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Fashions for Men

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere

Joe Delafield and Annie Purcell
Photo by Richard Termine.

Anyone who knows the work of the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár only through his beautiful, deeply moving drama Lilliom or his elegant, thoughtful comedy The Guardsman may be taken aback by the Mint Theater Company's current production of Molnár's far less well known Fashions for Men. This is either one of the most stylistically incoherent mish-mashes of a play ever written by a major dramatist, or it's actually brilliant and I just didn't get it—but I'm leaning towards the first option.

The setting is "a little shop of men's and women's fashions in downtown Budapest," circa 1917. The central character is the shop's proprietor, Peter Juhász, a man so essentially good-natured and so completely unable to see the bad in others that he allows almost everyone in his circle to take advantage of him—and then, after they've done so, he allows them to do it again and again. The problem with such a character from an audience standpoint is that there are limits, and when Juhász's sweetness and trust in his fellow man continue beyond all bounds of sanity, all you want to do is climb onstage and shake some sense into the guy. Coincidentally enough, a similar character is at the center of the new Samuel D. Hunter play Pocatello, produced very recently by Playwrights Horizons and directed by Davis McCallum, director of Fashions for Men.

As the Molnár play progresses, the strange plot points pile up. Oscar, an oily young employee who runs off with Juhász's wife, later returns to the shop; he has gone bankrupt in the interim, and hopes that Juhasz will give him his job back. (!!!) In Act I, a rich Count and former employer of Juhász tells him that he would love to have him come work for him again—but when that happens in Act II, after a series of melodramatic events, the Count soon sours on Juhász and wants to fire him. And so on and so on, ad absurdum.

The ending of the play is apparently meant to be happy, as Juhász begins a new romantic relationship with one of the many people in his life who have treated him like excrement. Maybe we're supposed to think that the woman (I won't say lady) in question is redeemed by Juhász's goodness, but if Molnár wanted us to believe her conversion, perhaps he shouldn't have spent so much of the bulk of the play showing her behaving like a selfish, amoral gold-digger. Now, it could be argued that a too-good-to-be-true, forgiving-of-everything person like Juhász needs to be with such a woman, so she can feed his pathology. But is that the point Molnár is trying to make here? If so—yikes.

Even the title Fashions for Men, although it sounds neat and intriguing before you see the play, turns out to be a conundrum: Juhász's shop sells items for women as well and men, and indeed, we see at least as many female customers as males. Further, while it might have been assumed that the title would have a double meaning in terms of the word "fashions," it does not. Very curious.

The acting in the Mint production is inconsistent, which is no surprise under the circumstances. Joe Delafield, who bears a passing physical resemblance and a striking vocal resemblance to the young Robert Sean Leonard, plays Juhász in complete earnest. This works fine in some scenes and not at all in others, but again, that's the fault of the author rather than the actor. It should also be mentioned that Delafield seems somewhat miscast in terms of his apparent youth; when he refers to another character who appears to be the same age as "son," it's confusing.

As the two awful women in Juhász's life, Rachel Napoleon and Annie Purcell are at sea, which is not to say that I can offer any especially helpful advice on how they might have better played these puzzling roles. On the plus side, Kurt Rhoads as the Count, John Tufts as Oscar, and Jeremy Lawrence as another of Juhász's employees successfully dodge most of the minefields in the material, while Mark Bedard, Michael Schantz, Maren Searle, John Seidman, Jill Tanner, and Gabra Zackman offer expert characterizations in smaller parts.

Director McCallum hasn't made sense of this very odd play. Act I is directed and acted pretty much as a realistic, slice-of-life comedy/drama in the manner of McCallum's pitch-perfect production of John Van Druten's London Wall for the Mint last season; but then Act II is staged and acted more in the manner of an outsize farce, while Act III is an odd combination of styles. Perhaps going for a farcical tone throughout would have been a better choice, but on the other hand, large sections of the play wouldn't seem to fit well with that approach.

Boasting exquisite costumes by Martha Hally, beautifully detailed sets by Daniel Zimmerman, gorgeous wigs and hair design by Robert-Charles Vallance, etc., the Mint's Fashions for Men is a typically top-drawer presentation. While several works previously unearthed by the Mint have been problematic to one extent or another, this is the first I've seen that I would rate as undeserving of revival in a full production. Here's hoping there are, in fact, more good scripts tucked away in deceased writers' trunks throughout the world, and that Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank just happened to choose a loser this time. It's well to keep in mind that some obscure plays are obscure for very good reasons.

Fashions for Men
Through March 29
Mint Theatre, 311 West 43rd Street., between 8th and 9th Avenue
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