Susan and God
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 14, 2006
Susan is Susan Trexel, a shallow, upper-class, rather self-involved woman, trapped (she thinks) in a loveless marriage to a bland alcoholic; she's just returned from an extended stay abroad and is primed to re-invent herself (as, we imagine, she's done many times before).
God is, well, God; or at least the God that Susan has found as a result of her latest obsession, a spiritualism that she became acquainted with whilst hanging around some fashionable cronies in England. (We might call it a cult nowadays, but from the casual way it's presented, I'm more tempted to call it a very involving hobby.)
Anyway, for better or worse, Susan has embraced the precepts of this new, fairly harmless "religion" and is now bent on reforming her stylish American associates. These include her neighbor and friend Irene, who is about to receive a messy divorce from her husband and is living without benefit of matrimony with her intended next (third) husband, Mike; a successful middle-aged business-type named Hutchins Stubbs who has just married a much younger woman, Leonora, an actress; Clyde Rochester, the romantic actor whom Leonora apparently cast aside in favor of the rich man she married; and Charlotte Marley, a strong-willed lady who (everybody knows) is in love with Susan's husband.
What Susan does not expect, however, is that Barrie, her troublesome spouse, will take her up on her offer of salvation. She's returned to America hoping to at long last get him to divorce her. But when he hears her speechifying about redemption to her friends, he takes what she says to heart, vowing (with her aid) to reform. The Trexels, along with their awkward and unhappy teenage daughter Blossom, are going to turn themselves back into a family.
That's the outline of Act One of Susan and God, the Rachel Crothers drama from 1937 that Jonathan Bank is reviving at the Mint Theater. The program/press notes suggest that Crothers is lightly satirizing a then-trendy spiritual movement called the Oxford Group, but it seems to me that the play's main thrust is Susan's own redemption and reformation, from selfish and shallow egoist to compassionate and giving wife and mother.
The play's storyline is plenty compelling, and Bank and his cast tell it clearly and straightforwardly. What's missing is some of the atmosphere that might give it more context: I never felt, from either Nathan Heverin's set or Clint Ramos's costumes, the wealth or decadence that I presume Susan and her friends are supposed to embody; and in Leslie Hendrix (famous as Medical Examiner Liz Rogers on Law & Order) we have a very down-to-earth, unglamorous leading lady (Gertrude Lawrence was the original Susan on Broadway; Joan Crawford played her on film). The play's structure leans heavily toward star vehicle—nearly every scene builds toward a thrilling entrance featuring Susan in another glorious high-fashion creation—but Hendrix, though building her portrayal plausibly enough, just doesn't have the kind of charisma to convince us that Susan is the spellbinding charmer that the other characters tell us she is.
In general, the men fare better than the women in the supporting cast: Timothy Deenihan is a very sympathetic Barrie Trexel, and both Anthony Newfield (as Stubbs) and Alex Cranmer (as Rochester) convey period and type with real authenticity and authority. But Opal Alladin (in the pivotal role of Irene) and Jordan Simmons (as Leonora) simply feel too contemporary. Katie Firth (Charlotte) and Jennifer Blood (Blossom) do well in somewhat thankless roles.
Crothers's touch feels arch and "modern" enough that it's almost a surprise that Susan's transformation is so completely conventional. But ultimately Susan and God adheres to a strict moral code, and that's probably what's most instructive about this piece, which gives such striking insights into manners and mores of a long-gone era.