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Philip Goes Forth

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere

Bernardo Cubria and Cliff Bemis.
Photo by Rahav Segev.
George Kelly's plays were tremendously popular and highly regarded by critics in his day. The New Yorker called him "America's greatest dramatist," heady praise indeed for a man whose contemporaries included Eugene O'Neill, and Kelly won a Pulitzer Prize (for Craig's Wife). But whereas many of O'Neill's plays are frequently revived, Kelly's have fallen into relative obscurity. Now, they're essentially the province of theater companies like the Mint, which provides the invaluable service of dusting off items that gave much pleasure to audiences way back when but today are little more than theatrical footnotes.

Philip Goes Forth (1931) certainly fits that description. Kellly's central character here is Philip Eldridge, a young man living in an unnamed city 500 miles from New York. Disinclined to make his fortune in the family business (also unnamed), our hero is dead set on moving to The Big City because he thinks he wants to write for the theater. This causes concern among those he leaves behind, most notably his father and his aunt. Six months later, in Act II, we see Phil ensconced in an upscale Manhattan rooming house run by Mrs. Ferris, a former actress -- but he's nowhere near as far along in his playwriting career as he might have hoped. Will he stick it out, or come to realize that he's not cut out be a dramatist and head back home?

Experiencing this play courtesy of the Mint Theater Company, I thought of the early operas of Giuseppe Verdi, also rarely staged nowadays. Listen to recordings of those youthful works and you'll hear pages and pages of unremarkable note-spinning in the conventional style of the period, occasionally sparked by an inspired passage indicating the genius that would come to full lower in Verdi's later operas. Similarly, Philip Goes Forth is chock full of verbose, formulaic dialogue; but then you get a scene such as Mrs. Ferris's long, honest talk with Phil about his writing talent, or the wonderfully real discussion that occurs between Phil and his father at the end of Act II, and you can understand why the Mint thought it worthwhile to take this play out of mothballs.

The production is strong overall, but flawed. In the role of Philip's aunt, Christine Toy Johnson is physically miscast and displays a subtle, grounded, modern acting style that seems inapt for a play written and set circa 1931. At the other end of the spectrum: Although Carole Healey's performance as Philip's girlfriend's mother is entertaining in a broad style that approaches camp, she does seem to be in a different play than everyone else -- and I'm not sure that her British accent is really what's wanted for this character.

Also not quite right for her part is Kathryn Kates , rather too ethnic-New Yorkish in her looks and manner of speech to be convincing as Mrs. Ferris, a woman who was once a grande dame of the theater in roles such as Cleopatra. But here, the miscasting is doubly forgivable because (1) Kates was a very late replacement for another actress, who left the production abruptly during previews; and (2) her performance is so compelling on its own terms, you probably won't mind that she isn't exactly what the script calls for.

Very much on the plus side, Bernardo Cubria and Cliff Bemis are perfect as Philip and his father (respectively). Cubria deserves special praise for his achievement, as it must be quite difficult for a modern-day actor to communicate the innocence and naivete of a young man who came of age some 80 years ago. Bemis is superb as Mr. Eldridge, especially in his final scene with his son. Natalie Kuhn is spot on as Phil's girl, Cynthia, and smaller roles are well limned by Teddy Berman, Brian Keith MacDonald, Jennifer McVey, and Rachel Moulton.

Laudable as these performances are, the production is most impressive in Steven C. Kemp's gorgeous, finely detailed sets for Mrs. Randolph's sitting room (Act I) and the common room at Mrs. Ferris's (Act Ii), and even more so in the change from one to the other during intermission. The Mint's stage has no flies and appears to offer very little moving or storage space in the wings or behind the playing area, yet the sets for each act are vastly dissimilar in appearance. (Not only are the walls different colors, they're also angled differently.) I'm still marveling over how the set change could possibly have been made during the course of a 15-minute intermission, but probably best to chalk it up to theatrical magic —which of course really comes down to the talents and hard work of a brilliant designer and stage crew.

While director Jerry Ruiz might have helped more in calibrating some of the performances so they didn't seem to be happening on different levels, he keeps the play moving nicely and seems to have a good general understanding of the style required. Philip Goes Forth is not the Mint's finest hour, but there's more than enough that's commendable about the show to remind us why the Mint is an essential thread in New York City's cultural fabric.

Philip Goes Forth
Through October 27
Mint Theatre, 311 West 43rd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
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