Vanity Fair, April 1920
The New Plays—Along Broadway
Grace George, Otis Skinner, and Jack Hazzard Lent a Little Sunshine to a Month of Snow
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
IF there is one thing I should hate to be, it is a theatrical manager. Not merely because I have seen some of them, though this weighs heavily with me, but because it is one of the conditions of their life that, in the words of the poet, they don’t know where they are.
They are forever in the position of the man at the roulette table who sees a number come up twice running and has to decide whether or not the thing has become a habit.
In other words, will the Old Stuff go?
In the present season, a season in which there appeared to be a sort of gentleman’s agreement between public and managers that the former would flock to see anything that began at eight thirty and ended at eleven, we have seen bedroom farces die the death, Chinese musical comedies flop to the resin in the first round, and mystery plays register only a semi-success. And now a religious drama, usually the safest card in the deck, enjoys a two weeks’ run at the Lyric and then moves to the Manhattan Opera House, in order, the advertisements tell us, to get the benefit of its larger seating capacity. But what is the use of an enlarged seating capacity? It only makes the audience so lonely that you have to send out the stage-manager to sit with him.
Personally, I think that The Light of The World was hurt by that special first night, for clergymen only. I am convinced that these mysterious tiled openings are a mistake, and when my play Sadie, the Drug-Store Girl is produced, I shall have it in my contract that the audience at the première shall not consist exclusively of soda-water clerks.
This sort of thing makes the public expect too much. And, though atmosphere counts, what really matters is the novelty of the story. Take away the Passion Play setting, and The Light of The World was nothing but the old-fashioned melodrama where the wronged woman enters with the little bundle and the hero allows the buck to be passed to him. It was well staged and competently acted, but it was old stuff, and the old stuff did not go.
“You may fake; you may cook up the play if you will,
But the scent of the hokum will hang round it still.”
Otis Skinner’s Pietro
THE same remarks apply to Otis Skinner’s new vehicle, Pietro, at the Criterion. At present the unenlarged seating capacity of that theatre seems to be adequate, but, if I were a betting man, I would be prepared to wager the price of a new egg that Pietro will be what is known as a “good road-show.”
No one would deny that Otis Skinner gives a spirited rendering of the Italian who murdered his wife so sketchily that she turned up in the next act but one—(To-day’s Great Thought: Always get rid of the body)—but whether the material rendered is what Broadway wants is doubtful.
You know the story?
Chap acquitted of murder in that nasty grudging way that means “Well, pop off, but all the same we believe you did it.” His daughter falls in love with second chap. Second chap’s father is the chap who nearly got the jury to grease the toboggan for first chap. Powerful situations, and all that sort of thing, and a lot of emotion. Old stuff again,—helped along by Mr. Skinner’s powerful personality and finished technique, but nevertheless old stuff.
Fresh and stimulating as the breezes that rustle your programme at the Playhouse, as you sit with your collar turned up and your great-coat over your knees, came as an antidote to these old-timers Frances Nordstrom’s delightful little comedy, The Ruined Lady, the best play Grace George has had since A Woman’s Way. I say the best play Grace George . . . oh, you heard me the first time? I merely repeated myself in order to be emphatic, for I realise that I am differing from at least half the critics of the daily papers, and that is a solemn thought. To the critics of the daily papers The Ruined Lady seemed thin. They gave the impression that the play was nothing and Miss George everything. True, nobody in the world could have got as much out of it as she did, but the stuff was there.
The central idea of a man in love with a woman, but so used to her that he has come to take her for granted, with the result that she decides to make him compromise her in order that he may wake up and see her with different eyes, is excellent: and the dialogue, with the exception of five speeches in the middle of act two, where Miss Nordstrom absent-mindedly starts to write for the two-a-day, is so good that one might almost call it brilliant. I will call it brilliant. Brilliant. “I rather like divorce. It keeps people circulating” is good, but “Why not change your butcher?” is better. If you want to know why this line, which I admit, doesn’t look much, isolated in print, is so humorous, you must go to the Playhouse and listen to the scene at the end of which it comes. You will never regret it. Grace George is wonderful, and the play, I almost forgot to say, is the best she has had since A Woman’s Way.
The Power of Darkness
I ONCE heard a definition of Greek Tragedy as the sort of drama where one character comes to another and says “If you don’t kill mother, I will!” The description fits most Russian peasant plays admirably, and fittingly introduces the Theatre Guild’s new production of Tolstoi’s Power of Darkness down at the Garrick. If you want to read a real boost of the little opus, how is this, from Kenneth MacGowan’s critique in the Globe?—“Its horror walks by night and fills a theatre with the dread of sin. The bitterest and most horrible picture of debased human nature ever drawn for the stage.” How about toddling round and doing a bit of sin-dreading next Monday? You’d rather go to The Night Boat? Right ho. So would I.
The Night Boat is a Dillingham show, possessing all the qualities which that label implies,—expensive productions, still more expensive cast, a bright book, tuneful music and cleverly introduced specialties. Performing dogs come on to fill out an encore, and probably the stage-manager had a troupe of trained seals on a leash in the wings to send on if the dogs didn’t go. But the dogs went big, as did the whole performance.
What answer Mr. Dillingham would give to Kipling’s Devil’s query “It’s pretty, but is it Art?” I do not know: but it is certainly entertainment. The second act is a model of what the lower-browed type of musical comedy should be. I use the term “lower-browed” in no derogatory sense, but to indicate the sort of musical piece where you don’t give a whoop about the story but welcome the appearance of a coon band playing tunes on jugs or the sudden entry of the chorus in kilts.
The Night-Boat Plot
THE piece is founded on Alexandre Bisson’s Contrôleur des Wagons Lits, neatly adapted by Anne Caldwell and played with wonderful verve, vim and abandon by a million-dollar cast. Jack Hazzard is at his best as the hero. Ernest Torrence is excellent. On Hansford Wilson I have touched elsewhere in these pages. Ada Lewis is an explosion. The best thing she has ever done. The music is genuine Kern, with the Left-All-Alone-Again Blues as the star number of a first-class score. But for being at the Liberty, The Night Boat would be another of Dillingham’s regular Globe successes.
A new idea, or rather the exploitation of a recognized social problem which has been neglected by playwrights, makes the success of the admirably acted Mamma’s Affair (what a rotten title!) at the Little Theatre, the seating capacity of which had been enlarged in advance. If I remember rightly, the central idea of one of A. Neil Lyons’ best sketches has much the same theme, that of a mother who selfishly preys on the youth of her daughter. In Rachel Barton Butler’s play, which comes to Broadway stamped with the seal of the approval of Professor Baker of Harvard, who also endorsed Common Clay, the mother is a hypochondriac and the daughter has to nurse her day and night till her nerves give way in a burst of hysteria, excellently carried out by Ida St. Leon, one of the season’s best finds. I don’t know if the seven people who play the comedy constitute a “typical Morosco cast,” but they certainly deserve to be called something. Four of them have been stars in their own right. Miss Effie Shannon as the invalid mother cannot often have done better work.
There has recently been a burst of “What would you do in his or her place?” advertising in connection with certain motion-pictures. The management of Big Game, at the Fulton, should have offered a prize for a similar competition. The play had an ingenious theme. A weak and civilized young man, well played by Allan Dinehart, marries a girl of the Canadian woods and goes to live there with her. The disadvantage, however, of setting up house-keeping in those parts is that any husky individual who thinks he can get away with it feels perfectly entitled to conclude the formal call of welcome on the new arrival by picking up his wife and walking off with her. He leaves everything else, but he takes the wife.
Well what should A. do? Shoot him, you say. But then the villain, as played by George Gaul, was an awfully good chap, quite a bonhomous lad, in fact, just the sort of man to liven up the long snowy evenings. His only fault was this tendency to hobnob for awhile and then trickle off with his hostess. Would you shoot a man of that sort? Well, the hero did, and seemed to think it a happy ending, but it must have been a bit dull during the rest of the winter, without John St. John around.
The fact that the public is flocking to The Acquittal at the Cohan and Harris seems to suggest that they do not object to, or have not noticed, the serious flaw in that piece, viz. that it is over—not even as late as the end of the second act but somewhere about the middle. The reporter-detective has got the villain into such a corner by that time that what comes after is sheer bullying and one’s sympathies veer round in favour of the poor devil who is being persecuted.
You feel like the spectators at a one-sided boxing contest who clamor to the referee to stop the fight. After the middle of the second act there is absolutely no development of the story, and the third act is simply a waste of time.
There should have been one of those trick finishes, and the evening was spoiled for me by the fact that I was waiting for one the whole time. I dimly remembered reading a review where it said that the murderer had killed his man in order to save the honor of the latter’s stenographer, and all through act three I was expecting the villain to take the center of the stage and round on his persecutors with a “You don’t know the half of it, dearie!”
Later on, I remembered that the review I had read was of The Crimson Alibi. That is the worst of crowding a season with a lot of mystery plays.