When it comes to the teachings of Jesus, nothing suits the piously tightfisted better than “the poor will always be with you,” which, to anyone worried about that whole “eye-of-a-needle” business, is the perfect cynical rejoinder from the “Why-bother?” school of Christian philosophy. Without ever directly referencing this fatalistic Bible quote, it’s also the one Irish writer Dion Boucicault scorns most thoroughly in his 1857 play The Poor of New York. Set in an era when almost no checks existed on either the vicissitudes or treacheries of capitalism, Boucicault’s characters largely find themselves tumbling down the economic ladder, grasping at rungs already occupied by those willing to crush as many hands as necessary on their way back up to the top.
One of the theater’s most skilled 19th-century melodramatists, Boucicault was uninterested in the finer points of history, character development, or narrative objectivity which, of course, is why, as the Metropolitan Playhouse’s lively revival of The Poor of New York demonstrates, his works are often so much fun. That doesn’t mean they’re untruthful; it’s just that Boucicault wasn’t prone to letting a bunch of cumbersome details and ho-hum dramaturgical considerations get in the way of a good story or a necessary cause. But if you’re aching to learn how Andrew Jackson’s monetary policies and the peculiarities of his personality might have contributed to a downturn in the American economy, there’s always the hope Aaron Sorkin will eventually write that play.
In the meantime, with Boucicault as their guide, director Alex Roe and his talented, wonderfully in-tune cast squarely take aim at the audience’s emotions, solidly hitting their marks whether the goal is sympathetic sorrow or righteous indignation. As with any engaging melodrama, a dastardly villain helps immeasurably in both regards, and The Poor of New York has a deliciously loathsome one: the unscrupulous financier Gideon Bloodgood (Bob Mackasek). The play opens during the Panic of 1837 with Bloodgood, a deceitful speculator, on the verge of remorselessly looting his own hoity-toity Manhattan bank and hopping a ship to England, until a more appealing escape-hatch presents itself in the form of the hardworking, though tragically naive, Adam Fairweather (Eric Emil Oleson), a sea captain seeking to deposit his entire life savings, all $100,000 of it, with someone whose “name stands above suspicion.” After quickly learning that he’s made a huge mistake, Fairweather returns for his money, but the shock of the situation causes him to drop dead on the spot, leading to the opportunistic Bloodgood and his cunning clerk Badger (a charmingly devious David Logan Rankin) dumping the unfortunate man’s body on the street.
Cut to twenty years later when Fairweather’s destitute wife (Teresa Kelsey) and children (Tess Frazer and Luke Hofmaier) are depending on the generosity of an only slightly less impoverished family, the Puffys (John Lonoff, Jo Vetter, and SJ Hannah), for food and shelter, while Bloodgood has used the Fairweather’s stolen inheritance to become the preeminent figure of the city’s nouveau riche. With his loyal manservant (John Long) by his side, Bloodgood now has everything he wants, except what matters most to him: the happiness of his spoiled daughter, Alida (a hilariously haughty Alexandra O’Daly). His love for her is the one aspect of Bloodgood’s character that prevents him from turning into an unmitigated mustache-twirler.
As for Alida, who probably should have a mustache to twirl, her dissatisfaction stems from the only thing her father’s wealth can’t buy her: social status. Although she can afford the same fashionable clothes and amusements as the Fifth Avenue set, Alida lacks the properly pedigreed surname to join their ranks. To rectify this situation, she sets her matrimonial sights on the appropriately prominent, and financially desperate, Mark Livingstone (Benjamin Russell) who, as luck would have it, owes her father a substantial sum of money.
The coincidence-heavy plot includes a couple of abrupt personality changes that the actors smartly choose to ignore, with Rankin, in particular, doing a nice job of substituting charisma for logic. Roe, who also designed the production, greatly helps the cast’s performative sleight-of-hand by keeping things spinning fast, literally, thanks to an ingenious turntable set. But, on the off chance that a pedantic, between-scenes thought might undermine your enjoyment of the show, Roe and choral director Trevor St. John-Gilbert have taken out some additional insurance through a hefty selection of popular 1850s songs that the actors, all in lovely voice, perform throughout the play.
Aided tremendously by Sidney Fortner’s period-rich costumes and Christopher Weston’s expressive lighting, at times it feels like Roe has brought the whole of mid-19th century New York into the Metropolitan Playhouse’s cramped, upper-floor theater space. To be sure, Boucicault’s depiction of the poor is a bit too idealized, but, in acknowledging the social injustice that perpetuates economic suffering and exhorting his audience to do something about it, he also evinces the type of full-tilt compassion that we still desperately need today.
The Poor of New York (through May 19, 2019)
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-995-8410 or visit http://www.metropolitanplayhouse.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission