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Permanent Visitor: A Festival Celebrating Dawn Powell in NY
By Elyse Sommer
Jig Saw | An Artist's Life | Women at Four O'Clock | As We Were Saying (Or Were We?) | Reading Dawn Powell
Kira Obolensky had lots to choose from to put together an evening of one-acters based on Dawn Powells' shorter works. Powell wrote over a hundred short stories for the then flourishing market for magazine fiction. Like her novels, these stories were set either in New York or the Ohio of her youth. Ms. Obolensky has zeroed in on three stories linked by main characters who are would be theatrical luminaries. Two are set in New York, one is about an actress returning to a Ohio hometown much like Shelby where Powell grew up.
Director Will Pomerantz has set the stage with an amusing prologue that introduces the key prop for each play - an old Underwood typewriter, for the title play, two chairs for the middle piece and the mink coat that gives the last and longest story its name. This light somewhat farcical sensibility pervades the whole hour and fifty minutes.
Short stories are not easy to adapt. Ms. Obolensky has not been harnessed to the restraints that forced Karen Coonrod to stage Flannery O'Connor's short stories at New York Theatre Workshop like a reading, without eliminating so much as a single "he said" or s"he said.." ( Everything That Rises Must Converge ). Thus all three of the stories presented here are real plays. Without the third person voices of the original writing, the results are somewhat stylized.
The Artist's Life, about a Chester (Brett Andrews) who, to the amazement of two other employees of the Elk Printing Company where he worked as an office boy, realizes his ambitions to be a successful writer. To Ethel (Martha Obolensky) and his nemesis, Miss Hunter (Eve Michelson), Chester is the least likely candidate for fame and fortune. He seems more silly than smart, more incompetent than artistic. As a result of exaggerating Chester's buffoonish qualities (for example, the little VanDyke he grows in the story is here a big, jokey false beard) Ms. Powell's story plays out as a farce. It's fun but the sharpness of the author's wit loses much of its edge.
Audition has two wonderful Broadway types who have hitched their wagon to a Max Bialystock type of producer. That producer, like Godot, never shows but Eddie (J. Christopher O'Connor) and Syd (John Dagget) do have a visitor, a mink-clad would-be actress (Eve Michelson). Basically an extended joke, this short play is the jewel of the trio, mostly because it sticks closest to the original story and because of the Runyonesque quality brought to the roles by O'Connor and Dagget.
The post intermission play about a struggling actress on a rare return visit to her working class family in a small Ohio town, has been expanded to merge the character of Edna (Annie McAdams) , the actress with the less than glittering stage career to her creator. Like Madge, Powell periodically returned to her hometown in Ohio. Thus, like Powell, Obolensky, has Edna return to New York confirming her love affair with the big city even though she will always live there as a "Permanent Visitor." Annie McAdams is an aptly attractive and wistful Edna. Eve Michaelson returns, this time as the not too bright sister torn between envy and admiration, and Leslie Borgenhoff as Edna's mother are also good. The details added to the character of Tubby (J. Christopher O'Connor from the previous playlet), Madge's long ago admirer detract from the pace of the play and the authenticity of the page-to-stage translation.
All three stories are part of a fine anthology, Sunday, Monday and Always, and the additions to the Edna character in You Should Have Brought Your Mink are taken from Powell's Diary. Both these books are available in paperbackck from Steerforth Press (see link below).
Like An Artist's Life, the upstairs space of the 78th Street Lab utilizes the small stage and a modest production budget to good advantage. The elegant Manhattan hotel penthouse where this '30s comedy of manners unfolds creates its aura of elegance and spaciousness by means of rotating painted panels -- the first act, looking out from gay divorcee Claire Burell's living room to a terrace facing Central Park, the second looking into the apartment from the terrace.
Jig Saw was Dawn Powell's most successful playwriting venture. It opened in Washington, D.C. in 1934 and moved on to, Broadway featuring the popular Fay Byington as Claire and Ernest Truex as Nathan Gifford , who is Claire's latest conquest and the man her young daughter Julie is determined to marry and transform into loving husband and useful citizen. Typical of the theater of the 1930s this mother and daughter contest calls for a generously sized cast, and this production only doubles up on one minor role.
Unfortunately, Jig Saw does not represent Powell at her best. It was her deliberate stab at success after the frustration that accompanied her first (and better) play, Big Night. As she put it in a January 10, 1934 entry in her diary: "This year I want to do my Lucky Spoon comedy right away." After finishing this "Restoration Rogue play " her aim was to return to her true love and what was indeed her best work, the novel.
While Jig Saw's basic intent was not without social merit -- to lay bare the foibles of many idle, rich women like Claire (Gabriele Schafer) and her friend Letty (Ivanna Cullinan) -- these characters and the predictable plot have not aged well, which is also true of many other comedies of the period, including some by Noel Coward. Jig Saw's main interest is as an artifact of a genre more than as the sort of treasure that has won Powell so many fans long after her death. This would be true even if the actors assembled for this production had the kind of glamour and renown typical of revivals that the better funded Roundabout puts on. A cast of unknowns isn't necessarily a drawback since it always holds out the enticing possibility of discovering a new talent.
Gabriele Schafer and Ivanna Cullinan are attractive and able as Claire and Letty, but the rest of the ensemble is totally underwhelming. Robert Serrell lacks any of the debonair charm the role of Nathan demands and Jan-Peter Pedross overacts shamelessly as a preening writer and terrace neighbor.
Director Donna Linderman has done her utmost to steer these actors through the comedy and Wanda Ramundi-Ortiz has dressed everyone in eye-catching, true-to-the-period costumes. But, with a lackluster cast, it's hard to turn Powell's delicate little comedy into a sparkler, a fact borne out by the very sporadic chuckles from the full house at the matinee I attended.
Powell's title is actually a pungent metaphor for all these people wasting their lives on activities that add up to nothing -- it is made concrete in the play by a puzzle of George Washington crossing the Delaware which Claire has been working on this puzzle for weeks. When Frank disdainfully dismisses it ("You'd think it was a priceless bit of tapestry she was doing. But a puzzle. A thousand pieces of nothing put together to make nothing") you have Powell at her satiric best.
If, like the friend I invited to see Jig Saw with me, you never heard of Dawn Powell before, the short stories reviewed above would be a better introduction to her work. Best of all, would be going from stage to page and reading of some of her novels, like Turn, Magic Wheel and her Diaries.
The Sightlines Theater Company producing the 78th Street Lab segments of the Dawn Powell Festival certainly can't be accused of not trying every variation possible to honor Ms. Powell. An Artist's Life and Other Cautionary Tales About the Theatre, was a brave attempt to capture the flavor of her short stories but it was not entirely successful. The revival of Jig Saw, Powell's only play to ever have a measure of success lacked sophisticated actors to make it seem anything but dated.
With As We Were Saying (Or Were We?) Laura Strausfeld has chosen yet another way of bringing Powell to life, an original play about the author at sixty, eight years before her death and with over fifteen well-received but never wildly successful novels under her belt. Stausfield has devised a promising format, an interview which rings in enough quotable bon mots to induce writers' cramp interspersed with scenes from one of her novels, The Happy Island. The interview is a sort of composite Dawn Meets the Press (with the script crafted from rearranged snippets from various sources, which accounts for the parenthetical subtitle). Peter Drake, the young reporter, who also has ambitions for writing novels, is a sort of all-in-one version of the men who figured in her life.
With all those witticisms poured out as freely as the liquor Powell and Drake consume in the course of the hour-long intermissionless play (the program lists it at 75 minutes but the evening I attended the actors took their bows at the end of an hour) there are a fair amount of chuckles over her one-line answers to Drake's questions. Why did she become a writer? -- "noone to talk to". How did she spend her first two decades in Manhattan? -- "Unconscious" in the 20s, unneccessary in the '30s "because they already had a Depression " Isn't the bar where she and Drake have the first drinking dates near her apartment? Close enough so that "when I look out the window I can see my checks bouncing." (and close enough for that interview-date to wind up in her bedroom).
Patrica A. Chilson looks quite a bit like Powell and brings a good deal of warmth to even though she's the only non-equity actor in the four-member cast, The trouble with all this caustic wit is that it all sounds quoted and as directed by Eileen Phelan, the back and forth shifts from Powell and Drake to The Happy Island's fictional angry young novelist Jefferson Abbott are often awkward. And while Patricia A. Chilson, the only non Equity member of the cast, looks quite a bit like pictures of Powell and plays her with good-humored warmth, her Equity colleagues, especially Laura Flanagan and Chris Hutchison as the characters stepping out of the pages of the novel, don't fare as well.
As I did for the previously seen and reviewed events in this festival, I brought along a companion unfamiliar with Dawn Powell. My guest, at this event, as those at the others, did not become an on the spot Powell enthusiast. I'm going to send each a copy of one of her books since, for all of the good intentions that led to this celebration, the best way to know and appreciate Dawn Powell is to read Dawn Powell.
This is a world premiere of a previously unproduced play by Powell about a young woman whose attempts to change her dreary life lead to despair in the boozy, jazzy, fast-paced demi-monde of Roaring 20s New York. An expressionistic work even now, this would certainly have been considered experimental in its day.
Powell adapted the play from a novella when she was just thirty and relatively unpublished. While it was never produced, until now, it is interesting to fans of her work in that it establishes her major theme and image: New York and its kaleidoscopic population and jazzy din. It's part of the Four Plays anthology which also includes Jig Saw so, since time won't permit my going to see the 78th St. Lab production, this brief comment based on my recent reading:
It is a fascinating play to read, with the sort of detailed stage directions rarely found in today's scripts, to establish its stylistic ambition. There's a scene in which a bus takes a group of women on their rounds to the city's department stores. Reading it evokes strong images and I could almost picture the play breaking out of its dramatic confines into a musical. The final scene, in which a secretary whose disdain for men and the liquor splashed party scene is a cover up for her yen for the party boy next door, calls for a bravura performance to show her yearning to be in the romantic interchange to which the paper thin walls make her privvy. I hope the large ensemble in Eric Nightingale's production meets this challenge.
I became something of a Dawnian some years ago when I read a re-issue of her pungent novel, Turn, Magic Wheel and a number of the more than one hundred short stories she published. Since I spent many years in the book publishing world I was particularly taken with the novel's satiric take on that world.
When I saw the announcements about the Permanent Visitor Festival, I went back to that novel as well as some of Powell's other books, including her diaries and the anthology entitled Four Plays which includes Jig Saw and Women at Four. Powell's diaries, beautifully organized by Powell's biographer Tim Page, are a fascinating record of a writer persevering in the face of constant personal and financial crises. While the talk about her neglect until Gore Vidal rescued her from the dustbin of forgotten literati may seem a bit disingenuous when you consider that most of her work was published, and that one of her plays, Jig Saw, had a modest success, the diaries make clear that there's an ocean that separates being published or produced and being successfully published and produced. Dorothy Parker, to whom Powell has been much compared, produced a smaller body of work, but it never went out of print. Clare Boothe Luce's The Women, has had many productions, including a recent Broadway revival, but Powell never became as widely known and never earned enough money to be free from worrying about the lack of it.
While The Diaries of Dawn Powell may seem somewhat specialized for the general reader, the biographical references and the plentitude of observations that are pure gems expand their appeal beyond literary scholars and Powell aficionados. The entries are at of her time but also relevant to ours - for example, with Tony Kushner 's new play Homebody/Kabul being made much over for its art-anticipating-life aspects, Powell's comment on the writer as prophet seemed to jump out of the page: "Accidental prophecy seems part of the writer's job. After Turn, Magic Wheel Ernest Hemingway's married life began turning out that way " (that way referring to her Hemingway-like character Andrew Callingham). Phrases you want to jot down pop out in her fiction as well as the diaries which is exactly why Powell is not only worth reading but re-reading. Her comments on the theater and her contemporaries and practitioners are particularly astute, as the few examples below illustrate:
" Went to Private Lives by Noël Coward. A delightful example of how drawing-room comedy should be written and played, but I dread to see its followers. The mad lightness must be part of the playwright's own character instead of observations. Philip Barry has listened to people who talk like that but missed the well from which such gay lightness springs. I think Coward is really the most important playwright of the light comic school - a perfectly dazzling thoroughbred madman."
" It takes a theatrical eye to read plays and see them as something more than the printed page."
"A marvelous play [The Cherry Orchard] due - as in Most Chekhov - to his making a character live with a few lines."
While Powell admired the theater and found plays easier to write than novels, it was the novel that was as she put it "my normal breath. . . my lawful married mate."
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