Off Broadway Reviews
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.
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Adkins is charming as the clueless Trotter and has some of the best lines in the play including, "You people are all out of date!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.