The Vicious Circle in Song
From Bosnia to Bessie Smith, Florida Stage's 2000-2001 season consistently has shown how music helps shape historical moments and our lives. The theater's final production of the summer, At Wit's End, is no exception. This musical comedy uses live piano accompaniment throughout to re-create one of the most culturally vital movements of the '20s and '30s: the Algonquin Round Table. Also known as the Vicious Circle, it was an informal gathering of American men and women who met daily for lunch at a large round table in the dining room of the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan. Celebrated for its members' lively, witty conversation and urbane sophistication, the table included many of the best-known writers, journalists, and artists in New York City.
Cheri Coons's play At Wit's End, which makes its world premiere at Florida Stage, spotlights the core group: Franklin Pierce Adams (Dan Leonard), Tallulah Bankhead (Eva Kaminsky), Robert Benchley (Jeff Dumas), Marc Connelly (Ladd Boris), Edna Ferber (Elizabeth Dimon), Jane Grant (Kathy Santen), Helen Hayes (Brooke Tansley), George S. Kaufman (Stephen Full), Dorothy Parker (Irene Adjan), Harold Ross (Sean Grennan), and Alexander Woollcott (Blake Hammond). As World War I ended, the Algonquin group was at the center of the cultural pulse of the nation, but instead of focusing solely on the time period as an artistic phenomenon, Coons's play revolves around the passionate and sometimes volatile literary and love entanglements of members Grant, Ross, and Woollcott. The play also details the auspicious and shaky beginnings of The New Yorker, one of the nation's oldest and most important magazines.
As entertaining, humorous, and exquisitely performed as it is, At Wit's End does not rivet the audience to its seats or tip the world on its side with new insights into the human condition. It does, however, re-create a particular time in American history with more panache than most period pieces have managed to do this season. With its zany and predictable plot, At Wit's End successfully reproduces the era when this motley crew of artists made a name for themselves. These poker-playing, white lightning-swigging intellectuals animate and invigorate the standard one-liners, which were the main staple of comedy.
Woollcott, Grant, and Ross meet in Paris at the end of World War I. In the number "Say Partner," Woollcott reveals his hidden intention to marry Grant, but when he realizes her heart belongs to Ross, he embarks on a madcap crusade to spoil their love and their dream of starting a literary magazine. Woollcott frequently throws around his money and connections to undermine Grant and Ross's plans. He even weasels his way into a real-estate agreement with them so they are all sharing the same living space, which quickly gets the nickname At Wit's End, from which the play derives its title.
Coons's good-versus-evil plot line is deliberate. It is both a parody and a celebration of Roaring '20s slapstick-style comedies coupled with a script that embellishes the mordant humor and flamboyant behavior of these intellectuals. The play truly captures their self-indulgent and sometimes infantile postwar delirium. It also is chock full of biting punch lines, as Franklin Pierce Adams sings, "I served in the war with Woollcott, but he always got served first."
Director Joe Leonardo has assembled a topnotch Broadway-caliber troupe. Despite the fact that so many famous personalities are represented, one character never overshadows another. Originally the show was written for a much larger cast, with multiple scene changes including various settings in New York, a scene in Philadelphia, and a flashback to the war in Paris. Leonardo, however, has made great use of Florida Stage's relatively small space and the well-trained troupe's versatility. The roundtable members play a series of bit parts, such as a saleswoman, a waiter, and a bellhop, representing not only a Greek chorus but also a parade of enigmatic personalities. Tallulah Bankhead is the attention-grabbing diva cartwheeling across the stage. Dorothy Parker and partner Robert Benchley introduce themselves wryly as "the alcoholics." And Parker is always ready with a facetious comment. ("You can lead a whore to culture but you cannot make her think," she says of actress Helen Hayes.)
These actors have the well-trained voices necessary to pull off a performance that requires an abundance of vitality, movement, and physical expression. Leonardo keeps the cast moving and singing almost nonstop -- quite an accomplishment for this almost three-hour-long production. The scene constantly transforms. Jim Morgan's elegant set of brass fixtures, cherrywood panels, overstuffed chairs, and movable bookshelves adds authenticity and versatility to the scene. Actors throw down a tablecloth, and they're at the Algonquin Hotel. They lay a piece of tarp across a chair and are at Woollcott, Grant, and Ross's apartment, which is under construction. Leonardo also breaks up the monotony of a large cast on a small stage by having this agile troupe enter, exit, and deliver lines from the aisles. The actors never miss a beat in this string of jokes, songs, and Charleston-style dance numbers. Craig D. Ames's live piano throughout gives the time period its final touch of verisimilitude.
One of the most interesting aspects of At Wit's End is its subtext. The roundtable characters acknowledge they are performing in a play without stepping out of character. They fight over who has to act out the bit parts and participate in sound effects by using a clacker for door knocking and a bell for the telephone. This adds a comic dimension to the standard plot. One of the most comical roles is that of the starry-eyed blond actress Helen Hayes, who is constantly complaining she has not been given enough stage time. At one point, in an attempt to steal the show, Tansley enters (à la Lucille Ball) disguised as a bellhop and dancing furiously in pink satin toe shoes.
Hammond and Santen are standouts as the insufferable Alexander Woollcott and the zealous Jane Grant. Woollcott is as charming and endearing as he is maniacal and manipulative. At times he is the generous uncle of the Algonquin group, at other times the despised father figure, and Hammond portrays him with tremendous style. Woollcott's role is so transparently that of the "bad guy," it's up to Hammond's phenomenal voice to add some resonance. Hammond hits a flawless falsetto that complements the temperamental childlike aspect of his character.
Santen's part, on the other hand, is more subtly crafted to reflect the multiple roles an ambitious woman had to play in the male-dominated world of the time. She is a housewife and a reporter, a flirt and a hard-nosed businesswoman. The strength and emotional range of Santen's voice allow her to take on all these roles remarkably well. A prime example comes when Woollcott's meddling pushes Grant over the edge. Santen paces, fumes, hisses, and belts out a reprise of the tune "Say Partner" with uncompromising power.
Even with this dynamic cast, At Wit's End becomes a bit tedious owing to its long running time. It also is somewhat disappointing to have intriguing characters such as Dorothy Parker and Tallulah Bankhead on-stage without really developing them, but Leonardo's choices work well based on the play's premise. We know how it's going to turn out, but the real thrill is watching how these talented actors turn a phrase.
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