Both Your Houses
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 27, 2012
In the depths of the Great Depression, Maxwell Anderson wrote a play called Both Your Houses that was in many ways a gigantic yelp of idealistic despair. It depicts a U.S. Congress so corrupt—so in the hands of Big Money interests and beholden to the principals of pork barrel politics—that the business of governing has been shunted aside, replaced by a sort of organized crime syndicate that uses ballots instead of bullets as the method of enforcement.
This play is not, mind you, satire (though in places it is quite funny), and the fish-out-of-water who is the play's protagonist—a brand-new Nevada congressman named Alan McClean (note the obvious symbolism of his moniker!)—is no Mr. Smith gone to Washington. Anderson's conclusion is not pleasing or satisfying or uplifting (sorry for the spoiler there), though he does suggest that revolution is probably the only means of reforming this dysfunctional government of ours and he half-heartedly warns that one may be coming along soon.
The interesting thing, though, is that Both Your Houses opened on Broadway on March 6, 1933, two days after a sort-of revolution took place: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as President on March 4th, and immediately began implementing the New Deal, which a lot of people still haven't gotten over (and one suspects Anderson would be one of those people were he still alive today).
So here's a play that was already dated when it opened (though it still won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year), being revived by the Metropolitan Playhouse in an election year where the dysfunctionalism of Congress is very much a key issue. You'd think that such a play might have something important to say to us in 2012, but it doesn't, really; not beyond the generalities of the ideals at its core, i.e., that a democratic government is supposed to be freely voted for rather than purchased by the highest bidder.
There are pleasures here, to be sure: Anderson's first scene is almost all snappy '30s banter, the kind you'd hear in a Warner Brothers movie of the era, and it's fun to listen to; and the climax of the play—in which Alan schemes to outsmart the smart-aleck Congressmen he's gone up against—is suspenseful and exciting and enormously engaging. Michael Hardart has directed the play on a simple, very serviceable set designed by Metropolitan's artistic director Alex Roe, and he's elicited some strong performances from, especially, the supporting players: Teresa Kelsey as a savvy secretary known as Bus walks away with the play whenever she's on stage, while Matt W. Cody as a well-put-together, conniving Congressman, Jonathan Cantor as a cagey Southern one, and Lianne Kressin as a token female one are also memorable.
But it was finally hard to understand what to take away from Both Your Houses. Anderson was, I imagine, channeling the impotence of a country reeling from an economic catastrophe that its leaders, thus far, had been unable to reverse—something many of us today may identify with. But the specifics of this play are different from and in many ways completely the opposite of the specifics of our own time, which makes the mapping between then and now difficult to parse. Nevertheless, there's much of interest in this revival; as always, Metropolitan lets us look at what our country was once like by showing us the theater it once made.