In the words of Gore Vidal, the glittering wit and rueful sophistication of the American novelist Dawn Powell was "For decades... always just on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion." Her novels, short stories, and plays, out of print for years, chronicle two distinctly different yet symbiotic cultures: the small town Ohio and the glamorous Manhattan of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. They are gems of satiric observation, capturing as they do the wistful pain and humorous absurdity of the hopes, dreams and wishes of full-bodied people constantly at war with their creative impulses and the need for unimaginative practicality. And it is precisely these ambivalent qualities that infuse Kira Obolensky's Artist's Life and other cautionary tales about the theatre, three short plays that she has adapted from Powell's short stories. Obolensky's wonderfully witty one-acts are by turns hilariously funny and savagely ironic, and always unstinting in the way she delivers Powell's questioning, truthful ambivalence in theatrical terms. Painting in quick, broad strokes, Obolensky manages to get a wealth of emotion into every lightly tossed-off line. And fueled by his fast-paced, elegantly edgy direction, Will Pomerantz's production was a stylish comedy of manners that both recalled and commented on its era with a romantic, but uncompromisingly honest, scrutiny.
Dynamic performances from each member of the cast added to the success of the evening, particularly three vivid turns from Eve Michelson, a young woman of decidedly unique ability. Whether storming across the stage as a virulently unimaginative office tyrant, mincing around as an untried young actress full of bluff and bravado, or skulking in the background as the resentful sibling who stayed home with mother, Michelson gave funny and endearingly comic performances of acidic distinction. Equally as funny were Brett Andrews as a gleefully insouciant office boy/playwright, Masha Obolensky as a pathetically timid office drone, and Ledlie Borgerhoff as a Midwestern mother who is sharper than her cosmopolitan daughter would like to think: to listen to Borgerhoff toss off her character's non-sequiturs with absolute conviction was cause for laugh-out-loud celebration. John Daggett and J. Christopher O'Connor were sublimely hilarious as two Runyonesque goons holding a fake audition, and Annie McAdams was devastatingly on-target as a not-quite-successful actress returning to her childhood home in Ohio, possibly to stay.
Troy Hourie's clean-lined set, consisting of unadorned, pale-yellow walls, green-and-brown-checked flooring, plain pieces of furniture and a large light box displaying a B&W photo of Manhattan's 1940s skyline, was gorgeous in its simplicity, and, as augmented by Joel Moritz's appropriately Hopperesque lighting, allowed Pomerantz to create striking stage pictures throughout. Gary Osborne's period costumes were also gorgeous, although not as simple: the details, right down to the seams on the women's stockings, were deliciously accurate and beautifully handled.
Never very popular in her lifetime, Dawn Powell's work is enjoying something of a renaissance these days, one that is long overdue. Any writer who had the presence of mind to quip, "My characters are not slaves to an author's propaganda. I give them their heads. They furnish their own nooses" certainly deserves another encomium from Mr. Vidal: "Our best comic novelist," and as such Artist's Life and other cautionary tales about the theatre is a wonderfully true adaptation of her work, a perfect introduction to an unfamiliar, but nonetheless important, American artist.
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita