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The Poor of New York

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 26, 2019

Tess Frazer and Teresa Kelsey
Photo by Vadim Goldenberg

Oh, how we do toss around the term "melodrama" like we know what it means. For instance, Arthur Miller's All My Sons, whose new Broadway production has been generally well received, has taken its share of criticism over the years for the melodramatic turn it takes when coincidences, a suddenly introduced plot twist, and an outpouring of emotions come into play to bring about the climactic ending. But, in truth, you haven't seen melodrama until you've seen a play like Dion Boucicault's The Poor of New York, dating from 1857 and opening tonight at the Metropolitan Playhouse in the East Village in an eminently entertaining and well-played production that is filled with hissable villains and honorable but desperately impoverished victims and heroes.

The Metropolitan's artistic director Alex Roe has gathered an excellent slate of more than a dozen Equity actors and has managed to fit them into the small performance space, which, for this production, has been outfitted with a hand-operated turntable that allows things to keep moving across the play's five acts and 11 different scenes with clarity of the who, what, where, and when of it. The play, a Dickensian excursion that eschews any semblance of naturalistic authenticity in favor of tapping directly into the emotional heart of the matter, takes place in the aftermath of the actual global financial panic of 1837, which led to stocks plummeting and the drying up of credit.

It all begins in the office of banker Gideon Bloodgood (Bob Mackasek) as he is preparing to abscond with as much of the bank's assets as he can lay his hands on and jump on a ship that will take him from New York to Liverpool with his beloved spoiled-beyond-redemption daughter Alida (a wonderfully snarky and self-absorbed Alexandra O'Daly). Just as he is about to depart, in walks a sea captain (Eric Emil Oleson), Fairweather by name. He has $100,000 he wants to deposit. Will Bloodgood accept it? Can you guess the answer to that?

In any event, Fairweather leaves the money with Bloodgood and exits, only to return a little while later demanding everything back. It seems that news of Bloodgood's unscrupulous reputation has reached the captain's ears. Bloodgood tries to put him off, then fate steps in and Fairweather suddenly keels over, dead. Bloodgood dumps the body with the aid of one of his equally maleficent clerks, Badger (David Logan Rankin, who sinks his teeth into the role as if it were a gourmet feast laid out before a very hungry man). Throughout the rest of the play, we are asked to decide which of the two is more villainous than the other.

While the two rapscallions go at it, we meet the true victims here, Fairweather's wife Susan (Teresa Kelsey), their daughter Lucy (Tess Frazer), and their honorable son Paul (Luke Hofmaier). Now penniless, for a while they are helped by their kind-hearted and generous, though nearly just as impoverished, landlords, the Puffys (Jon Lonoff and Jo Vetter) and the couple's son Dan (SJ Hannah). The Puffys embrace life like the Fezziwigs in Dickens "A Christmas Carol," though they, too, barely have two pennies to rub together. Lots of plot twists later, we eventually will have our happy ending, with a few surprises tossed in there for good measure, especially as it relates to the fate of Badger.

Between scenes, the cast offers up some fine singing under Trevor St. John-Gilbert's choral direction, and while there isn't much by way of set design, everyone gets to show off the lovely period costumes designed by Sidney Fortner.

It's not hard to see why The Poor of New York was a popular success. As outlandishly as its convoluted, coincidence-strewn plot defies the traditional conventions of play writing, it has a ton of heart, and audiences of the time would have had very strong knowledge of the reality of the economic crisis depicted here. If you go into it with this understanding in mind, you are in for a real treat, a rare opportunity to see a genuine melodrama that does not pretend to be anything else, with no ham-handed wink-wink performances among the fine company.

The Poor of New York
Through May 19
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East Fourth Street (easternmost door) between Avenues A & B in the East Village
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