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    2008-2009 reviews:
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  •  REVIEW: NOWADAYS

    Frank Anderson and Lisa Riegel in Nowadays
    Photo by Josie Robertson
    Frank Anderson and Lisa Riegel

    One and Future Footnote

    With "Nowadays," the Metropolitan Playhouse revives a forgotten 1913 comedy that seems about to be forgotten, again.

    By ELIZABETH BACHNER
    Offoffoff.com

    Writing a play that' not produced until after your death must be immensely frustrating for a playwright, particularly one whose work creates a timely platform for his political convictions. The Metropolitan Playhouse is devoted to unearthing and reviving lost and neglected jewels of American theater, and it's easy to see why a never-produced 1913 comedy, written by a popular writer who was also a leader of the women's suffrage movement, would be a prime candidate.

      
    NOWADAYS
    Written by: George Middleton.
    Directed by: Alex Roe.
    Cast: Frank Anderson, Linda Blackstock, Jamie Dunn, Michael Hardart, Amanda Jones, Lisa Riegel, George Taylor, Matthew Trumbull.
    Costumes by: Sidney Fortner.
    Lighting design by: Joyce Liao.
    Production stage manager: Tesfaye Hamanot.

    Related links: Official site
     SCHEDULE
    Metropolitan Playhouse
    220 East 4th St. (between Ave. A&B)
    Previews start: Sept. 28, 2008
    Sept. 27 - Oct. 26, 2008

    "Nowadays," the story of a traditional father and his free-spirited, sculptress daughter who runs off to live alone in the city, was deemed "uncommercial" when George Middleton wrote it. He published it in 1915, with an introduction written by feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (author of "The Yellow Wallpaper," 1892), and, though he and his actress wife Fola LaFollette read the play throughout the country, no one in the professional theater world was willing to give it a chance.

    "Nowadays" takes on a key theme beyond issues of gender, family structure, and the economic order. It also attempts to consider the calling to be an artist. The mother, Belle (Lisa Riegel) who showed artistic promise as a young girl, let her dream die when she got married. As the play begins, she's secretly making the money to financially support her daughter, Diana (Amanda Jones) by painting paper dolls that sell in "the best stores." Her husband, Will (Frank Anderson), vehemently disapproves of his daughter's "new-fangled" lifestyle. Meanwhile, he's financially supporting the family's son Sammy (Matthew Trumbull), who has never done a lick of work in his life, and has secretly married and impregnated Betty (Jamie Dunn), a passive, aimless friend of the family, who he's "keeping" in the city. Another family friend, the pro-suffrage journalist Peter Roe (Michael Hardart), is a big supporter of Diana's art. Yet, to her frustration, he doesn't ask her to marry him, since he doesn't make enough money to support her.

    Lisa Riegel, George Taylor, and Amanda Jones in Nowadays  
    Photo by Agnes Meilhac  
    Lisa Riegel, George Taylor, and Amanda Jones
      
    It would be delightful if "Nowadays" had languished in obscurity because it was ahead of its time, too challenging and threatening for audiences at the dawn of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, much of the dialogue has a sloganeering quality. The layers of subtlety and complexity that you'd find in turn-of-the-century work by Ibsen or Wilde (playwrights who were loved but also radically provocative) are entirely absent here.

    There's way too much telling rather than showing, and it's hard to tell whether that's a problem with the production or an insurmountable flaw in the script. Peter seems not at all in love with Diana — he has more chemistry with Betty, Belle and the furniture (which is tightly packed into the small performance space.) It's entirely unbelievable that Diana would have the mental heft to defy her father, find real success in the art world, or create the kind of sculptural work that would sell in 1913 Paris or New York. Whether this is due to Amanda Jones's saccharine performance or George Middleton's overlong, effusive soliloquies is hard to determine. It's ironic that the supposedly renegade Diana is such a dated character, almost a parody of sweet, old-Hollywood daughterhood. If that irony is intentional, its comic and critical value dissolves into the flimsy plot.

      
      There's way too much telling rather than showing, and it's hard to tell whether that's a problem with the production or an insurmountable flaw in the script.
      
    The moments when Diana leaves the stage and the action focuses on Belle and her rediscovery of her autonomy and artistic dreams elevate the play. Frank Anderson and Lisa Riegel are compelling and believable as Belle and Will, a couple who love each other, but must adjust and transform as Belle breaks away from her lonely, constraining role as a traditional wife and mother. Anderson and Riegel move beyond the script, bringing human complexity to characters that might otherwise fall into stereotype.

    "Nowadays" should be a work of provocation and political reckoning. It's worth seeing for its value as an historical document, an insider's view of the issues that rocked American debates about women's roles, circa 1913. But, commercial or not, it doesn't live up to its promise as a sly comedy or witty satire.

    OCTOBER 6, 2008
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK



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