Toys in the Attic
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 13, 2007
What's interesting about Lillian Hellman's 1960 drama Toys in the Attic is the way it evokes both of her most famous plays. Like The Little Foxes, it's a pretty savage indictment of American capitalism: specifically, it shows how money leads people to do desperate and sometimes terrible things, whether they have too much or too little of it. And like The Children's Hour, this play trades in innuendo and sensationalism to make its points, featuring a relatively unapologetic interracial couple (in the American South before the Civil Rights movement!) and an outright accusation of incestuous lust. I would not call this a great play, but it has some intriguing ideas in it, and it's valuable to get to see it on stage in the present revival at Pearl Theatre Company.
The story of Toys in the Attic concerns the Berniers family, which consists of self-described old maid sisters Anna and Carrie, who live modestly and forlornly in the house left them by their parents, and their younger ne'er-do-well brother, Julian, on whom the two, each in her own way, dote. A year before the action of the play begins, Julian married a rich, hysterical young woman named Lily and moved away to run a shoe factory in Chicago. In Act One, Lily's mother, Mrs. Albertine Prine, surprises Anna and Carrie by paying them a visit, during which she informs them that Julian and Lily are back home in New Orleans. All three—Albertine, Anna, and Carrie—assume that Julian has gone through all his money (again); Carrie goads Anna into making a present of all their savings to Julian while Albertine has a $5,000 check at the ready for Lily.
But Julian turns up, moments later, loaded down with packages. He's struck it rich, he says, and though he's very mysterious about the source of his windfall, he's ebullient as he hands out extravagant presents to the women in his life. For his sisters, he's bought evening gowns and fur pieces and tickets for a trip to Europe; to Lily he gives a big diamond ring to replace the cheap wedding band he bought her a year ago. Trouble is, none of the women seems to want what Julian has for them. The remainder of the play explores why that's so.
One of the story arcs concerns a triangle whose points are Julian, Lily, and Carrie. Each of these two women wants control over Julian, and a wealthy, self-supporting Julian never figured into either of their plans. I found this thread less interesting, though, than the other main plotline, which contrasts a woman who has lots of money but has nothing to do with it (Mrs. Prine) with a woman who has very little money but lots of secret plans for how she'd spend it if she had it (Anna). Neither has had much success in relationships with others, but the rich Mrs. Prine nonetheless seems relatively happy with the security and power that her wealth enables, which, I think, is one of Hellman's major points.
Austin Pendleton is the director of this revival, and his work feels only fitfully successful. The pacing seems labored throughout, and the decision to run Acts Two and Three together without a break makes for a long stretch of drama following the intermission. Pendleton seems to work his actors needlessly hard, too; Rachel Botchan (Carrie) has to clean the entire set (not just dust, but also sweep and move heavy cartons around) and Robin Leslie Brown (Anna) is made to carry a very full oversized valise across the stage when an empty one would work just as well from the audience's perspective; both wound up winded during the play's final moments as a result.
Harry Feiner's set is problematic, too. Hellman specifies that the "house is solid middle-class of another generation. The furniture is heavy and old. Everything inside and outside is neat, but in need of repairs." This is helpful, giving us valuable information about the economic circumstances of the Berniers. But Feiner's set, which places a fairly handsome living room right next to a porch without any visible walls or doors, is confusing spatially and economically: I couldn't discern from the furniture whether Anna and Carrie were poor or middle-class.
The casting is not always ideal, either. Joanne Camp is terrific as Albertine Prine, capturing all the conflicting aspects of this singular lady; as her African American love-interest-disguised-as-a-chauffeur, Robert Colston supplies both dignity and humor. Brown is convincing as Anna, but neither Botchan nor McNall seems well-suited to their roles of Carrie and Julian: the age difference between Brown on the one hand and Botchan and McNall on the other is too pronounced, for one thing; more important, Botchan comes across as whiny and self-indulgent, while McNall fails to mine Julian's depth and makes him simply callow. Ivy Vahanian plays Lily as a tortured, sex-starved Tennessee Williams-style heroine, but that may be more a function of Hellman's writing than anything else.
Nevertheless, we're offered here a reasonably straightforward reading of this seldom-seen work by one of America's premier playwrights, and there's also something to be gleaned from that. Hellman's portrait of these four formidable women, each determined to get what she wants from life, is potent and watchable theatre.