The Playgoer: REVIEW: Susan and God

Custom Search

Thursday, July 13, 2006

REVIEW: Susan and God

Susan and God
by Rachel Crothers
Mint Theater (through July 30)

To say that the Mint Theatre performs a service to us all by unearthing neglected plays of the past is a bit too condescending for my taste. The truth is they're filling a shameful gap in our theatre culture--a sense of a true repertory, especially an American repertory. This to me is the saddest casualty of our not having a "National Theatre"--not having a guaranteed laboratory for the constant re-exploration , re-invention, and re-formation of our own canon. Instead our notion of American theatre history is limited to a group of ten or so plays that dominate high school syllabi, regional theatre seasons, and constitute the small list of "name-recognition" titles that Broadway producers feel safe reviving and pitching to stars.

So no wonder a playwright like Rachel Crothers can disappear from our stages for so long. Her constant presence on Broadway throughout the first four decades of the 20th Century was notable not just as a woman, but, even rarer, as a woman who directed her own plays. The success in 1910 of her A Man's World is particularly impressive, being a play that indicted society's double standard for women and men, at a time when the federal government still had not granted women the right to vote! With a career spanning almost forty years and 24 plays, this seems like too significant a career to overlook any longer.

The importance of seeing Crothers' work at the Mint is to prove something even more important: that she really was a good writer. Susan and God, her last play, achieves the lighthearted yet heartfelt examination of the tension between privilege and pain that Richard Greenberg, for instance, keeps straining to reach today. The difference is that Crothers doesn't have to work to be ironic and erudite, since it was built into her culture already. That means she can get on with the genuine feelings of her characters.

On one level Susan is a poke at sham religions and the way, at moments of crisis, the elites hide their guilt and anxiety beneath poses of piety and charity. The year of the play being 1937, the offstage crisis and malaise leading to such behavior would have been all too tangible to the original audience. Crothers' Susan is a charming but gratingly self-involved society woman who falls under the spell of some questionable matronly English guru who preaches the need for everyone to confess their sins to each other to expiate them--and then get on with their lives as usual, of course. The target is supposed to be the missionary-style "Oxford Group," a precursor to A.A. and basically the culture of therapy through "sharing" we live with today. So, yes, Crothers was onto Oprah and Dr. Phil before they existed.

But, surprisingly, this is not the aspect of Susan and God that stands up as either the most "relevant" or affecting. Instead what's striking is what an unromantic and clinically stark look at marriage it is. As a smart woman, Crothers has no patience for the traditional dramatic cliches. Men had written for years about wronged wives. But Crothers gives us a much more adult view of how two partners have poisoned each other. Susan's estranged husband, Barrie, is a pathetic alcoholic (not a charming drunk) and Susan has never stopped making him suffer for it. Crothers lets us judge both characters equally harshly, and shows how Susan's attempts to exploit Barrie to showcase her new calling only reveal her own shallowness and fear of facing more complex truths. Only their teenage daughter, alternately ignored or patronized by both parents (Crothers specialized in honest depictions of mother-daughter relationships), works to keep them together.

Although the world crisis of the 30s goes unreferenced, it's clear the characters' pathologies are contrasting reactions to the impotency induced by Depression, fascism, and immanent war. Barrie is a harrowing portrait of wounded masculinity, something made endemic by the massive unemployment and failed businesses of the time. Timothy Deenihan's performance at the Mint may be a bit too inward and "method" (considering everyone else around him is performing much more presentationally) but I found his brooding "sensitive guy" pretty affecting. While he and Leslie Hendrix's brash Susan seem at times to be in different plays (imagine a Katherine Hepburn-John Malkovich scene study class), their stylistic clash also emphasizes the cold distance Crothers is writing about in a marriage gone wrong, one where the romance has completely dissipated and the social function barely relevant anymore.

Hendrix's performance is definitely over the top, but somehow works, due to her truthful specificity and total commitment to Susan's mania. The play was practically written for Gertrude Lawrence (and filmed with Joan Crawford) and so the role does demand some kind of star quality, and that's what Hendrix provides. Her Susan is the self-deluded star of her own tragedy, which she thinks is a sunny comedy, of course.

As you can tell so far, Crothers may have been successful for Broadway domestic comedies, but there's a very dark streak here that she feels no need to repress or smooth over (like so many of her counterparts today). As usual, the Mint house style has trouble reconciling to this. Nathan Heverin's blue sky-painted flats and wicker furniture at first make you dread just the kind of "tennis anyone" affair Crothers is avoiding. The supporting cast (outside of Katie Firth's wry sideline commentator) also have trouble mining the emotional complexity of their dialogue and play like they're in an Agatha Christie summer stock play. While I have found these to be frequent shortcomings of Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank, I also have to say in this case he ultimately transcends them in the performances of his two leads and his willingness to push the tension between them often beyond what is comfortable. The last scene I found particularly intriguing in how ambivalent and unresolved Bank was able to make it, despite the script's essentially forced "happy ending" resolution.

So call it a "service" if you want, but I considered "Susan and God" a lesson. No, that's still too condescending. How about, an invitation to explore more of what seemingly "conventional" playwrights of the past have to show us about the darker secrets of the fabled "good old days."

No comments: