nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 19, 2009
There are many reasons why you should go see Power at Metropolitan Playhouse, but the most important one is that it is darned fine entertainment. Director Mark Harborth and his collaborators at this indispensable East Village institution have taken this little-known play, which was created for the Federal Theater Project back in 1937, and delivered a smart, funny, and fast-paced modern vaudeville that's as earnest, sincere, and utterly relevant as it must have been 70 years ago.
Consider, for example, this exchange, from the middle of Power:
CONSUMER-INVESTOR (eagerly): How much is the dividend going to be, Sam?
INSULL: Well, that depends on how much we make.
CONSUMER-INVESTOR: How do we know how much we make?
INSULL: Why, I write it down in the books.
CONSUMER-INVESTOR: Can anybody look at the books?
INSULL: Oh, no. This is a holding company. We don't have to show our books to anybody.
CONSUMER-INVESTOR: Who decides how we're going to invest our money?
INSULL: I do.
CONSUMER-INVESTOR: Who decides how much your salary's going to be?
INSULL: I do.
CONSUMER-INVESTOR: And who decides if you're going to give yourself a bonus?
INSULL: I do.
Now, let me backtrack a bit and explain that Power, which was written by Arthur Arent, is about electrical power, principally (though it's also about political power—because, hey, what isn't?). Its focus is the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the New Deal's most important (and controversial) programs, which was designed to bring, among other services, cheap electricity to an impoverished segment of the country running across six Southern states—an area where utility monopolies had previously refused to run power lines because it would have been unprofitable for them to do so. One of the themes running through Power is whether electricity is a commodity or an entitlement—which reminds us, perhaps, of the debate about health care in the early 21st century. (I told you this play is resonant.)
Power is a "Living Newspaper," which means that it's a documentary theatre piece shaped like a variety show or revue. The documentary aspect is very important and worn on the show's sleeve: the script includes dozens of footnotes, pointing to newspaper articles, interviews, and other primary sources for the various incidents and ideas depicted and quoted in the show. Metropolitan Playhouse has thoughtfully reprinted the citations in the program. This isn't impressionistic quasi-journalism a la The Laramie Project; this is the real thing, meticulously referenced.
Do not think, however, that Power is without bias. Far from it: this is propaganda for FDR and the New Deal, right next door to agitprop, no doubt about it. The big utilities are slick and greedy and without regard for their customers or the laws of the land; consumers are regular working stiffs with families to support and simple and steady values. One of the great messages of Power, though, is that even the ordinary Americans who get shafted by monolithic corporations have power in this democracy of ours, if they'll only use it: the most affecting section of the play comes when the citizens of Tennessee and its environs take some outside-the-box actions against the power companies that are attempting to circumvent and/or sabotage the TVA.
If I've made Power sound like a dry or fevered polemic, let me assure you that it's not. Arent makes all of his points with plenty of wit and plenty of charm. The scenes (21 in all) come quick and never last too long; the tone overall is light and folksy without ever feeling cloying or oversimplified. There's lots of vaudevillian style comedy and even a TVA theme song (lyrics provided in the program).
Director Harborth gives the show the breezy but urgent style that it needs, so it feels of its own time and of ours simultaneously. The set, designed by Harborth, includes a stage floor covered with newspapers that literally grounds the piece in its Living Newspaper roots; there's a single curtain hanging at the rear of the stage (bearing a '30s-workers-style banner painted by Pamela Lawton) that is ingeniously used to keep transitions between scenes fast and seamless. Sidney Fortner's costumes are numerous, appropriate, and invaluable in helping us keep track of who's who—which is important, because the hard-working cast of nine are called upon to portray 60 or 70 different characters during the evening. Let me name them now: Eric C. Bailey, Scott Casper, Sidney Fortner, Alfred Gingold, Jenny Greeman, Michael Hardart, Rafael Jordan, Toya Nash, and Jason Szamreta. Their work here is superb, embodying the various archetypes and historical figures with vigor, flair, and good humor.
Can history, economics, and social progress be fun? Maybe not in real life, but the lessons of the past—too readily unlearned, I fear!—can indeed be conveyed with passion, joy, and ready wit. Power proves this, among other things. Metropolitan Playhouse has again unearthed a real treasure from America's theatrical past, one that has great capacity to entertain audiences even as it reminds us of some important truths about our nation that at least some in power apparently keep forgetting.