Dorothy Parker revival serves up moral lessons for today
I read about beautiful, young girls being chopped to pieces with an axe, and then I think it’s not so bad,” says the character Connie Mercer reflecting on the state of a single woman in the stunning revival of “Ladies of the Corridor,” by the Pecadillo Theater Company.
Such a wry and witty observation could only come from the pen of Dorothy Parker, and the play, written with Arnaud d’Usseau, is full of such witticisms as “hatred is filling but not nourishing.” Yet for all the one-liners flying around the Hotel Marlowe, a residence for single women in New York in 1953, this is also an emotionally resonant and achingly relevant play for today’s audiences. Within its gentle rhythms, acrid zingers, and the seemingly bustling life of the hotel is an examination of isolation, loneliness, and desperation that is heart-wrenching.
The hotel, of course is a perfect metaphor. It’s a place where people live, but it’s not a home; a place where lives intersect but only for a time. There is nothing of permanence about it; it is impersonal, a storehouse of souls otherwise adrift in the world. Parker and d’Usseau, true to the period, identified the single woman, either a widow or an escapee from male cruelty, as a meaningless and virtually useless member of society. In the newly mobile world of the time, where families were separated by geographic and emotional distance, the hotel was the perfect place to park “mother,” or for the woman to park herself, presumably until she dies.
The forgotten woman and the woman rendered irrelevant by age and circumstance were favorite subjects of Parker at her most bitter and depressive. Yet look around at our culture today and see how fragmented and marginalized so many people are not just by gender but by sexual orientation, religion, and, as the recent disasters in New Orleans demonstrated, economics. The corrosive nature of isolation runs rampant in our culture today, and we can see, without the need for theatrical abstraction, the impact this has on individuals.
And yet, the theater serves such a wonderful service—to focus us on the issue, to make an emotional connection to the characters and their stories, and to feel the cruelty inflicted on them. Ironically, as with the poor of New Orleans, the cruelty is not wholly intentional; it is worse. It reflects a conscious desire to keep the pain and suffering hidden so that one can pretend it doesn’t exist.
How do any of us survive in this world? Parker offers no jolly bromides in her dark comedy. The play suggests several choices: Control what you can as the invalid Mrs. Nichols does with her son’s life. Make the best of it, as many of the women of the Marlowe do. Die as Mildred Tynan does. Or, as Connie does, refuse to accept the external strictures and fight like hell to create a viable life. In fact, only Connie survives in this world. She is alone, but on her own terms, and her story is a foil to that of her friend LuLu Ames who, though newly widowed and happily free, knows only one way to live, and when that fails her she is destroyed.
Grim as this sounds, and as it is, this is a beautiful and touching production. The lyricism of Dan Wackerman’s direction and the riveting performances by every member of the cast make this one of the best things to see on any stage right now. There isn’t a moment that isn’t virtually perfect, and the performances by Jo Ann Cunningham as Connie, Susan Jeffries as LuLu, Domenica Cameron-Scorsese as Mildred, and Peggy Cowles as Mrs. Nichols are all sublime.
This is not a world exclusively of women, however, and Ron Bagden as Charles Nichols, the emasculated son, is marvelous. Kelly AuCoin as Paul Osgood, LuLu’s young lover, is both astonishing and brilliant. He is subtle, nuanced, and consistently present. Ostensibly a villain of the piece, as a man in the male-dominated world outside the hotel, he is nonetheless sympathetic, lost and seeking as any of the women.
The stunning and period-perfect costumes are by Amy C. Bradshaw, and the versatile set is by Chris Jones. The effect of this remarkable production is haunting, as ghosts from the past reflect the loss and separation that, so wholly unnecessary, can ravage the heart.
I would happily see “The Light in the Piazza” every night of the week, taking time off only to see the equally wonderful lampooning the show receives in the newly revitalized “Forbidden Broadway Special Victims Unit.”
Ensconced in its new home at the 47th Street Theater, the Broadway satire is just as wily and wicked as ever—and never more so when sending up shows like “Wicked” and giving the abysmal “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” a few swift kicks. My favorite of the new pieces was “Who’s In Doubt with Virginia Woolf?” as Cherry Jones squares off against Kathleen Turner. And the show has one thing very much in common with most of Broadway, a maddening inability to start on time—nearly 15 minutes late the night I went.
Nevertheless, the company—Ron Bohmer, Megan Lewis, Jason Mills and Meanne Montano—is as wonderful as ever with a facility with all kinds of Broadway styles and comedy that is never anything short of remarkable.
Clearly writer Gerard Allessandrini and his crew love Broadway. They also know that, at times, love hurts. Don’t miss this one.