Walking Down Broadway
nytheatre.com review by George Hunka
September 23, 2005
The Mint Theater Company’s mission is to present as faithfully as it can neglected works in the history of drama; this season, they’re concentrating on American women playwrights of the early 20th century. What better season opener, then, than an unproduced play by Dawn Powell (1896-1965), recently rediscovered as a more ambitious Dorothy Parker of sorts?
Powell’s novels and stories are renowned for a deep vein of romantic, pessimistic, and satiric feeling, but with a curiously contemporary feel for our time. Chronicler of Manhattan life and love in the first half of the20th century, she has a fair claim to be the ur-Candace Bushnell, who plays much the same role for the beginning of our own century. Indeed, were it not for the Norma Talmadge posters on the wall, the references to Wallace Beery, and the injunction to keep your rooming-house door open when you’ve got a visitor of the opposite sex (not to mention references to prices of the period—$21.95 for a stylish camel-hair coat—that these days never fail to raise a chuckle or two), you might be forgiven for thinking you’re enjoying yet another adventure in the lives of Carrie Bradshaw and the gang.
Even if you don’t remember New York in the ‘20s and ‘30s, you’ve got an idea of it in your head—what a wacky, crazy, bawdy sort of town, Mecca to small-town types with stars in their eyes. Anything can happen in this nutty city, and dreams die hard here, but darn it all, guys and gals still fall in love. You just gotta watch out for those hard-hearted dance-hall Johnnies and fading chorus girls, but underneath it all, they’re saps for a young couple in love, too. Some things never change.
All right. Maybe Powell’s 1931 play Walking Down Broadway, which is just receiving its world premiere at the Mint in a handsome new production, isn’t quite that familiar, but there are times at which it veers dangerously close. Marge and Elsie, friends from Marble Falls, USA, move to New York in search of adventure and get jobs as office girls; after eight months without a date, they promenade down Broadway in search of guys and attract the attention of Chick and Dewey, two Victrola salesmen, similarly from small towns. Marge and Chick fall for each other hard, while Elsie tries desperately to retain the attentions of fashion-plate Dewey. Chick gets Marge “into trouble” (you know what that means), Chick solicits advice from his cynical, worldly roommate Mac (you know what that means), and Marge’s next door neighbor, the similarly cynical and worldly former advertising model and Follies girl Eva, suggests that Marge visit a “special doctor” (you know what that means).
So far so good, as well-built period pieces like Walking Down Broadway go, and there are moments in this show that call to mind a 75-year-old episode of Sex and the City, were there such a thing. A decision about abortion, for example, is a central issue of the script, and just as voluble an issue for today. (One of the play’s weaknesses is its failure to deal with the emotional implications of the decision once it’s been made, a weakness it shares with most Sex and the City episodes: a potentially serious issue is raised, juggled for a scene or two, then blissfully forgotten in a mad dash to wrap up the loose ends of the plot.) For a script by a writer of Powell’s reputation, there are flashes of genuine independent wit and inspiration here and there, but she walks a dangerous, thin line between romanticism and cynicism, and she falters several times. Mac, the eternal bachelor, has to end up married; Eva, the blowsy blonde, turns out to have a heart of gold. Which doesn’t make this a bad play, necessarily, just a predictable one from our perspective in 2005.
Steven Williford’s staging occasionally falls prey to the same pitfalls as the play itself, undecided whether it’s a comedy or a sociological study. The first five minutes have all the rat-tat-tat dialogue and razzmatazz blocking of 42nd Street without the songs, yet at the end of the first act there’s a long scene in which the two young lovers seem glued to the couch for 10 or 15 minutes. Of the 10-person cast, the attractive young lovers get the most stage time, of course, and Christine Allbright as Marge and Denis Butkus as Chick acquit themselves well, though Allbright seems to have more of a grasp on the emotional changes of her character than Butkus does of his; he ends the play more or less where he began emotionally, though it must be said that of the two the experience has been more traumatic for Marge.
Of the rest of the cast, Amanda Jones is a bright presence with a hard edge as Marge’s fun-loving roommate Elsie, a fair match for the consistently distracted, superficial Dewey of Ben Roberts. Both Carol Halstead as peroxide-blonde Eva and Antony Hagopian as worldly man-about-town Mac are broadly played—Halstead sashays across the stage, nearly stealing every scene in which she appears, and Hagopian’s sharp, self-absorbed sarcasm cuts through the sometimes diffuse atmosphere that the less-focused Butkus and Roberts occasionally create—but then, Powell’s characters are broadly drawn, so they can hardly be faulted for that.
All that said, while Walking Down Broadway is far from an undiscovered masterpiece, it has been unduly neglected—there’s no reason I can see for its waiting three-quarters-of-a-century for its world premiere, and it’s admirable that this is the first show of a Mint season devoted to little-known plays by American women. It easily holds its own against the mainstream comedy-dramas of the period written by men, providing a much-missed emphasis on the distaff perspective of Depression-era New York love and sex.
The exquisite set and costumes are by Roger Hanna and Brenda Turpin respectively; the period details of both seem to have walked right off the pages of a book of vintage photographs.