American Century Theatre's Wicked 'Stage Door'

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 love…not 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 minutes…and 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 Soup…you 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 later juggled his stage and screen careers - Burgess probably wouldn't have gone on to write Sweet Smell of Success).

Stage Door 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 to believe 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 proud passion for 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 Moore and Melanie Griffith be on the way?

***

Visit www.americancentury.org for more on American Century Theatre, whose production of Olson and Johnson's zany Hellzapoppin opens on July 13th.

Photos - 1) Stage Door film poster; 2) Margaret Sullavan, who originated the role of Terry in Broadway's Stage Door - and who, like film "Terry" Katharine Hepburn, shuttled back and forth between Broadway and Hollywood in the '30s through '50s




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From This Author Maya Cantu

Maya Cantu Maya Cantu recently graduated from Virginia's James Madison University, where she majored in theatre. She is very excited about starting her MFA in Dramaturgy and (read more...)

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