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A CurtainUp Review
The Cave Dwellers
Saroyan hasn't aged well. His plays are so obviously of another era that they can find no purchase in modern theaters (except among audiences of a certain age). That's not to say they aren't still popular. His most famous, The Time of Your Life (first drama to win both the Pulitzer and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1939) is still trotted out occasionally, though the 1948 film version and subsequent Broadway revivals were unsuccessful.
One reason Saroyan's plays seem stagnant, especially to young audiences is that he disregarded the conventional idea of conflict as essential to drama. Very little happens and the plays work best, not as dramas but as as paeans to sentimentality. The Cave Dwellers is no exception. It focuses on a group of down-on-their-luck people and their interpersonal relationships. The King and Queen are homeless actors who hole up in a decrepit old theatre on the Lower East Side that's scheduled for demolition. Joining them are the Duke, an ex-prize fighter, and a young girl. These characters form a tentative family of sorts—, until they are joined by a real family, a young man and his wife and newborn son who are traveling with a circus bear. When the wrecking crew boss shows up, the "cave dwellers" are forced to leave their erstwhile home and face the cruel world outside.
Most of the action (though the word is a misnomer) occurs during a long, protracted conversations between the Queen and the girl about love. The girl fancies herself in love with the Duke, though she's really in love with a young mute milkman. Most of the second act is spent watching her deny her feelings, only to find her flying into the arms of the milkman when he appears. No surprise there—why Saroyan found it necessary to devote an act to it is beyond me.
Saroyaan used the rag tag bunch to illustrate his theme that love is a necessity of survival. But while they cope with their brutal living conditions bevcause they have each other, they do nothing to really convey their love. Instead, we get a lot of tali and the only real action involves a daring midnight milk raid by the Duke, to procure the newborn baby a little nourishment.
While the play may be trite and dated, the Pearl's production of it is quite good. The actors give high caliber performances and the costumes and set are well-designed. The breathy, declamatory school of vocalization that permeates the performances actually fits the play. Robert Hock, a Pearl favorite, stands out as the King. Marcus Naylor's Duke was the most active character and his realistic and gritty portrayal of the boxer single-handedly saves the play from being completely maudlin.
It's admirable that the Pearl wants to bring back lost classics, but there are so many others more worthy of revival. This is borne out by their many fine production, the most recent, Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic, being a case in point. But dfon't take my word for it. The Queen in The Cave Dwellers says it herself: "It was a bad play. And yet it is considered a good play. Unbelievable!"
Editor's Note: Jenny's sense that audiences, especially younger ones, tend not to respond to Saroyan nowadays. A couple of season's ago, Barrington Stage mounted a rarely produced musical adaptation of The Human Comedy . It was a spunky production (musically, that is) but audiences were less than enthusiastic about the story . ( review). A revival of The Time of Our Lives, reviewed during CurtainUp's early years, also didn't work all that well (review).
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide