Century Theatre's Wicked 'Stage Door'
by Maya Cantu
When George S.
Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 1936 play Stage Door was
brought to the screen the next year under the same title,
it carried with it an almost completely different script.
Adapted by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller, the film featured
a star-studded cast headlined by Katharine Hepburn and Ginger
Rogers, and gave birth to Hepburn's famous floral ode "The
calla lilies are in bloom again" Kaufman, however, scorned
the movie as Screen Door.
In its enjoyable
and fascinating, if a little unpolished, free staged reading
of the original play, Arlington, VA's ambitious American Century
Theatre (as part of its admirable "Rescue Series")
reveals why Hollywood changed so much of the play: the movie
execs defanged, declawed and spayed a spitting theatrical
hellcat that takes repeated swipes at what they saw as 1930s
Hollywood shallowness and unabashedly glorifies the theatre,
for all its struggle and sacrifice. To paraphrase the play's
heroine Terry Randall, the theatre is living in a garrot with
your true lovenot in a palace with old Moneybags Movieland.
It also reveals
why the piece so seldom receives full stagings. Kaufman, perhaps
more famous for his fruitful collaboration with Moss Hart,
teamed up with Ferber for a trio of 1930s plays that featured
stage people in various arrangements of glamour and neurosis
(the others were the Barrymore clan satire The Royal Family
and the comedy of manners Dinner at Eight). All
received deluxe productions, but Stage Door's cast
list tops the others with 28, count 'em, 28 characters most
of whom are earnest and hard-luck young actresses residing
at the Footlights Club, a sort of YWCA for the stagestruck.
All make an appearance in the reading, which as directed by
Terry D. Kester, shows potential for a larger production should
some Washington-based theatre care to provide the company
with the resources. His staging is intelligent and brisk,
although it doesn't fully gain comic momentum until the second
of the three acts. Also, the looks of the young actresses
and actors - a few of whom are double cast - meander about
from decade to decade. Many look too 1940s (granted, it's
a staged reading, but Stage Door isn't Stage
Door Canteen). But like any group of young actresses
today, the girls gossip, sympathize, wisecrack and scout out
casting notices in Variety.
The play is short
on plotting and character psychology, but makes up for it
in a shining spate of one-liners and a compelling exploration
of Broadway-Hollywood culture clash in the mid-30s. In short,
the spirited Terry (appropriately feisty Tara Garwood) falls
for an idealistic young playwright named Keith Burgess (Terry
Barr), who as one character describes him, "starts out
on a soapbox and ends up in a swimming pool." In between
Terry's acting-job lags, her refusal to go Hollywood and her
eventual lead casting in a Broadway play (gasp she replaces
the original star!), Kaufman and Ferber wheel out an array
of women longing for lives upon the wicked stage (or screen).
Kester does a fine job in making sure that distinct women
emerge from this potential chaos of characters. Standout
performances include Cassie Byrne as tart-tongued Judith Canfield,
Kari Ginsburg as slumming man-hating "Russian" pianist
Olga Brandt, Signe Linscott as uppity Footlights Club proprietress
Mrs. Orcutt, and Katherine Foster as the doomed and desperate
young actress Kaye Hamilton. Mindy Woodhead plays well at
vapid charisma as glamorpuss Jean Maitland, who forsakes Broadway
for Hollywood where "all important things are decided
in 20 minutesand the trivial ones take years."
If the play manages to be both relevant and dated, it's partially
because Hollywood is no longer quite so much the easy target
that it was when Stage Door was written (and partially
because of its references - many modern audiences don't know
Katherine Cornell from Helen Hayes). Occasional prestige
picture aside, Hollywood less than a decade out of its silent
film diapers was viewed by many stage folk as the crass
upstart to Broadway's high culture monopoly. Typical lines
about movies run to: "You put it in a tin can like Campbell's
Soupyou don't even have to be alive to be in a picture!"
There's still some sting here (how much mindless waste does
Hollywood still turn out each year?), but we also live in
an age where hundreds of fine actors commute fluidly from
one medium to another without much artistic conflict, and
in which skilled filmmakers sometimes even improve upon stage
plays in their movie adaptations.
Ferber and Kaufman
come down hard on people like Jean Maitland does the pretty
thing know any better? but even harder on the playwright
Burgess, who clearly should. A thinly-veiled caricature of
Clifford Odets the great dramatist whose early works of
social realism gave way to a Hollywood career and notoriety
as a HUAC informer Burgess at first talks about the theatre
as if it were a sacred calling. He wants to write works that
explore the needs of the masses - plays of "thunder and
lightning and power and truth." He ends up dining at
"21" and penning movies with titles like Loads
of Love. (Granted, this is a bit unfair to Odets, who
laterjuggled hisstage and screen careers- Burgess probably
wouldn't have gone on to write Sweet Smell of Success).
is also not without elements of social satire and takes a
piercing,but not-too-heavy-handed, look at show business
power structures erected (no pun intended) by sex and gender.
Many of the actresses' careers are dependent upon the whims
of men - of casting directors, of producers, and of lovers
(one of the characters meets an unenviable fate as a "kept
woman"). Another earns her daily bread dancing in a
chorus line, and complains of the "tired businessmen"
- "they're not tired, and there's no business."
Yet Ferber and Kaufman also seem tobelieve that when an actress
like Terry devotes herself to the theatre and to her craft,
then she can achieve some measure of independence and freedom.
If this all seems
rather heavy, Stage Door is a fun and witty piece
that demonstrates why the 1930s are sometimes considered the
golden age of the Broadway comedy. Brimming with quotable
lines, cleverness and a proudpassionfor theatre, it's well-worth
a look at the American Century Theatre, where it runs through
June 24th.And maybe some moneyed "angel" will
care to revive it one day. Most may not choose to follow
the advice of stage-loving movieman David Kingsley though
- "Theatregoers won't come to see movie stars in plays
just because they're movie stars." Could a Stage
Door with Julia Roberts, Julianne Mooreand Melanie Griffithbe
on the way?