On the Aisle January 28, 2021

Lawrence Harbison, our very own critic, ordinarily brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but since New York Theatre is closed down for the foreseeable future, Larry is reporting on plays you can stream on your computer or other preferred gizmo.

Readers of this column know that I always have nice things to say about productions by the Mint Theatre Co. Well, I try to find nice things to say about everything I see, why is why I am such a terrible theatre critic; but particularly, ones I see at the Mint, because I believe strongly in their mission: to discover and revive plays buried in the dustbin of theatre history which do not deserve to be so lost. Ours is a throwaway culture – here today, gone tomorrow – but this is no more so than the theatre and, of course its plays. The Mint specializes in plays from the first half of the 20thCentury, before I was born; but I can think of scores of plays I saw which were hot then but not now. I can think of many wonderful plays I saw at the Humana Festival which didn’t go much beyond Louisville. I have written about these in a chapter on the Humana Festival in my memoir, 200 Times a Year, and plan to write another chapter on all my forgotten faves once I finish the two chapters I am working on now.

The Mint has been generously streaming video recordings of recent, before the pandemic, productions. You can view the latest one, Lillian Hellman’s Days to Come, by going to: https://minttheater.org/streaming-series/?tab=howtowatch

I wasn’t able to see the Mint’s three previous streamed productions but, as it happens, I did see Days to Come. The play has much in common with the last Mint production I streamed, Miles Malleson’s Conflict. Both plays have a central female character torn between her loyalty to her class and her awakening sense of social injustice. It takes place during the Great Depression in an Ohio factory town. The workers are on strike for higher wages and the factory’s owner, Andrew Rodman, in whose home much of the play takes place, is trying to break the strike. He’s a nice enough sort of fellow, not the snarling epitome of evil one might expect from Hellman, who at that time was flirting with the Communist Party. He hires a gangster who specializes in union-busting, but he looks the other way regarding this thug’s methods. Rodman’s wife Julia, the central character, is a bored woman looking for action. She finds it in the shape of union organizer Leo Whalen, her husband’s arch-enemy.

As usual with Mint productions, the acting is terrific. My faves were Janie Brookshire as Julie, Roderick Hill as Leo and Dan Daily as the union-buster. Daily, a stalwart of the late, lamented Pearl Theatre, who shone there in Shaw and Shakespeare, is in my opinion one of our finest classical actors, the heir apparent to the late Philip Bosco. If we had a healthy classical theatre, he would be much in demand.

The reviews for this production when it first played were generally negative. I was flabbergasted when I read them. Do check out this streamed version. It is well worth it.

By the way, I signed up for Broadway HD, a streaming service with a wonderful repertoire of plays, musicals, classics, even films of plays. They have all 37 of the BBC Shakespeare plays. They have the original production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN with Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock, and they have the show that made a young, unknown actor from Australia named Hugh Jackman a star, at least in London– Trevor Nunn’s wonderful production of OKLAHOMA. I started out with the famous 1973 production of A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, which I had the good luck to see on Opening Night during my first trip to New York. and which restored this forgotten play to its rightful place in our national dramatic repertory. Then, I moved on to the Broadway musical AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, which has some of the greatest dancing I have ever seen. Ballet stars Robert Fairchild and Jeanne Cope are not only great dancers, they are also Broadway caliber actors and singers. They are, in a word, sublime.

I am now halfway through the RSC’s landmark production of THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, which took Broadway by storm in 1981.

It’s every bit as fabulous as you may have heard, with a heroic performance by Roger Rees in the title role and a heart-rending one by David Threlfall as the cripple, Smike; with great ensemble work by what seems to be a Cast of Thousands. I doubt if we will ever see its like again in our Incredible Shrinking Theatre.

Finally, Broadway Cares has a campaign going to raise sorely needed money to help theatre people in dire need because of this awful pandemic, for food, housing and medical assistance. Now that you have made all your political contributions to help defeat Trump and Trumpism, I can think of no more worthy a cause. Here’s a link to make a contribution: https://donate.broadwaycares.org/give/140654/#!/donation/checkout

"It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry."

—George F. Will

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

—Theodore Roosevelt

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