Revivals of Crothers and Kelly in Going back and forth
Rachel Crothers and George Kelly were two of the 20th century's most importantAmerican playwrights; today, however, their work exists in a state of semi-obscurity, semi-rediscovery. This month the Metropolitan Playhouse brings back Crothers's 1910 A Man's World, while the Mint Theater gives us Kelly's 1931 Philip Goes Forth. Both plays have something articulate to say about life, love, and art.
A Man's World seems to be steering us toward an existential verdict on its heroine. Is she or isn't she?. . .Did she or didn't she?: the identity-and-morality defining moment of centuries of women's fictional representation. Specifically, is novelist and champion-of-the-downtrodden Frank Ware-the fact that she's got a man's name is of course evidence that she's ready to defy convention- the biological, unwed mother of the purportedly foster child she is raising? Turns out she's not. The child is instead the product of a fatal dalliance by a young woman with none other than Malcolm Gaskell, the man with whom Frank's in love. Crothers's thickening plot brings character revelation. It may be a man's world, but here woman is calling the shots. Frank rejects Gaskell for his unrepentant callousness toward his former mistress.
A Man's World is one of Crothers's earliest produced plays and more uncompromising than her later work. In the end, Frank (at least for the moment) chooses solitude and a renewed commitment to her work.
Philip Goes Forth is a product of Kelly's slump years of the 1930s, following his indictment of American neurosis and provincialism in hit satires of the 1920s. (Kelly did later return to peak form: on October 21, the Mint offers a public reading of what is perhaps his finest play, 1946's The Fatal Weakness.)
Like Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, would-be playwright Philip goes forth to discover that he really doesn't want, nor is he suited to, the rarified precincts of art. Those are spaces not to be trifled with, Kelly has one of his character mouthpieces remind the bright-eyed squirt. In the end, Philip goes home to work in the family business rather than, as logically indicated, going further forth onto his wider business pastures. This ending is an accommodation to sentimentality. But the play has a real sweetness as well, existing comfortably alongside Kelly's tart observation.
Both Mint and Metropolitan are vest-pocket spaces; exactly how small their premises were seemed not to have entirely penetrated both casts. They were too loud during the first parts of each play. Oratory lightened up as each play proceeded, however, and there was a lot of convincing, entertaining acting and directing onview.
A Man's World at Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East 4th St. thru Oct. 13; Philip Goes Forth at the Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd St. thru Oct. 27.