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A CurtainUp Berkshires ReviewReview
By Elyse Sommer
To start at the end. The cumulative impact of the Williamstown Theatre's production of Street Scene hits you squarely between the eyes during the curtain call. The sixty actors who are part of Elmer Rice's poignant group portrait of life on the mean streets of New York circa 1928 are lined up in three rows like students posing for the annual class picture: The top row on the second floor of Allen Moyer's cleverly conceived expressionistic brownstone tenement apartment house; the middle row on the first floor; and yet another row on the area reserved for the hustle and bustle of the street outside. The size of that authentically costumed cast is a mind-boggling delight in this age when small is, if not better, the only way for a play to deal with the economic realities of today's theater. Only a large non-profit organization with a pool of non-equity actors can mount this sort of elaborate show for just a couple of weeks.
Rare as a production of this scale is these days, Elmer Rice ran into plenty of stumbling blocks in 1928. The young lawyer-playwright had established enough of a reputation with On Trial, in which he pioneered the flashback technique, and The Adding Machine to drop the first part of that hyphen tag to devote himself to writing. Yet, even then the cast seemed too unwieldy and the set too cumbersome and Street Scene was turned down by practically every New York producer. Eventually the play did open with much success. Its 601 performances and the critical raves led to the 1929 Pulitzer Prize (Rice, an socialist with something of a love-hate relationship with the theater, accepted the prize with the startling declaration: "I do not like playgoing."), a 1931 film adaptation and a 1947 musical (composed by Kurt Weil and with lyrics by Langston Hughes). While highly regarded Street Scene has remained problem play for small theaters.
Like most of Rice's plays Street Scene features a crime. However, this explosive plot element is fairly predictable and the play derives its enduring strength not from its melodramatic plot but the diverse characters and the major and minor events (the birth of a baby, the touching devotion of a daughter for a frail mother) that swirl all around it. What separates Street Scene from the many ersatz slice-of-life dramas it seeded is its portrait gallery of lives raw, unlovely and all too often, unloving. The key characters are not just types representing various viewpoints but real people, their natural speech unerringly captured.
The setting for the various vignettes -- a tenement brownstone occupied by a populace from all corners of Europe and the shabby thoroughfare in front of it -- is as much a character as the people who move up and down the stairs, in and out of apartments, past the front stoop and from the street to other parts of the teeming city.
The original set was modeled after a real house at 25 West 65th Street, in the shadow of the long-gone Sixth Avenue El (currently a far cry from the bad neighborhood that the two nursemaids wheeling perambulators past the scene of the previous night's lurid crime realize is not one where their employer would want to have their young charges taken).
The catwalk that takes the place of a realistic building is something of a Michael Greif trademark. It most effectively opens up the house to create the sense of windows thrown wide open to let any breath of fresh air into the steamingly hot apartments. Thus the interior apartments and stairways and the fire escapes and stoop become all of a piece and often allow us to observe overlapping scenes. For example, the aftermath of the violent act that brings life in one of the apartments is seen in tandem with an equally violent upheaval -- the eviction of an impoverished tenant.
The tenants include a sort of multi-ethnic chorus of bigoted commentators on the romance between Irish Rose Maurrant (Mary Catherine Garrison) and Jewish Sam Kaplan (Thomas Sadoski) and the darker situation involving her mother Anna (Jodie Markell) and Steve Sankey (Christopher Evan Welch), the collector for the local milk company. At one side of the ground floor there's the Kaplan apartment, its patriarch Abraham (Joel Rooks), the intellectual, non-observant Jewish socialist and his schoolteacher daughter Shirley (Ilene Getz), the family breadwinner. On the other side Filippo Fiorentino (Rocco Sisto) gives music lessons while his sturdy but infertile wife Greta (Kristine Nielsen) gossips with Emma Jones (Brenda Wehle).
These and other tenants are all nicely rendered. Rocco Sisto makes a strong contribution as the musician who still dreams of the beauties of his native country. Brenda Wehle stands out as the chief gossip, with not even a bushy-tailed mongrel requiring periodic walks able to steal her thunder. As the prime object of her sharp-eyed, acid-tongued observations, Jodie Markell is wonderfully understated as the hungry for life Anna Maurrant. Mary Catherine Garrison, as her daughter Rose doesn't at first appear to have the presence to credibly portray the play's strongest character. But it is the ingenue looks and high-pitched voice that make the steely determination not to repeat the pattern of her parents and neighbors especially poignant. Rose may not have any driving career ambitions but she has the strength and optimism to belong to herself before venturing into a relationship for which neither she or Sam are ready.
The most complex performance is that of David Keith as Frank Maurrant, the hard-working, controlling father who, along with Emma Jones' husband George (Julian Gamble), lashes out against everything outside his own experience. His family values stance is the plot's smoking gun.
As Mr. Greif has elicited big and small performance gems from the cast, so the staging is enriched by the Rui Rita's wizard-like lighting (especially during the play's dramatic high point and Kurt B. Kellenberger 's jazzy incidental music. Ilona Somogyi's costumes besides being true to the period are gorgeously color blended.
Readers who saw Awake and Sing (at Berkshire Theatre Festival), Street Scene presents another opportunity to see a play from the era of great dramas that turned ordinary men and women into tragic figures, often with an aura of nobility. Of the many lavishly staged, large cast revivals regularly produced at WTF, Street Scene comes closest to the 1997 production of Dead End -- another Pulitzer Prize winner, set in approximately the same era. While that production did have a second life at director Nicholas Martin's Huntington Theatre, don't bank on seeing this Street Scene again but put it on your must-see list.
For those who aren't lucky enough to be in the Berkshires during the play's brief run, there is always the 1931 film (with Sylvia Sidney) which is available in all VCR formats via our Amazon bookstore: Street Scene- NTSC format. . . Street Scene- VHS forma. . . Street Scene- DVD format