The Ghosts of 14th Street
nytheatre.com review by Daniel Kelley
March 7, 2008
The Ghosts of 14th Street takes place on the set of a one-reel silent movie or "flicker" in New York City in the year 1908. The cast of characters paints a picture of life at this time: there's Vera and Edward J. Thornton III, two legitimate theatre actors forced by scandal to take jobs in the burgeoning medium of film. There's Lily Rabinowitz, a recent immigrant who takes a job as a cleaning lady in order to escape her gangster husband and start anew. There's Danny and Tess Cortez, brother and sister hoping to make it as a duo act in vaudeville. And then there's Pip Gibson, an African American tap dancer who has made it so big he has forced a theatre into writing into his contract that he will not perform in blackface—quite an achievement for 1908.
While the time period and the characters are rich subjects, playwright-director Barbara Kahn seems to be torn between two conflicting ideas of what The Ghosts of 14th Street should be. On the one hand, the play seems to be a loving pastiche of a little known and exciting time in New York City history. On the other, it seems to be a historical character—driven ensemble drama, infused with a modern ideology. While there are moments when both of these directions work separately, The Ghosts of 14th Street unfortunately doesn't come together as a whole.
The conflicting concepts within the play are best exemplified by its two-act structure. The first act is a complicated interweaving of the lives of each of the characters—their hopes and dreams and their fears—in a way that is often entertaining and compelling. It is the story of love being found in the most unexpected of places—especially for 1908- with Tess Cortez falling in love with Lily Rabinowitz, and Danny Cortez falling for a movie star, Al Joslin. The second act, by contrast, is an authentic vaudeville show, complete with dialect comedians, tap dancing, and a big musical finish. While the characters from the first act do perform in the vaudeville show in the second act, it does nothing to deepen these characters. More to the point, it is not intended to deepen their characters—it is a straightforward vaudeville show. It ends with a rendition of "Shine On, Harvest Moon" that is beautifully sung, but feels more like pageantry than drama. That's not to say that there's something wrong with pageantry in and of itself, but rather that, in this case, the pageantry of the second act seems antithetical to the drama of the first.
However, both pageantry and drama give the talented cast its time to shine. Mallory Portnoy, as Lily Rabinowitz, is particularly strong, consistently presenting the most nuanced and compelling character throughout. Dan Burkath and Jocelyn Adams are appropriately pompous and charming as married actors Edward J. Thornton III and Vera Thornton, respectively.
The set and costumes do a wonderful job of capturing the period with nuance and style. Alice Garland's costumes are especially sumptuous and evocative. Kahn's direction, however, lets the forward momentum of the play sag—especially during the long silent transitions between scenes—so that the pace feels sluggish.
The Ghosts of 14th Street does present some very entertaining scenes and compelling moments. The dialect comedian scene in the second act is laugh-out-loud funny and the scenes between the Thorntons in the first act are charming. Ultimately, though, The Ghosts of 14th Street does not feel like a cohesive whole, which is unfortunate, given the richness of the subject matter.