Written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber
Directed by Leah Averre
Produced by Lucy Cabrera and Linda Ferm
The Theatre Fellowship of the
Equity showcase (closes March 18)
Review by Cynthia Leathers
The Theatre Fellowship of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church’s production of George S. Kaufman’s and Edna Ferber’s lighthearted drama, Stage Door, is a mostly triumphant revival of a rusty chestnut set in a time when the worlds of theatre and film fought for commercial and artistic importance in American culture. Kaufman used this play to preach his gospel of theatre being a higher art than motion pictures; it is well-known that he detested the shallowness of Hollywood and shunned it (all except for two movies) to remain true to live stage works.
The story centers around a group of young actresses who live in a boarding house for women only called the Footlights Club, somewhere in the West 50’s of 1930’s New York, but mostly concerns an idealistic young actress named Terry Randall (Rachel Sullivan*), freshly arrived from Indiana, whose late mother was an actress who regretted giving up the stage for a husband and children. Terry is determined to live the life her mother never had, becoming a stage actress with a long and successful career. Along the way, she turns down a guaranteed Hollywood contract; falls in love with a left-wing playwright who is also determined not to be a sell-out, but ultimately goes Hollywood; and winds up triumphant in her principles, when, at her career nadir, she (and love) triumph over adversity.
Although the actors should be the center of the play, this is one production where the set and costuming outshine the cast. Set designer Walter (Terry) Liebman and property manager Janice Haas have done a top-notch job of dressing the parlor of the Footlights Club, where the play takes place. The furniture used is period-authentic and of museum quality; it’s as though everything on the set, right down to the carpets, side tables, and the poster of Sarah Bernhardt (placed center stage, almost as an object of worship) had been placed in a time capsule in the 1930’s and unearthed just recently for this production. Without Sabrina McGuigan’s superb job of lighting this vintage set, and designing the sound (songs of the era are played between acts, and the parlor piano, placed offstage, sounds as though it is inside the main set) we might miss the period feel entirely.
But the real stars of the show are costume designer Suzie Gallehugh and wardrobe assistant Martha Lavayen, who, with the help of and access to the TDF Costume Collection, have managed to pull off dressing every actor to 1930’s-era vintage perfection. There is not one costume, men’s’ clothes included, right down to the shoes and accessories, that looks out of place. Hairstyles of the period (pre-hairspray era) seem to have been effortlessly achieved on each woman, with an assortment of pin curls and waves, and makeup colors reflect the palette of the period: bright red lips, high-blushed cheekbones, defined eyes. It is evident that Gallehugh did her research and that both she and Lavayen are committed to high achievement.
Into this flawless setting are placed the jewels of the play: the 24 actors who play the large cast of 24 characters, wisely cast by director Averre and assistant director Lindy Rogers, who avoid the usual annoyance of seeing two or three actors pop up again and again in various disguises and costumes as all the minor characters. By casting each character individually, Averre achieves a real sense of individuality and depth, and we come to care about each character, no matter how short their time in the story is.
Standout portrayals amongst the women include Sullivan as the idealistic Terry, played with a perfect mixture of determination, stubbornness and sweetness, with a hint of a young Judy Garland; Bernice, an ugly duckling (played by real-life babe Laura Yost) whose “beauty mark” mysteriously migrates around her face during the play, for dramatic effect; a pair of Marys (Big Mary and Little Mary, played by the hilarious Allison Guinn and Stephanie Rosenberg) that provide comic relief; Olga, a Garbo-voiced piano virtuoso who laments having to play show tunes at the Winter Garden because she longs to play the classics (Milada Melli-Jones, who plays marvelously); Jean, the glamour girl who becomes the newest Hollywood starlet and returns to the Footlights Club in triumph with a photographer and PR man in tow to show off her humble roots (Elizabeth Irwin); and one actress so desperate to get away from her past (and a bad husband) that getting the part is a life-or-death proposition (the poignant Sandea Green-Stark). The Footlights Club is owned by an actress whose time has passed, Mrs. Orcutt (the venerable Janet Luhrs) and cared for by Mattie, the maid (an athletic Lisa Ann Frisone*, who gets in an hour or so of cardio during each performance running to and fro on the stage).
Unfortunately, the men of the cast are a bit outshined by the ladies. Sage Suppa, as Keith Burgess, Terry’s playwright boyfriend who sells out, has the angry young man bit down pat, but seemed uncomfortable as a success in tux and tails when he returns to Terry in the third act. Three young men (Joshua Sloyer, Frank Paiva and Stephen Tickner*) fill out their characters of boys dating the girls of the club charmingly. Edward Fagan is natural as Terry’s visiting father. But casting Tom Hedlund as Broadway impresario David Kingsley is out of place. Hedlund is a fine actor, but seems fatherly toward Sullivan rather than romantic for most of the play, and due to a lack of chemistry (and a foot or so difference in height) between he and Sullivan, their kiss in the third act is uncomfortable. Much of this is the playwrights’ fault; the budding romance is downplayed in the script until the kiss.
Burke Adams* is
facetious as a Hollywood big-wig - a caricature of a cigar-chomping,
cravat-wearing, hair-slicked sleaze of a man who calls women “Honey” and is
mainly concerned with the bottom line.
There are a few lines that have been proven wrong in recent years (“Theatregoers won’t come to see Hollywood actors unless they can act”) and some that remain true to this day (“All important things are decided out there (Hollywood) in 20 minutes”). Ultimately, while this play doesn’t translate to modern day all that well, and younger audiences may not believe that there was a time in entertainment history (and American history, for that matter) when a woman only was deemed successful if she “got the guy” and stayed true to her principles, audiences as young as forty and older will nod in understanding of the time and circumstances in which Terry Randall and the actresses of the Footlights Club lived their lives.
What does deserve merit is producing this play as an important episode in the history of 20th century American entertainment, and the Theatre Fellowship of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church has done so as a successful tribute to theatre as art. Art might struggle in the face of adversity, but this theatre company makes it seem easy.
(The cast also features Mike
Baez, Alison Bennett,
*-denotes member, Actors’ Equity Association
Copyright 2007 Cynthia Leathers
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