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A CurtainUp Review
Susan and God

Aren't we foolish and lazy that we don't make goodness rule the world instead of evil! --- Rachel Crothers, in a Nov. 7, 1937 New York Times piece explaining how the idea for Susan and God came about through a visit from a lady much like the play's title character, whose enthusiasm for a new goodness and truthfulness based religion struck her as a pertinent way to examine a society whose private battles would soon be overwhelmed by war.

Leslie Hendrix as Susan
Leslie Hendrix as Susan
(Photo: Richard Termine)
For playwright and director Rachel Crothers (1878-1958) fame lasted far beyond those famously fleeting fifteen seconds. Her name was on Broadway marquees for some thirty years, with just about a play a year. One of these, A Little Journey (1918) was nominated for the Pulitzer. Yet, while scholars recognize Crothers as one of America's most prolific and successful female dramatists, were you to ask even the most devoted theater goer to name a play with her by-line, it's a good bet that you'd draw a blank. That goes even for her last play, Susan and God (1937) which starred Gertrude Lawrence on Broadway and Joan Crawford in the 1940 film version directed by George Cukor.

But leave it to Mint Theater Company's artistic director Jonathan Bank to once again rummage around the shelves where scripts of plays like Susan and God have been attracting more dust mites than readers or producers. The result of that latest rescue mission is an authentic and enjoyable remounting of the play.

On the surface Susan and God is a country house comedy with dialogue and characters reminiscent of a Noel Coward play. However, there's more than a lot of amusing dialogue to this story of a woman who finds religion -- albeit one that fits right into her frivolous life among the gossipy idle rich shortly before World War II. Crothers uses Susan Trexel's new relationship with God to satirize the hypocrisy of some vociferously devout religionists, whose actions often don't match their declarations of piety.

Susan is a ridiculous and totally self-absorbed forty-ish spoiled brat. Her rejection has driven her adoring husband Barrie to drink and made her teen-aged daughter Blossom a typical poor (poor in parental love and attention) little rich girl. It's not that Susan lacks charm. On the contrary, it's because she has such an abundance of it that everyone has always indulged her so that no matter how foolishly she behaves, things never go wrong for her. (As her husband comments "even if she were to have an accident and land in a ditch you may be sure she picked it out --and it's a perfectly good ditch.")

For all her shortcomings as a caring wife, mother and good listener, Susan IS bright. (According to her friend Irene "she's the most intelligent fool I've ever known."). It's not just the wealth but the intelligence of the people involved that led her to join the goodness and truth seeking religious movement "that's thrilling and alive and fun." (Crothers pattenered this movement on the once famous Oxford Group).

The trouble with Susan's new found connection to God is that she's not insightful, especially when it comes to herself. And so she applies the analytical approach that's part of the movement's dogma to meddling with her friends life styles, even as she remains blithely blind to her own shortcomings. As the play opens, the closest she's come to baring her own sins, is to confess that she had her long auburn tresses touched up.

To capsulize the plot: The play's opening finds Susan returning home (a summer colony of the well-to-do, probably in Connecticut) from Europe. Her friends laugh off her ecstatic babblings about her new religion, but somehow her meddlesome advice plants a seed and the various alliances are forever changed (though not always for the better). Susan's own husband, persuades her to send some of her " goodness" his way and instead of divorcing him and sending their daughter off to another summer at the camp she hates, spending the next three month as a family in their long shuttered house. The result: Ugly Duckling Blossom really blossoms, Barrie stays on the wagon but it remains for the last act to reveal whether the marriage can be saved and Susan's discovery of God can really change her value system.

Joan Crawford & Frederick  March in the 1940 movie  adaptation
Joan Crawford & Frederick March in the 1940 movie adaptation of the play that starred Gertrude Lawrence
(Photo: )
Susan is played by Leslie Hendrix, who has put in many years as quite a different type of woman, the hard-working Medical Examiner Rodgers on Law & Order. She clearly relishes playing this complex role which calls for a glamorous but ditzy lady, too self-absorbed to be more considerate of those nearest and supposedly dearest to her, but also with enough genuine goodness buried within her to keep her from being a through and through Mildred Pierec/Mommy Dearest Joan Crawford character.

Though Hendrix at times seems to be too deliberately channeling her movie predecessor, she nevertheless ends up being her own and distinctive Susan, an anti-heroine who doesn't exactly metamorphose into a heroine, but whom you can't help liking. Jennifer Blood's ugly duckling Blossom, blossoms very nicely indeed and isn't a bit like the daughter who turns into a meanie in Mildred Pierce. The rest of the cast is also quite good, though the women come off more aptly attractive and nuanced than the men.

Except for one character, Mr. Bank's production has the same full-bodied cast as the original play. (He wisely doesn not try to merge stage and screen version so don't look for the housekeeper added to George Cukor's film and played by Marjorie Maine for additional comic spoofing of the movement's insistence of treating servants democratically).

As in the past, Bank has also recreated the atmosphere of the play by keeping the two intermission. Nathan Heverin has once again managed to create a number of apt scene changes within the budget constraints of a small theater company. Everyone, especially Ms. Hendrix, looks terrific thanks to Clint Ramos' wonderful period costumes. It all makes for an enjoyable evening and perfect finale for the Mint's season of honoring women playwrights working during the first half of the 20th Century.

Walking Down Broadway
Soldier's Wife

Playwright: Rachel Crothers
Directed by Jonathan Bank
Cast: Opal Alladin (Irene Burroughs), Jennifer Blood Blossom Trexel), Mathieu Cornillon (Leeds), Alex Crammer (Clyde Rochester), Timothy Deenihan (Barrie Trexel), Katie Firth (Charlotte Marleigh ), Leslie Hendrix (Susan Trexel), Anthony Newfield (Hutchins Stubbs), Jordan Simmons(Leonora Stubbs -- a part played in the movie by a young Rita Hayworth), Al Supienza (Michael O'Hara).
Set Design: Nathan Heverin
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Josh Bradford
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Prop Design: Judi Guralnick
Dramaturg: Heather J. Violanti
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, includes 2 intermissions
Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd Street (212) 315-0231
From 6/06/06 to 7/16/06.--extended to 7/02/06
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7 PM, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM.
Tickets: $45

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on June 14th press performance performance

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