generate violence that will break the workers' spirits.
Against this background the boss's wife, who has already had an affair with the lawyer, is drawn to the idealistic union organiser, attracted as much by his passion for a cause as by his looks.
(If that rouses some distant echoes in your memory, this plot line is very similar to Miles Malleson's 1925 Conflict, which Mint Theater also revived. In that play the posh girlfriend of a Tory politician was drawn to his Labour opponent because of his dedication. In my review last year I commented on how believable that story was. It isn't here.)
I won't tell you how any of the plot lines turn out because ultimately it doesn't matter. What the play is about is how everybody's fantasies of peace, happiness, community and good will are shattered, leaving them all numb – potentially a strong metaphor for America in the Depression.
But, as I said, none of these characters is real. From the cold-blooded lawyer, through the searching-for-love wife and the heroic union organiser, to the strike-breaking goons and the boss's neurotic old-maid sister, they are all written as cartoons.
Some in the cast work visibly hard to find some colours and nuances to their characters and others clearly don't, and ultimately it doesn't matter because there just isn't anything there for them to work with.
There's another problem to the play. Hellman seems to have been uncertain whether she was writing a personal drama set against a background of social and economic collapse, or a Marxist tract about the breakdown of capitalism with some bits of personal melodrama just to flesh out the characters a little.
The two strands of the play do not complement or bounce off each other in resonant ways, but just fight for our attention.
Almost everyone in the cast earns some credit for at least trying, but they and director J. R. Sullivan are defeated by a fledgeling playwright who would go on to do better work later.
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