One-Third of a Nation
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 25, 2011
Only a year ago, Jimmy McMillan and The Rent Is Too Damn High Party made a lot of noise in the New York State gubernatorial election. He didn't win, of course, but he struck a nerve—one that got struck again only today after the New York City Rent Guidelines Board announced a fuel surcharge on top of large rent increases for tenants in so-called rent-stabliized housing.
So a play about the endless and ever-more elusive search for affordable housing, like Arthur Arent's "Living Newspaper" entry from 1938, One-Third of a Nation, would seem to be as timely as can be. Arent's play explores the history of the antagonism between owners, speculators, landlords, bankers, et al on the one side and ordinary folk trying to find a decent place to live at a price they can manage on the other. Focusing on the New York City real estate market, it's constantly of interest to its audience of New Yorkers at Metropolitan Playhouse: it's fascinating to ponder how much the city's geography and landscape have changed over the past 200+ years, and how little the greed and eagerness for profit of the "haves" at the expense of the "have-nots" have not. Fascinating—and depressing. Arent's play suggests a hard fight toward an equitable solution to the problem. But in the 70 years since One-Third of a Nation debuted on Broadway (its title, by the way, comes from a speech made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in which he noted the number of Americans living without adequate housing), the corruption and collusion on the part of business and government interests have hardly abated; seem much worse nowadays, if anything.
Ah well; just because history's repeating itself is no reason not to study it, and that's where Metropolitan's mission—unique among NYC theatres as far as I know—comes in. We need to see plays like this one, from the Great Depression/New Deal era, to learn how we got to the place we are now.
Alex Roe, Metropolitan's artistic director, has staged this mammoth play with acumen. It's serious and kind of relentless as it depicts a century-and-a-half of housing crises and the inevitable consequences (poverty, crime, disease, and so on) that follow. Arent provides a variety of story-telling devices, but One-Third of a Nation never feels as un-weighted-down as his earlier play Power, about the Tennessee Valley Authority; and as a result, it's not as accessible or entertaining an experience.
Roe has cast 11 actors in the play's dozens of roles, and to their credit (and that of costume designer Lena Sands) it is never difficult to figure out who's who at any given moment. Standouts in the company include Sidney Fortner, Howard Thoresen, and Brad Fraizer—the only actor not multiple-cast—as the Little Man, the play's protagonist and our guide into the often complicated meanderings of Arent's thesis. The simple set, designed and built by Roe, serves the work powerfully.
I'm glad to have had a look at One-Third of a Nation, but wish it were dated in the way that would count the most: wouldn't it be wonderful if we could look back on this play 50 years from now and marvel at how different the the real estate market was in the good old bad old days?