Also see Tracy's review of Spamalot
Dos Passos wrote his novels - The 42nd Parallel, 1919 and The Big Money - in the 1930s; the books examine the time between 1899 and 1929, tracing the period when America grew into a world power. (The trilogy was clearly an influence on the works of E.L. Doctorow, especially Ragtime.) Dos Passos' characters are cogs in the great machine of American society, whose stories coexist with brief biographies of historical figures and the author's personal observations. The author and Shyre retained the multiple points of view in their stage adaptation, but streamlined the number of characters and events for clarity's sake.
Unlike a novel, which can sprawl in many directions and deal with many lead characters, a dramatic work benefits from a single central character and throughline for coherence. Shyre and Dos Passos have crafted the play around J. Ward Moorehouse (Evan Hoffmann), who rises from genteel but poor surroundings in Wilmington, Delaware, to command an international public relations empire. The marketing of image (or, today, spin) was a new science at the time, and Hoffmann manages to convey the iron will and equivocation that eventually emerge from behind the boyish face and sunny smile.
Hoffmann is well matched by Bruce Alan Rauscher and Kim-Scott Miller in a series of incisive portraits, specifically Rauscher as a sailor looking for his place in the world and Miller's hilarious cameo as a blustering health-food magnate.
The women are not quite as good as the men, but still effective: Monalisa Arias as the sailor's rather prim sister, who becomes Moorehouse's secretary; Patricia Hurley as Moorehouse's platonic companion, an interior decorator, and briefly as the notorious dancer Isadora Duncan; and Amy Quiggins as an heiress who helps Moorehouse achieve his dreams.
While all of the performers have their highlights, the most striking visual pictures come when they work together: re-creating the Wright Brothers' first flight, for example, or the strongest moment, bringing to life Dos Passos' impressionistic poem of the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
Director Jacqueline Manger keeps the production free of superfluous movement and other distractions on the neutral set by Michael deBlois. AnnMarie Castrigno's lighting design and the projections by James G. Champlain serve to anchor the scenes, along with Rip Claassen's evocative costumes and Brendon Vierra's sound design.
American Century Theatre