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Fashions For Men
By Elyse Sommer
There's no bringing back the amenities of early twentieth century life — except of course for a delightful visit to the fashionable Budapest haberdashery of Ferenc Molnar's Fashions for Men courtesy of the Mint Theater. The prolific and very successful Molnar's better known The Guardsman is still staged regularly, and Liliom has had an extensive second life as a musical (Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel).
Fashions For Men was last seen in New York in 1922, too long ago for even many of the Mint's' "of a certain age" regulars. That makes it a natural for New York's favorite theatrical antique treasure hunter to give it a spruced-up but authentic production. That means staging it with 3 acts and 2 intermissions intact to allow for a pair of richly detailed sets without technological bells and whistles like roll on scenery and projections.
With Davis McCallum back on the director's podium, this revival boasts the same authentic and colorful staging and vivid performances as his London Wall . Contributing to the production's visual pleasures are Daniel Zimmerman's well-stocked Budapest shop and Martha Hally's smart costumes and Robert-Charles Vallance's wigs for its customers and personnel.
An bigger pleasure derives from seeing a play with such a generous cast at a time when economy calls for less rather than more. It's especially satisfying to see a dozen actors prove that you don't need thespians with film and tv star credentials to see top-drawer acting.
The play does show it's age, but in a more charming than moldy way. It's a comic parable about Peter Juhasz (Joe Delafield) a devoutly good man. He does what he believes is right even if it's at his own expense; for instance, he's attentive to his most demanding and least profit producing customers and doesn't recriminate his wife Adele (Annie Purcell) for her infidelity with his chief clerk Oscar (John Tufts). In short, Molnar has created a hero who's something of a saint among sinners. Peter Juhasz's shop and the entrepreneurial Count (Kurt Rhoads) in whose cheese manufacuring castle the second act is set add deft strokes of satire to the farcical goings on.
Molnar good-natured satire fits well into the once de rigueur three-act dramatic structure. Act one establishes the main characters' personalities and potential plot complications. Juhasz is forced to wake up to his wife's affair and the resultant end to his proprietorship of the shop.
Act Two sees Juhasz no longer running his shop but clerking in the Count's cheese manufacturing castle outside of Budapest. He now mucks up the Count's business with his "goodness" and is once again blind to chicanery by those he trusts — he now misplaces his trust in Paula (Rachel Napoleon), the pretty bookkeeper who also left the shop to work for the Count. When the blinders come off this time, however, the saintly Juhasz is finally mad as hell.
For the final act, it's back to the Budapest haberdashery for the knots in the story to get untangled. This being a parable, the hero is allowed to stay true to his do-the-right-honorable-thing philosophy. Molnar deftly manages an ending in which both morality and romance triumph.
Half the actors nimbly take on several additional minor roles. And at the risk of playing favorites with a uniformly fine cast, a special hand to Jeremy Lawrence's Phillip. Lawrence epitomizes how potent a wordless appearance can be. The discussion of his willingness to miss the the beginning of his beloved Lohengrin serves to establish him as Juhasz's most loyal employee. It also illuminates Molnar's adeptness at never wasting an opportunity to make even a small incident or conversation serve his larger theatrical purpose.
For the texting crowd that prefers theatrical fare dished up in 90 minute or less portions, Fashions For Men is likely to be too unfashionably long. But as the Mint's years of popularity prove, there are still plenty of nostalgia loving theater goers who will relish the company's latest serving of a long forgotten three-course repast.
As always, the Mint Theater program includes some fascinating background notes about the author.