16 December 2017

'27 Wagons Full of Cotton' & 'A Memory of Two Mondays' (1976)

[When I was at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts for my MFA, I took a class in criticism.  Our writing assignments included several reviews of productions both on campus and in New York City (I’ve published my review of  Fragments of a Trilogy at La MaMa E.T.C from 1976 on  9 April 2011; Broadway’s A Chorus Line on 31 August 2012; The Heiress on 24 November 22012; and Pacific Overtures on 15 May 2014) and I’ve decided to run the remaining review from that class because, nostalgia aside, it has a tiny  surprise embedded in it.  I won’t say what that is now—I’m sure you’ll spot it (and if you don’t, I’ll identify it afterwards). 

[At the time I saw these two one-act plays, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton by Tennessee Williams (1911-83) and A Memory of Two Mondays by Arthur Miller (1915-2005), both playwrights were still alive and writing.  The former repertory company now called the Phoenix Theatre (founded in 1953, one of the first Off-Broadway theater companies) produced peripatetically by the 1970’s and closed in 1982.  The double bill ran in rep with Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted (adapted in 1956 into the musical The Most Happy Fella by Frank Loesser) from 13 January to 21 March 1976.

[27 Wagons, for those who don’t recognize it, was the source for the Williams screenplay for  Elia Kazan’s controversial 1956 film Baby Doll, which starred Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, and Eli Wallach   In 1977, Williams wrote a full-length stage play, Tiger Tail, based on his filmscript]

The double bill at the Phoenix Theatre’s Playhouse on Manhattan’s West 48th Street presented an interesting juxtaposition of two short plays by two of America’s most prominent contemporary playwrights.  The production of Tennessee Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (written in 1948) and Arthur Miller’s A Memory of Two Mondays (1955), both directed by Arvin Brown, provided examples of works by these two authors not generally known for humor or happy endings.

Though very different in mood, subject, and milieu, both plays deal with the fact that life goes on essentially the same in spite of apparent change.  Even personal-world shaking events do not substantially switch the tracks of life’s locomotive.

In Wagons, Williams presents a triangle involving a tobacco-chewing cotton ginner, his pocket book-clutching wife, and the riding crop-wielding Syndicate Plantation superintendent. What transpires is that the old cotton gin owner, Jake Meighan (Roy Poole), sets fire to the syndicate gin so that he will get all their ginning business.  His wife, Flora (Meryl Streep), a young, “zaftig” dim-wit, lets the fact slip that Jake left her alone for a while just before the fire broke out.  The syndicate superintendent, Silva Vicarro (Tony Musante), pushes Flora on the subject, confusing her beyond her limited capacities, and finally seduces her, with judicious use of his riding crop.  He decides not to rebuild the syndicate gin and let Jake do all his ginning while Flora entertains him with cool lemonade and a roll in the hay.

Needless to say, Jake is entirely oblivious to Flora’s agitated state after her first encounter with Silva and is delighted with his having ginned all the syndicate’s 27 wagons full of cotton and the prospect of more syndicate business.  All in all, though Flora feels her life has taken an exciting turn, life on the Meighan homestead will go on essentially unchanged.  We are given the impression that sex was not a part of the Meighan marriage.  She refers to the wild Peterson brothers with whom she went out before her marriage, but it seems unlikely that she and Jake had a sex life before or after their marriage.  His only passion is the cotton gin, and that will remain unchanged.  Before she met Silva, Flora was concerned only with her white kid purse and warm Coke.  She still clutches the purse as the play ends, her new-found lover notwithstanding.  And like the purse, stuffed with Kleenex, her life remains essentially empty since a transfer from Jake’s tobacco-spitting insensitivity to Silva’s whip-slapping sadism is not much in the end.

The production lacked smoothness in many respects.  Ms. Streep's expressively rubber face made for some hilarious moments when confronted with Musante’s legalistic cross-questioning and his riding-crop seduction.  Her use of her body, giving the impression of ungainly gracelessness, a kind of grown-up Edith Ann, was often farcical in a play that was not truly a farce.  [Edith Ann, a character created by Lily Tomlin for the TV comedy-variety show  Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In from 1969 until 1973, was a precocious pre-school girl who held forth on life as she saw it or on things for which she thought she had the answers even though she was too young to understand them.]  Musante’s nonchalant seduction techniques, casually inserting his riding crop up Ms. Streep’s dress, were the more brutal for their nonchalance.  But he never quite captured the accent—either of Silva’s native New Orleans or the Mississippi locale of the play—and this was most disconcerting.  And Mr. Poole’s Jake was a mediocre impression of Walter Brennan as Gramps McCoy without a limp.  [Gramps McCoy was a character on The Real McCoys, a popular sitcom broadcast from 1957 through 1962 on ABC and from 1962 to 1963 on CBS.]  When called upon to toss his hat on the ground in anger, it was a sloppy, empty gesture.  When he slapped his wife, trying to shield with his body that in reality he slapped his own hand, he was incapable of doing so successfully, all of which added up to an amateurish appearance.

The set, by James Tilton who also designed the lighting, was creditably seedy and run-down.  The rusted screens and faded paint appropriately reflected the faded life of the inhabitants of that corner of Mississippi.  But when Jake ran around the house to the “Chevy” presumably parked out back, he ducked behind the set, destroying the illusion that there was anything back there but black curtains.

Director Brown played up the joke of the silly old man cuckolded by his young wife, but since it became obvious right away that Silva will bed Flora sooner or later, the predictability of the situation ruins the joke. And since we know that Jake will never know the difference anyway, it’s not much of a joke at all in the end.  Finally, one doesn’t much care that anything happened.

The second half of the bill, Miller’s Mondays, was fuller and richer.  The changeless nature of life is more palpable in this story of a boy’s passing through a stage and moving beyond it.  We watch Bert, a young employee of an auto parts company played by Thomas Hulce, fulfill his dream of leaving the routine life of stockboy and going off to college in the 1930’s.  He stops long enough at one point to wonder why he got out, but the answer is obvious: he is the only one who could succeed on his own.  He alone does not belong locked away behind grimy windows.

On the first Monday, a hot summer day, we are introduced to the office personnel, each a sort of stock character without which any business would be incomplete.  There is the senior employee, Jim (Leonard Cimino), a 76-year-old kind soul, nearly blind with age and slowed down to a shuffle; the dirty old man, Gus (Roy Poole), with a neglected wife at home and a mad-on at the bosses; an office drunk, Tom (Rex Robbins), in a perpetual stupor and in danger of being fired; a raucous Irishman, Kenneth (John Lithgow), always ready with a song or a poem (Irish, of course); the bright young man, Larry (Tony Musante), who knows where everything is and how everything works; an officious office manager, Raymond (Pierre Epstein), overzealous and businesslike; a delivery man, Frank (Joe Grifasi), with a woman at every destination; the boss, Mr. Eagle (Ben Kapen), silent and intimidating; the attractive young secretary, Patricia (Meryl Streep), avoiding the office lechers while trying to catch a husband (even somebody else’s), and the old-maid receptionist, Agnes (Alice Drurnmond), who has become “one of the guys.”  Each of the men is an example of what Bert could become if he settled into the routine, and each is interchangeable with the others.

At the end of the summer Monday, Gus’s wife has died alone at home, Tom has been caught drunk by Mr. Eagle for what everyone expects is the last time, and Larry has bought a much-coveted Auburn and has extended himself beyond his means.  When the second Monday arrives, now winter and the day before Bert is to leave, Tom has become a reformed drunk, Gus is an alcoholic, and Larry has sold his Auburn.  Kenneth has taken to drink and can no longer remember his poetry, Patricia has given up on taking Larry away from his wife, and a brothel has opened across the street from the office.  On the day Bert leaves, Gus has died and the brothel has become something of little note to the workers.  Bert’s departure causes little or no stir.  He is, as he says, just another boy who worked there for a while and left.  He leaves the office essentially as it was.  Kenneth is the office drunk now, hut the rest remain as they were on the Monday in summer.  The windows are still dirty and the world is shut out.

Brown’s production moved quickly from the opening exposition and character introduction to the first crisis (Tom’s drunkenness).  From that point, the play was well-paced and flowing until the muddy interim period between the two Mondays of the title.  The transition was unclear, though one eventually realized when Bert and Kenneth donned sweaters that cold weather had set in and the second Monday must be dawning.  It was also not clear that the end of the play changes to the next day, a Tuesday, when Bert is to leave for college.  Some clearer form of transition was necessary to aid the audience in following the events of the play.  This confusion may be a fault of the script, but a good director should be expected to make it work.

Again, Tilton’s set worked well.  There was a definite air of a 1930’s office in the stock room.  The dusty windows blocking out the world and the dull walls and endless columns of parts’ shelves were symbolic of the dull routine and the endless parade of days, weeks and years in the office.

Unlike Wagons, Mondays included some marvelous character portrayals.  Roy Poole’s Gus was gruff, angry, and bathetic. We truly understood why he fell apart when his neglected wife died alone while he had been out on a weekend binge.  Leonard Cimino as Jim was not the stereotypical shuffling nearsighted oldster.  Wise, concerned, and aware, his shuffling gait and nose-close reading only made him the more real.  Clarence Felder, the truck mechanic who wandered around Manhattan for four days looking for a replacement part, was a shining ray in the grim world of the stock room.  And Joe Grifasi’s Frank, the pocket-jiggling delivery-van Don Juan was so incongruous in his appearance that one had to believe him—no one who looks like Frank would think of lying about his amorous stockpile.  Between the women, Alice Drummond stood out. As a middle-aged spinster who has been around so long she is now such a fixture in the office that the men take no notice of her as they ogle the whores across the street; she truly belonged in that office.

In toto, the overall experience was an enjoyable, entertaining one.  The Williams-Miller-Brown team is one well worth catching at the Phoenix.

[Did you catch the surprise?  Several members of the cast have names that are now familiar—Tom Hulce went on to feature in Animal House (1978) with John Belushi and then play Mozart in Amadeus (1984), for which he received an Oscar nomination, Tony Musante had played the title role in the 1973-74 TV series Toma, and John Lithgow was a Tony winner for 1973’s The Changing Room and would be nominated again in 1988 for M. Butterfly and would win another Tony in 2002 for The Sweet Smell of Success.  But of all the actors in the two one-acts, none made the name that Meryl Streep would.  Fresh from the Yale School of Drama (MFA, 1975), Streep’s performance in the double bill (for which she won a Theatre World Award and a Tony nomination) was only her second Broadway appearance (after 1975’s Trelawny of the “Wells”).

[When I saw this two-play rep, I hadn’t noticed at first that Streep was in both plays.  After seeing her as Flora in 27 Wagons, I didn’t recognize her as Patricia in Memory.  When I looked at the program after the show and saw that she had played both parts, I couldn’t believe it.  It had to have been two different actresses—they weren’t even the same size!  I remarked to my Rutgers classmates who were at the performance with me that this was an astounding performance and that the actress—whom none of us had heard of yet—was bound for greatness in the theater (movies weren’t in our thoughts at this point)—but, I insisted, she’d certainly have to change her name!  How wrong could I have been?  She did a few more years of Broadway and Off-Broadway plays, but from the mid-’70s on, she headed for film stardom and, I assume, never really looked back.  (Streep returned to OB in the 21st century for a few select appearances.)  Today, Meryl Streep is the most-nominated actress for an Oscar and one of only six actors who have won three or more Academy Awards for acting.  She’s also the recipient of more Golden Globe nominations (31) and more wins (8) than any other actor.]

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