Melodrama and Mayhem on Main Street
nytheatre.com review by Larry Kunofsky
September 8, 2007
I first saw the film Reds when I was 11 years old, and I'm pretty sure it's responsible for making me the Old Lefty that I am today. My two main impressions of the film at the time were: 1) How sexy Diane Keaton is as Louise Bryant, and 2) How cool Jack Nicholson is as Eugene O'Neill. I mostly forgot about the non-sexy and non-cool parts of the film until I saw it again as an adult, but it's impossible for me to not romanticize that period in history—a time when arts and politics were inextricably linked; when an individual's aesthetics and political framework defined who he or she was; a time when arts and politics were...well, sexy and cool.
It is this romantic notion that spirited me to see Melodrama and Mayhem on Main Street, six short plays by Louise Bryant, Alice Gerstenberg, and Susan Glaspell. I knew the work of Glaspell from before. She is truly one of the pioneers of 20th century playwriting—a Pulitzer Prize winner whose plays have been produced all over the country, who also happens to be partially responsible for discovering Eugene O'Neill. I had never heard of Gerstenberg, and kind of forgot that Bryant (more famous for her journalism) wrote plays, but I was intrigued to see this evening of theatre, excited by the opportunity to see plays from an important time in history.
And these playwrights are, indeed, important. Left-wing politics deeply informs all six of them, reminding us again of that time when the arts were a reflection of deep-seated political beliefs, and vice versa. More importantly, American Theatre History tends to forget its female playwrights. Therefore, Woman Seeking..., the company that presents Melodrama and Mayhem, does an admirable job of reminding us of how early and how profound the impact of women writing in the theatre truly is.
The problem with this evening of plays is twofold: 1) Most of these plays are not exactly the Bee's Knees, and 2) neither is the production. And yet, with the important historical value of the plays and the genuine enthusiasm of the production, we must grade Melodrama and Mayhem a bit on a curve. These are old plays, and not every old play holds up so well; but old plays are fun to see anyway, since old plays are often more charming because of how they don't hold up than for the ways in which they do. Unfortunately, for every moment in this evening when the plays themselves are clumsy, obvious, and, as the title warns, melodramatic, the production itself fails to support these elements. Although none of the six plays that make up Melodrama and Mayhem is perfect, they are, ultimately, fun. And so is the spirit in which they are presented in this production, making the flaws of the evening forgivable.
The first play of the evening, Bryant's The Game, is, I'm sad to say, a bit of a clunker. In my estimation, it should have been excised from the evening, allowing Bryant's strengths as a playwright to shine in the world premiere of From Paris to Main Street, which appears later in the evening. The Game is an allegory about a bet between Death and Life over the fortunes of a Poet and a Young Woman. Perhaps the very notion of an allegory within a contemporary play seemed revelatory when Bryant wrote it, but now, The Game seems a bit played out. Patient Griselda, the second of the three Bryant plays of the evening, is a much more interesting piece. It concerns a doomed romance between a budding actress and a married businessman. This play deals with the age-old conflict between the wild romance of youth and the compromise of middle age with poignancy. It is, more so than any other play in Melodrama and Mayhem, a true melodrama. Our contemporary tastes have turned away from melodrama, relegating the form, mainly, to daytime soap opera, but it is a true form of drama that generally does illuminate the human experience in valid ways. This particular melodrama, however, wears its heart too heavily upon its sleeve. Still, it is an emotionally affecting piece. From Paris to Main Street, the third Bryant contribution, is a whimsical piece about the plight of a free spirit from France married to a small-town boy whom she met during the Great War. The young couple live with his mother in the Boy's hometown, a place of conformity and so-called "upright" behavior. This is a sentimental play which pits love against propriety (it's a comedy, so guess which side wins) but it truthfully depicts the mainstream religious sensibilities of the age and properly extols individuality. This Louise Bryant Trifecta gives further context to an important historical figure.
I learned from the program that Alice Gerstenberg was a major player in the Chicago Little Theatre, the Playwrights' Theatre of Chicago, and the Washington Square Players. Among the attributes of Melodrama and Mayhem, perhaps the best one, for me, was discovering this talented playwright. Her play Overtones, set in the high-toned world of the Ladies Who Lunch, depicts the inner thoughts of these women by double-casting actresses as the outer and inner lives of these characters, an interesting, feminine version of O'Neill's Strange Interlude. The other Gerstenberg play of the evening, Fourteen, is a Drawing Room Comedy (or, more specifically, a Kitchen Comedy) about a swanky dowager and her daughter as they attempt, at the very last minute, to add one more guest to their dinner party in order to avoid the dreaded unlucky number 13. Fourteen got pretty big laughs when I saw Melodrama and Mayhem, and its farcical elements have an almost surreal quality reminiscent of Luis Bunuel's films.
Susan Glaspell's Trifles is definitely the strongest play of the evening. It's constantly performed and anthologized, so it, unlike the other plays of this evening, might be familiar to its audience, but it's always worth seeing. Set in a dilapidated farmhouse where a man has been hanged (perhaps by his wife), the play depicts the official investigation into the death by the male townsfolk, as well as the less formal but more in-depth investigation by the women of the town. This is a subtle, sensitive, and perceptive play.
All of the plays that make up Melodrama and Mayhem are either directed by Christine Mosère or Dan Jacoby, or co-directed by both. Since I enjoyed all but one of these plays and was impressed by many of the actors, especially Matthew Russell, nora hummel, and Anna Malinosky, my feeling on the weaknesses of the evening is that the direction lacks vision. All of these plays were written in a very specific style, and yet the presentation of these plays lacks the kind of style that would frame and make sense of these plays. Still, Jacoby deserves praise as an actor in a number of these pieces, and Mosère deserves great kudos for her costume design, which is the best design element of this production by far.
If you're an Old Lefty, or if you're passionate about the plays of women, or even if you're a little sentimental for Old Timey entertainments, Melodrama and Mayhem on Main Street is worth checking out.