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A CurtainUp Review

U.S. A.

If you thought the war was lousy, wait until you see the peace
--- Colonel Edgecombe.
The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) which performs plays either rarely done or largely forgotten in what it calls concert readings. This means the plays, though fully rehearsed, are done with the actors -- mostly its company members -- carrying scripts and without sets or other fancy stage elements. These readings, run for three performances only (four, as of next season). The final selection for this season is Paul Shyre's 1959 stage redaction of John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy which consists of The 42nd Parallel, 1919 and The Big Money.

I still treasure my illustrated copies of the three books which I bought and read as a college freshman. I was blown away by Dos Passos' melding of multiple techniques -- the profiles of real historic figures of the 1900 to 1930 period the books cover, the camera eye excerpts from newspaper headlines and the fictional stories of eleven American prototypes.

While the impact of my first encounter with those books has diminished somewhat in the face of other types of literary experimentation and increasingly sophisticated documentary techniques, I've re-read the books several times and still find USA one of the most powerful and sweeping portraits of this country during the first third of the century. Given the recent war, the attitudes expressed towards the war in Europe as well as the postwar ebullience following its conclusion bring a strong note of timeliness to the TACT production.

The TACT presentation follows the format devised by Paul Shyre in collaboration with Dos Passos, with eight actors identified only by letters of the alphabet take on multiple roles -- and the entire cast acting as a chorus of journalists for the torn from the headlines excerpts.

The tag "concert reading" is particularly apt for this production's "costumes" which, typical of the attire of musicians in an orchestra, consist of black pants and skirts and white shirts. The sense of being at a concert is abetted by having three musicians from the Manhattan School of Music, a long-time TACT collaborator, on stage performing an original score (in this case by Colin McGrath who also plays guitar, banjo and harmonica).

The actors -- guest artist Rachel Fowler and company members Jamie Bennett, Nora Chester, Cynthia Harris, Larry Keith, Greg McFadden, Gregory Salata and Lynn Wright -- all perform confidently enough so that you get the sense they could carry on even without scripts. Director Scott Alan Evans moves the ensemble around so that it's easy to comprehend their segues from one character to another. Still, Mr. Evans is stuck with the adaptation's not always wise cuts made in the interest of turning an unwieldy epic into a manageable two hour drama.

By focusing on the public relations tycoon, J. Ward Moorehouse (Greg McFadden) and his devoted secretary (Nora Chester), other characters, like the interior designer Eleanor Stoddard (Rachel Fowler) and Joey Williams (Jamie Bennett), seem underdeveloped. On the other hand, the profiles include a disproportionately long re-telling of the rather well-known story of Isadora Duncan.

Interestingly, before this play adaptation began its brief Off-Broadway run at the now-gone Martinique Theater on 32nd Street, it premiered as a one-night reading at the Theater de Lys (now the Lortel Theater). And as TACT is paying tribute to this rarely produced play version of the trilogy, so are the Friends of English at the University of California whose annual marathon reading to promote literature, are this year reading -- you guessed it -- U.S.A.

The Florence Gould auditorium which is now TACT's home is a lovely and comfortable space in which to acquaint or re-acquaint yourself with a work that, coming as it did before projections and other advances in stage and filmcraft, gave us a panoramic word picture of life in the U.S.A. almost a century ago.

U.S.A.
By Paul Shyre & John Dos Passos, based on the trilogy by Dos Passos
Directed by Scott Alan Evans
Cast: Jamie Bennett, Nora Chester, Rachel Fowler, Cynthia Harris, Larry Keith, Greg McFadden, Gregory Salata and Lynn Wright
Costume Design: David Toser
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Music composed by Colin McGrath
Musicians: Colin McGrath-Guitar -- banjo, harmonica; Michael Beit Halachmi--Clarinet; Angeline Kaun -- Piano
Running time: 2 hours plus one 15-minute intermission
The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) at Florence GouldHall/French Institute Alliance Fran├žais, 55 E. 59th St, www.TACTnyc.org
Monday, May 5th at 7:30pm; May 11th at 2pm; , May 12th at 7:30pm -- $18.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on May 5th performance

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