Horatio Alger Festival
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 17, 2012
For the seventh time, Metropolitan Playhouse is presenting a "Living Literature Festival," in which the life and work of one or more artists from American's past serves as the inspiration for new works of independent theater. Previous editions devoted to a single writer focused on four of the 19th century's "biggies"—Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Edgar Allen Poe—writers whose works I (and, I suspect, most audience members) were very familiar with, having studied them in school and/or read them for pleasure as kids or grownups.
This year's subject, however, is a figure much less well-known. Once I started to think carefully about it, I realized that all I really knew about Horatio Alger was that he was the guy who promulgated the mythic idea of the American Dream—pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps, working diligently, and becoming successful—in a series of books that, I had to admit, I barely knew the names of, let alone had ever read. For me, the appeal of the Horatio Alger Festival was not just the chance to see some diverse new plays by indie writers, but to immerse myself in a neglected (at least by me) but nonetheless significant American writer.
There are five plays in the festival, and I've seen three of them. (The two I've missed are Shifting for Himself, or Gilbert Greyson's Fortunes, by Michael Schwartz, which is described as "an adaptation of the typical Horatio Alger story"; and Pluck, by Adam Klasfeld, a study of Alger's life still in developmental stage and being offered as a staged reading in the festival.) All look at Alger's legacy and opine on why it's important, and all look behind the sketchy received wisdom about the man to try to understand who Horatio Alger really was...and why that's important.
Dan Evans's The Return of Ragged Dick, the briefest of the three at just 40 minutes long, is also the most fanciful. It takes place in 1887, after Alger's fame has peaked following a string of novels for boys that too closely mimic the formula of his first (and mega-successful) prototype, Ragged Dick. Evans posits a meeting between Alger and his publisher A.K. Loring in which the latter admits that he's about to go bankrupt and can no longer afford to support Alger's work. Their discussion is interrupted by the surprise appearance of one Richard Hunter, who arrives with some startling revelations and inspires Alger to change direction in his writing. Chris Harcum, as Mr. Hunter, is delightfully over-the-top, with Scott Glascock (Alger) and John Rengstorff (Loring) essentially playing it straight in sturdy support.
David Lally's Horatio's Boys is much more serious but in its way just as speculative. Lally imagines here what might have transpired in a meeting that actually did take place, in 1870, between Horatio and William James. At this time, James's most important works lay far in the future, while Alger's Ragged Dick had just been published. Lally views their talk as a kind of archetypal psychiatric session: Horatio doesn't exactly lie on a couch while William takes notes, but they have essentially the same kind of communication here, as Horatio recounts the events of his life and William listens and occasionally lends wise support.
What we know about Alger is that in 1866 he left a position as a Unitarian minister in disgrace, following allegations that he had unnatural relations with two teenage boys. Alger never denied or spoke about the charges; he just went into a kind of exile in New York City and re-started his life. Lally arrives at a psychological interpretation for these events in his play that we can agree or disagree with; he also makes several connections between Alger's literary output (including many of his poems) and his troubled state of mind, the most interesting of which, for me, is the linkage between self-(re)invention in Alger's own life and in the lives of his younger, energetic protagonists.
The first performance of Horatio's Boys felt a bit under-rehearsed, and so it is hoped that pacing and tone will pick up as the festival continues. The cast includes young actors Trent Carson, Jared Craig, Eli Green, Corbin Allardice, and Josh Gulotta; Green and Gulotta perform several songs of the period in a very pleasant curtain-raiser.
Another Horatio Alger Story, written by Jason Jacobs and directed by Jim Gaylord, was my favorite among the works I sampled. Jacobs juxtaposes three stories here, intelligently and deftly. One is Alger's own, here alluded to only in the shadowy bits of fact and hearsay that exist on the record. A second is the story of Ragged Dick, Alger's magnum opus, here related in playful story-theater fashion that never comments on the sentimentality or hokiness of the book but lets us experience its earnest message with a kind of guileless charm.
Framing both of this tales is Jacobs' main plot, about a man named Philip Johnson who teaches English in a New York City public school. When we meet him, Mr. Johnson is telling one of his students, Alberto, that he's gotten caught cheating, having stolen a term paper about The Scarlet Letter from the internet. Mr. Johnson gives Alberto a chance to redeem himself by reading and writing about Ragged Dick. Both student and teacher find parallels in their own situations in Alger's novel; and Mr. Johnson's ambivalent feelings of dedication and concern for Alberto mirror thoughts that Alger may have had for the boys who inspired him to write. Jacobs weaves themes of homophobia, sexual confusion, bigotry, intolerance, and the real dangers of life on New York City's streets (then and now) to create a complicated, fascinating drama.
Another Horatio Alger Story is excellently realized in a production that's spare but never feels bare-bones. Anchoring the piece is Sean Hayden in a smart and deeply felt performance as Mr. Johnson. He's supported by a fine company, including Logan James Hall (superb as the ingratiating if cliched Ragged Dick), Eric Percival as Alger, Carlos Ibarra (very convincingly a teenager, as Alberto), and Joe Aiello, Jeremy Lawrence, and Matt Wray in a variety of supporting roles.
Jacobs's play made me hungry to find out more about Alger and maybe, after all this time, to actually read one of his books. Whatever fare you choose in the Horatio Alger Festival will, I think, yield some food for thought about an American writer who almost all of us have heard of but very few of us know a lot about. Metropolitan's credo is to discover where we come from to better know who we are; this current Living Literature festival exemplifies their important mission brilliantly.