Timely social drama from Clyde Fitch, circa 1901, may be the first American play to investigate the emptiness of the American Dream.
The play isn’t just about social climbers but those who want to game the system and live beyond their income, and their sense of entitlement rivals that of the 1990’s. However, this is 1901 and there is also a social hierarchy of who is in and who hasn’t made it yet. And these aren’t the robber barons with unlimited incomes, but people further down the economic scale hoping to make a killing by speculating on the market. Like a novel by Henry James or Edith Wharton, this turn of the century social drama encompasses a good many characters and events and includes both comedy and tragedy. The current almost three hour time length would have been longer at the beginning of the last century as there would have been more intermissions in this four act play, but in those days playgoers liked getting their money’s worth.
The play begins just after the funeral for George Hunter, a wealthy New York businessman who has died suddenly. His shallow and self-absorbed widow Florence is more worried whether it has been the social event of the season than of her tragic loss. Then her lawyer gives her an even more crushing blow: she has been left nothing except the house as her husband has gone bankrupt just before his death. Her sister-in-law Ruth informs her that it was her social climbing and extravagant spending that destroyed her husband, though she refuses to listen.
However, Florence Hunter has no plans to economize, sell the house or send her two unmarried daughters to work. She is already planning to marry off her youngest Clara, as selfish as they come, to millionaire Johnny Trotter. Both of her other daughters, married Blanche Sterling and the unmarried middle one Jessica realize that this state of affairs can’t continue, as does the imperious Aunt Ruth who has never liked her scheming sister-in-law. And then Blanche receives a letter left by her father that states that he has caught her financier husband Richard Sterling in irregular business dealings, but she chooses not to show it to the family lawyer or her aunt – much to her later regret.
In the way of melodrama, the scenes vary in tone. Quite humorous is the scene in which Mrs. Hunter and her mercenary friends bargain over the Paris gowns she has recently brought back that she will not be able to wear in her year of mourning. High drama occurs when Richard accuses his wife of having an affair with their best friend, the wealthy Edward Warden. Tragedy raises its head when Richard believes he is truly bankrupt. Like a great novel, The Climbers depicts real life with all its ups and downs.
Under Hardart’s assured and polished direction, the cast appears to the manner born in a drawing room drama except for an occasional bit of overacting. Margaret Catov is most amusing as the oblivious widow who has no idea about the value of money. On the other hand, Becca Ballenger as her mercenary daughter Clara is more than a bit over the top as one who is entirely upfront about her social climbing. As married daughter Blanche, Erin Beirnard, who has given several other notable performances at Metropolitan Playhouse in plays by O’Neill and S.N. Behrman, is a fine heroine who becomes the moral center of the play. Ultimately the villain of the piece, Marc LeVasseur is chilling as the amoral Sterling who sees no problem with investing other people’s money so he can maintain his lifestyle.
While Ian Eaton is solid as Edward Warden, secretly in love with Blanche and her knight in shining armor, he is a bit wooden in this rather fancifully heroic role. Alyssa Simon as Aunt Ruth maintains a stiff backbone throughout the play as she remains morally strict. As malaprop-dropping Johnny Trotter who is enjoying life too much to care if he gets into society, Levi Adkins creates a satiric portrait of a member of the nouveau-riche class of millionaires. Erin Leigh Schmoyer gets a good deal of mileage out of the catty Miss Godesby who makes a sport of knifing her friends in the back but when the chips are down can be counted on to help her friends – for a price. Giving able support are David Licht as the family lawyer and Matt McAllister as the family doctor.
As always, Sidney Fortner’s Edwardian gowns are a veritable fashion parade, making it quite clear why this society ran on so much money. Michael LeBron has clever designed a set using a round platform that creates the world of each of the four locations. Director Hardart uses some interesting meta-theater techniques as having the off-stage actors in full view of the audience generate needed sound effects, as well as having actors return as the many servants immediately before and after appearing in major roles. Christopher Weston’s lighting design creates a warm homey atmosphere for the indoor scenes, and a chilly wintry feeling for the outdoor scenes.
While The Climbers may seem dated to the uninitiated, it is an excellent example of the serious plays of its era. Michael Hardart’s superb production makes an excellent case for this as a turn-of-the-last-century American classic. The play’s relevance has returned in our own era, and also demonstrates that the corruption of the American dream through greed and ambition has been going on for over 116 years. It is to be hoped that Metropolitan Playhouse will continue its investigation of the major works of Clyde Fitch possibly with his hit comedy, Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, which made a star of Ethel Barrymore, and the drama of jealousy, The Girl with Green Eyes.
The Climbers (through October 8, 2017)
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838–3006 or visit http://www.metropolitanplayhouse.org
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes with one intermission
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