Men, never forget: Women are complicated. Yes, I said it. I admit it. We are multifaceted human beings with fickle emotions that can flutter up and down faster than a hummingbird’s wings, sending us into space like a “Rocket to the Moon.”
Entangled relationships are the subject of the Long Wharf’s new production of Clifford Odets’ Depression-era play. Even though it was written nearly 80 years ago, its central couple bears a remarkable resemblance to a couple still very fresh in our minds.
Some women like to be in charge of the relationship, to be the strong, modern woman — think Hillary. Some women are attention seekers, like older men and want to feel needed — think Monica. Disclaimer: A lot of women don’t fit into these categories but are complicated nonetheless.
Do we get a Bill? Not exactly, but we do get Ben. Ben Stark (David Chandler), a Manhattan dentist. Belle Stark (Christina Kirk), the dentist’s overbearing wife — ahem, Hillary. The cute secretary (Monica-surrogate): Cleo Singer (Louisa Krause). And just to mix it up a bit, Mr. Prince (David Margulies), a kooky father-in-law who loves his son-in-law, can’t stand his daughter and dallies with younger women.
There is nothing like having an affair at the workplace in the midst of a sweltering summer during the Great Depression, is there? It’s so cliche. The nice husband with the controlling wife, who thinks he’s happy but isn’t. Enter the inefficient but attractive secretary. Then nothing happens until the good ol’ grandpa (who serves as Stark’s conscience) comes in and suggests having an affair. Then the idea festers, and voila. Things flip. Strong turns to weak, weak turns to strong, indecision to decisiveness, which leads into the tragic ending that slaps the big “Duh!” on your forehead. It’s an affair. Did you expect a happy ending?
To be fair, this play was written during a time when the idea was a little more fresh than it appears in a post-20th century Desperate Housewives environment. But director Daniel Fish hasn’t mined the play for the universals that would appeal to today’s audience, keeping it inaccessible and tired.
The background story about the Depression hinders the play rather than helps it. While the main characters don’t pay too much attention to the outside world, the minor characters do, and complain about the poverty, unemployment, frustrations and all that jazz associated with the politics of that time. This, however, makes the play drag on longer than it really has to (clocking in at a whopping two hours and 45 minutes).
Having said that, the minor characters are what salvage the play. Stark’s coworkers, Dr. Cooper (Andrew Weems) and Frenchy (Henry Stram), make the situations believable and entertaining. Their energy and frustration present a good contrast to the lackluster delivery of the dialogue between Stark and his wife, Stark-er (a more fitting name). Weems plays the perfect alcoholic doctor, while Stram’s interpretation of Frenchy’s levelheaded wittiness serves as the perfect complement.
Of all the actors, Margulies as Mr. Prince is perhaps the greatest part of the play. Flipping back and forth between lighthearted and serious, Margulies conveys both Mr. Prince’s vivacious personality and his jaded outlook of man with life experience. Margulies is perfect for the part, the old man with money to burn and the gall to say and do whatever is on his mind. Indeed, he is the troublemaker, the one who spikes the punch, but Margulies’ delivery is so brilliant that you can never really blame him.
The set spins around (literally), just like the hands of time. This is another downer. Right in the middle of the dialogue between characters, the whole set starts to spin and only serves as a distraction. It becomes difficult to see the characters, and their voices are thrown off because parts of the doctor’s office have windows which prevent the voices from carrying through to the audience.
Although the first half feels like you might be going through the Depression yourself, the second half makes it worth sticking it out. Before intermission, the first two acts of the play struggle to keep the audience’s attention, causing many patrons to desert the theater. The real story begins to gain momentum only in the third and fourth acts, which finally give the audience what it wants: a juicy love affair with a tragic ending.
Ultimately, Odets admonishes women to never forget that men are dogs. But it’s also good to remember that some are better trained than others.