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The Climbers

Theatre Review by James Wilson - September 15, 2017

Ian Eaton and Erin Beirnard
Photo by Anna Paola Pizzocaro

History has not been kind to American playwright Clyde Fitch. If his name is familiar at all to popular culture buffs, it may be because Bette Davis as Margo Channing memorializes Fitch as a relic of a bygone theatrical past in All About Eve. "Clyde Fitch," she witheringly says, "though you may not think so, was well before my time." Yet between 1890 and 1909 Fitch wrote over sixty plays, and he was lauded as the leading American playwright (until Eugene O'Neill snatched the title away from him). In 1901, the year he debuted The Climbers, one of his most successful plays and which is now receiving a top-notch revival by the Metropolitan Playhouse, there were four plays by Fitch running concurrently in New York. By all accounts Clyde Fitch was a major theatre presence at the turn of the twentieth century, but his work has rarely been performed since his death in 1909.

The Climbers is a play very much of its period. It is part social satire, part melodrama, and part Ibsenesque problem play. The first act opens after the funeral of George Hunter, a wealthy businessman, husband, and father of three daughters. His widow, Mrs. Florence Hunter (a very funny Margaret Catov) takes her role as grieving widow very seriously, and she is particularly concerned with such matters as the number and social prestige of the mourners, proper length of black veils, and appropriate border widths on bereavement notepaper. The funeral sandwiches scarcely have been devoured before Mrs. Hunter is hit with an even more distressing blow: her husband had lost everything in bad investments just before he died. The family is penniless, but she and her youngest daughter Clara (Becca Ballenger) immediately begin concocting plans for climbing back up to society's upper echelon.

The focus of the play shifts in the second act to good-natured Blanche Hunter Sterling, the eldest Hunter daughter. Blanche (Erin Beirnard) is married to an unloving and corrupt financier (Marc LeVasseur) whose proclivities for embezzlement risk destroying the family's name completely. Edward Warden (Ian Eaton), a devoted friend of the Hunters (with especial devotion for Blanche), may be the only hope for preventing the social and economic climbers from taking a devastating fall.

Levi Adkins and Becca Ballenger
Photo by Anna Paola Pizzocaro

The shift in character focus is not the only jarring dramaturgical element of The Climbers. The play combines raucous comedy scenes (including a very funny bit involving haggling over second-hand Parisian fashions), overwrought tragic moments, and polemical discussions about such things as the moral ambiguity of divorce. Remarkably, the tonal fluctuations work within the precarious social and ethical world in which the play is set. With a nearly three-hour running time, there are some longueurs, but overall, the play is rich and compelling. Frankly, I am surprised that it is not done more often, and kudos to the Metropolitan Playhouse for bringing it to light.

A good deal of the play's success must be credited to director Michael Hardart and his excellent company of actors, who do double and triple duty in multiple character roles, as stagehands, and as Foley sound effect artists. They work effectively as an ensemble and mine the characters for their inherent silliness and pathos without resorting to caricature. Indeed, all of the actors are quite good, but a special shout out should go to Erin Leigh Schmoyer as the haughty socialite, who devises an ingenious but comically confusing plan for securing the best price on the widow's Parisian frocks. Levi Adkins is charming as the clueless Trotter and has some of the best lines in the play including, "You people are all out of date! More people get divorced nowadays than get married!" Erin Beinard is sympathetic and shows steely resilience in the difficult role of the emotionally torn young wife.

I have seen more than a dozen productions at the Metropolitan Playhouse, and this is one of the best uses of the intimate space that I recall. Michael LeBron has designed a simple but functional circular platform that easily transforms into various interior and exterior locations. There is a pop-up dinner party set that is an example of astute stagecraft. Equally impressive are Sidney Fortner's period dresses, which admirably evoke the austerity and glamour of the Gilded Age. The production is adeptly lit by Christopher Weston, who captures some of the play's periodic melodramatic moments with effective cinematic fadeouts.

With this production of The Climbers director Hardart and Metropolitan Playhouse artistic director Alex Roe make a convincing case for salvaging Clyde Fitch from the dustbin of theatrical history. The Metropolitan Playhouse has previously done two other Fitch plays, and perhaps there are more awaiting rediscovery. Contrary to Margo Channing's dismissal, Fitch may not be such an antediluvian remnant of the American stage after all. If The Climbers is indicative of the topics addressed in other plays by Fitch, greed, pursuit of social ascension, and frustrated love never go out of style.

The Climbers
Through October 8
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East 4th Street
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