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A CurtainUp Review
By† Simon† Saltzman
As students we may not have taken more than a passing glance at the stenographic record of these historic but also emotionally charged debates/confrontations. To remedy this, the distinguished 99-year-old author (ascribed as "poet laureate of radio") Norman Corwin put them in a dramatic context. The Vincent Dowling Theatre Company, in association with The Irish Repertory Company, is presenting the first professional New York revival of The Rivalry since it was first produced on Broadway in 1959 for an unremarkable run of 81 performances.
What is remarkable is how a potentially stultifying play that depends almost completely on pontificating rhetoric or to be more blunt,redundant speechifying, can hold an audienceís interest. By some perverse miracle of theatrical posturing, this one does. This is not to say that The Rivalry as earnestly directed by Vincent Dowling makes an attempt to create more than the most modest concessions to a theatrical experience. In fact, the entire venture would bear little interest but for the salient and formidable orations that propel the play. The red, white and blue flags-enhanced setting designed by Eugene D. Warner consists of two platforms and chairs enough to allow the actors to sit on occasion in a home, a hotel, a railway station or a moving train.
A few digressive, fictionalized scenes between Douglas and his wife Adele and another between Adele and Lincoln, contribute little of interest or insight, but they do break up the formality of the debates. It is fortunate that Christian Kauffmann as Lincoln and Peter Cormican as Douglas are quite believable as well as affable as they banter and bait each other with increasing ferocity.
We have become used to scores of Lincoln portrayers—iWalter Huston, Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey to name a few— so it is nice to report that Mr. Kauffmann conforms to the generally accepted mold, particularly as he uses Lincolnís self-effacing modesty to effect some cunning results. Despite the fact that we are meant to recoil (and we do) from many of Douglasís statements including "If God ever intended the Negro to be the equal of the white man, he has been a long time in demonstrating that fact." Cormican, especially in the light of our most recent presidential race, evokes the image of an easily recognizable and savvy politician.
Adele, Douglasís adoring wife, serves the play as a narrative thread and as a comforting presence to the increasingly agitated Douglas. It is a shame that Adele, as written, is less a character of consequence than an appendage. More purposefully agitating is the intermittent appearances of a Republican Committeeman/Reporter played by Doug Stender. Mercifully the text does not include the speeches in their entirety or in necessarily the order they were given.
The play appeared timely enough in 1959 as an aggressively activated civil rights movement was beginning to stand up to egregious social policies that still existed in some states one hundred years later. Douglas would go on to win the senatorial seat, but lose the presidency to Lincoln in 1860. The current revival speaks out, if indirectly, against those today on the far right who would continue to define human rights/civil rights from the perspective of a continuingly intolerant and misguided popular majority.
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