On Harlem’s most prestigious address, in one of the townhouses on Strivers Row (West 138th and 139th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues), Dolly Van Striven (ironic name!) is hosting her daughter’s debutante party in what she hopes will be the social event of the season. However, it is 1940 and the block has begun to become a little déclassé. Her real estate mogul husband Oliver is having trouble making the payments on the mortgage on the 14 room residence and has placed a “Room to Rent” sign in the window which Dolly has quite dramatically removed so that her guests won’t see it. The announced purpose of the party may be to launch 18-year-old Cobina just back from Radcliffe and to catch a husband, but in reality it is to cement Dolly’s position as Harlem’s first hostess. However, Dolly doesn’t yet know that Cobina has been seen around town with a young man of no discernable background, and for Dolly’s mother Mrs. Pace, a former college dean, background is everything.
While she has invited only Harlem’s upper crust, her nearly bankrupt husband has invited Ruby Jackson, the cook who has just won a large fortune in the lottery, so that he can unload some property he needs to sell to make ends meet to the gullible and ambitious Ruby. Ruby brings along live wire Joe the Jiver, “a hepped cat,” and party girl Beulah. In addition, Dolly’s frenemy Tillie Petunia, the owner and editor of the Black Dispatch, a society scandal sheet, has a score to settle with her, possibly because Dolly has gone after young Ed Tucker, son of the well-known Judge, as a husband for her daughter, but Tillie is already in a clandestine relationship with him. With Ruby, Joe and Beulah as uninvited guests, all hell is bound to break loose, and Tillie has done some phoning to warn many on Dolly’s guest list to stay away. The crème de la crème is about to meet the hoi polloi, and Dolly is about to get her comeuppance.
Like in a Noel Coward comedy, the witty zingers come fast and furious: “That her big white Cadillac looks like a pregnant Frigidaire,” “Did you say she was from Newark or Noah’s Ark?”, “Harlem has gotten to be such a cesspool of nobodies,” “You can’t raise a rose in a junkyard,” “The ribbon around your neck is loose. Tighten it.” It also offers some very wise statements on the relationships between men and women: “women grow old from neglect and not from age,” “Regardless of how bad we women look in the morning, Oscar, we never wake up needing a shave,” “She loves the ground he staggers on.” However, the play also makes clear the rivalry between various Black enclaves: Harlem, Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. Dolly, Tillie and Mrs. Pace make pronouncements on the classiness of each.
Under Johnson’s direction, the leading women are all ready for the in-fighting and one-upmanship. As Dolly Van Striven, Kim Yancey-Moore in her third rediscovery at Metropolitan Playhouse in the past year, gives an excellent account of herself as the social climber who has little self-knowledge. Lauren Marissa Smith is a towering adversary as the editor of the Black Dispatch who is both feared as much as she is admired. Marie Louise Guinier as Dolly’s mother Mrs. Pace appears to have a ramrod in her spine and starch in her gown, but she ultimately turns out to be the wisest of them all.
As the daughter who has grown bored with her mother’s aspirations for her, Al-nisa Petty has just the right amount of gumption and sass to stand up to her mother. Linda Kuriloff makes Ruby Jackson endearing in her being outclassed by her social superiors but proves that she can forgive and forget. DeAnna Supplee has all the insolence of the independent woman as the new maid Sophie. As the actress Lily Livingston, Christina D. Eskridge is charming as a woman willing to try anything once.
The casting does not seem to be as good with the men, although their roles are not as well written. While all of the actors are talented and are fine in their roles, some seem to be miscast based on their descriptions in the play. As Dolly’s husband, Charles Anthony Burks is not allowed to be anything but exasperated. Anthony T. Goss’ Chuck, Cobina’s not-so-secret unemployed boyfriend has backbone but does not demonstrate what has attracted Cobina to him. Tall, well-built Lawrence Winslow seems a strange choice for Professor Hennypest who is described as being small and fat and badly dressed. Winslow is, in fact, none of these things. Adrian Baidoo’s Ed Tucker does not offer the urbanity and the poise of a man who is being pursued by at least three eligible women in the play. On the other hand, Roland Lane as a suave ladies’ man whose doctoring brings him in contact with a great many women and SJ Hannah as the denizen of low dives and late night pool rooms are just right.
Collin Trevor Eastwood’s reception room setting for the Van Striven townhouse makes the most of Metropolitan Playhouse’s three-sided stage with entrances in the four corners of the space. The party is suitably bathed in light by designer Remy M. Leelike. Sound designer Michael Hardart makes certain that all the zingers come through loud and clear. John Long has cleverly staged the fight that breaks out at the play’s climax.
Not only is Abram Hill’s On Strivers Row a delightfully entertaining play, it is also a major rediscovery of depiction of a world unknown to most of us. Timothy Johnson’s trenchant production highlights both the play’s strengths and deficiencies. The cast, however, appear to be to the manner born and deliver their one liners as if they always lived in a Noel Coward play.
On Strivers Row (through June 18, 2017)
Metropolitan Playhouse, 230 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.metropolitanplayhouse.com
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes with one intermission