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A CurtainUp Review
The Breadwinner

I don't want to be cruel. I merely said that in a well-regulated state, when people have outlived their utility, say at forty, they ought to be put out of their misery ---18-year-old Patrick on parents he views as dull and useful only for their money which he feels should be passed on to their children to enjoy. Imagine his surprise when his father declares himself equally bored by him and his peers and, in fact,while not ready to bow out of life, is very much ready to bow out of his role as father, husband and family breadwinner.

Virginia Kull & Jack Gilpin in The Breadwinner (Photo: Theresa Squire)
The five-year-old Keen Company is keen on giving new life to the work of early twentieth century playwrights. And artistic director Carl Forsman certainly has a keen sense of timing. W. Somerset Maugham's 1931 play, The Breadwinner, the company's first production for its 2005-06 season, opens close on the heels of highly successful Broadway revival of The Constant Wife, one of Maugham's most popular plays by the Keen's bigger, richer cousin, the Roundabout Theater.

Though Maugham was a prolific dramatist and once had four plays running simultaneously on major London stages, his work for the stage has been produced much less frequently than those of his contemporaries like Noel Coward and George Bernard Shaw. The Roundabout's stylish The Constant Wife was my own first close encounter with a Maugham play. However, Maugham's novels (Of Human Bondage, The Razor's Edge, The Moon and Sixpence --all made into popular movies) and short stories ("Miss Thompson", famously dramatized as Rain) were the "good reads" of my young adult years. The philosophical autobiobraphy cum writers' guide, The Summing Up, in which the highly successful author wrily ranked himself "in the very first row of second-raters" has been one of the more regularly re-read volumes on my book shelf.

All the above by way of establishing that I'm enough of a Maugham fan to grab at any chance to see his work as a dramatist -- whether on Broadway or off-off Broadway, top of the line or short of being memorable. If the sold-out house on the night I was at the Connelly Theater, where The Breadwinner just opened is an indication, I am not alone.

The one-act, three-scene play has its share of Maugham's always sharp observations on life, marriage, parent-child relationships, politics and war. However, there's a reason it's rarely included in discussions of Maugham's playwriting career and its not having enjoyed the success of Lady Frederick, The Constant Wife and The Circle (the play's only New York production in 1931 lasted just 55 performances at the Booth Theater). In short, The Breadwinner, does not pass the durability test of leaving you sufficiently smitten with it's old-fashioned charms and witty dialogue to wonder why it took so long to retrieve it from that corner of the great beyond reserved for lost treasures.

While The Constant Wife as well as most plays of Maugham's era have spots dangerously slowed-by-too-much talk, the Roundabout production proved that it had enough compensatory surprising little twists and turns. Carl Forsman deserves credit for taking a lesson from Mark Brokaw's one misstep in that production -- giving a lot of stage business to his star in an effort to enliven the slow spots. However, this script rides on a single and not especially surprising twist -- the children's pronouncements in the first scene that's echoed by their elders in the next. What's more, Breadwinner has none of the "curtains" for which Maugham was noted, scene endings that left theatergoers eager to see the curtain rise again. Given the play's intrinsic shortcomings and this company's fewer resources for set and costume razzle-dazzle, Forsman needed to do more fine tuning to avoid the stasis of actors who too often stand around talk, talk, talking away and to keep things from ending with a fizzle rather than a bang.

The opening scene focuses on the play's self-absorbed young things representing the post World War I generation. They chatter away to reveal their sense of entitlement and still half-baked ideas about life: Patrick (Joe Delafield) his sister Judy (Virginia Kull) children of a staid stockbroker and their friends Diana (Margaret Laney) and Timothy (David Standish), children of their parents' best friends. No wonder that when a business crisis prompts Charles, (Jack Gilpin), the father Patrick finds boring enough to warrant being put out to pasture, to announce his decision to resign as the family breadwinner, his explanation includes his own boredom with his callow son ("I wonder if it has ever occured to you how tiresome the conversation of the young is to the middle-aged. Chatter, chatter, chatter about nothing at all").

Both the set-up for the younger-older generation and husband-wife confrontations and the revelations about the crisis that put Charles' reputation and fortune at risk would work better if Forsman, who is usually quite astute about pacing, had pared the play down to about 90 minutes without an intermission (the original script actually had no intermission but called for pauses).

Once Charles' problems at the stock exchange and the reflection it prompts are aired, he must face more confrontations before he can wander off into more fulfilling sunset years. There's his wife Margery's (Alicia Roper) objection to being left ("I'm in a frightful position. You know how spiteful people are. When a woman leaves her husband they say it's because he was a brute, but when a man leaves his wife they say it's because she couldn't hold him. It's so frightfully humiliating. . . "); her friend Dorothy's (Jennifer Van Dyck) and Dorothy's daughter Diana's declarations of love; and the realization that his daughter Judy is more interesting and likeable than he thought.

Atypical of other Keen productions, the cast is not uniformly up to wringing the maximum wit from the long discussions. The young people's British accents come off as more actor-ly than authentic. Alicia Roper can't seem to find the right vocal pitch for her Margery.

Jack Gilpin is excellent as the stockbroker who goes for broke in his "today is the first day of the rest of your life" epiphany. However, I can't quite agree with Forsman's statement in a Village Voice interview that Charles' decision to opt out from his life of quiet desperation is akin to a male version of Ibsen's Nora in The Doll's House.. In my Constant Wife review I noted that Constance's way of dealing with her husband's affair brought to mind comparison's between Ibsen's Nora slamming the door on her life quite firmly, while Constance was enough of her practical mother's daughter to opt for a less firmly shut door. For me, Charles exodus from his suburban life is more akin to countless case histories of male midlife crises or male menopause.

Gilpins' strongest support comes from Robert Emmett Lunney as Alfred, Charles' solicitor and friend. In the absence of a butler who so often deserves top acting honors in this type of drawing room play, Lunney takes the prize for his just the right accent and rounded performance.

The production values though not glitzy are quite handsome. And so, while The Breadwinner is a more occasionally than through and through relevant and witty, at $19 a ticket it's an affordable opportunity to catch a theatrical rarity.

Playwright: W. Somerset Maugham
Directed by Carl Forsman
Cast: Joe Delafield , Jennifer Van Dyck, Jack Gilpin, Virginia Kull, Margaret Laney, Robert Emmet Lunney, Alicia Roper and David Standish.
Set Design: Nathan Heverin
Costume Design: Theresa Squire
Lighting Design: Josh Bradford
Sound Design: Samuel Doerr
Running time: 2 hours plus an intermission
Keen Company at The Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th Street (Avenues A and B) SmartTix 212-868-4444
From 9/06/05 to 10/02/05; opening 9/10/05.
Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 PM and Sunday at 2:00 PM.
Tickets: $19
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 9/09 press performance
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