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State of the Union

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 15, 2019

Anna Marie Sell and Kyle Minshew
Photo by Elizabeth Shane

In State of the Union, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning play currently being revived by Metropolitan Playhouse, a presidential hopeful agrees to go on the pre-campaign trail accompanied by his wife in order to disavow rumors of an extramarital affair. Traveling with one's wife instead of a mistress? As one of the characters declares, "Politics makes strange bedfellows."

State of the Union opened on Broadway in the fall of 1945 and had an impressive (nearly) two-year run. Originally starring Ralph Bellamy and Ruth Hussey, the play centers on Grant Matthews, a wealthy businessman, who represents the best hope for a Republican win in the 1948 election. Matthews's paramour, Kay Thorndyke, a powerful newspaper owner, knows exactly what buttons to push and which strings to pull to make him conform to the Republican platform, which does not always align with his (or, presumably, the average American's) best interest. As he spends time on a national speaking tour with his staunchly principled wife, he develops his own moral backbone.

Matthews is caught in a tug-of-war between the Republican machine, represented by political power and seductive glamour, and high-minded ideals, epitomized by social justice and domestic satisfaction. Audiences familiar with Lindsay and Crouse's other collaborations, including Life with Father, Tall Story, and The Sound of Music, will not be surprised to know which direction Matthew takes.

Invariably, the play evokes comparisons with the current political environment. For instance, there are references to a businessman having the strength of a political outsider to win the presidency, and remarks about presidents and their adulterous relationships drew big laughs. There was also a collective nod of recognition among the audience when Matthews said, "I'm worried about what's happening in this country. We're splitting apart." But this is a play very much of its time and particular political climate. In fact, during the course of the original run the playwrights updated the script with references to current events.

(As a side note, for one weekend New York audiences could see a production of this play about the 1948 presidential election as well as the musical Call Me Madam, presented by Encores!, for which Lindsay and Crouse wrote the book and which alludes to the then upcoming 1952 election.)

While there are numerous similarities between then and now, there are also moments of thank-goodness-things-have-changed. For example, marital bliss for Mary is reflected by a "smack on the behind" from her husband.

Michael Durkin and Jennifer Reddish
Photo by Gloria Nelson

The script may periodically show its age, but kudos once again to the marvelous Metropolitan Playhouse for mounting a revival of a rarely produced play. The title is probably more familiar as a result of Frank Capra's 1948 film version showcasing Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the roles of the husband and wife. The screen adaptation is significantly different, though, and it gets (especially in the final scene) the full-on Capra treatment of the American little guy taking on the powerful moneyed elite. Incidentally, the film is practically stolen by a 23-year-old Angela Lansbury, who plays the mistress. There is, however, a prologue of sorts that presents that character as borderline monstrous, and one wonders how Matthews could be even slightly attracted to her. The stage version offers a more realistic and level romantic playing field.

Director Laura Livingston has drawn fine performances from the Metropolitan cast. As the easily influenced Matthews, Kyle Minshew effectively shows the character's struggles to stay morally strong. Anna Marie Sell is terrific as Mary, Grant's upright wife, who is often treated by the politicos as the other woman. Jennifer Reddish suitably downplays Mrs. Thorndyke's cold and calculating qualities and shows hints of vulnerability.

Michael Durkin plays James Conover (Adolphe Menjou in the film), and he effortlessly shifts from cuddly to ruthless, sometimes in a single scene. Jamahl Garrison-Lowe does not deliver the screwball-comedy barbs that one might expect from his Spike MacManus character (and as mastered by Van Johnson, the movie's Spike), but he has charm to spare. Special mention must also be given to Linda Kuriloff, who is hilarious as Lulubelle Alexander, the socially and politically uninhibited, Sazarac-swilling wife of a federal judge.

Vincent Gunn's adroit sets, consisting mainly of rotating wall units, transform smoothly from a Washington, DC office space, to a Detroit hotel room and lobby, to a posh New York City apartment sitting room. Sidney Fortner's costumes have just the right 1940s stylish flair, and Christopher Weston's lighting ably establishes the mood and tone.

As one expects of the Metropolitan's approach to plays, a lot is done with so very little. The original Broadway production boasted 16 performers and 26 stagehands. In the tiny Playhouse, there are a total of 12 actors, most of whom play more than one role, and they do double and triple duty as stagehands. Now, if the government could work as efficiently and cohesively as this small company, the state of the union would be in excellent shape indeed.

State of the Union
Through March 10
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East Fourth Street
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