nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
November 23, 2012
Unions seeking higher wages. Bosses fighting for a greater stake in their industry. Mortgages not worth the ink they’re printed with. Sound familiar? Sadly, it was also familiar enough in 1911 that Edward Sheldon decided to use it for the basis of his play, The Boss, now revived in a terrific production by the Metropolitan Playhouse.
In an old-money, uptown home in an unnamed metropolis, James Griswold is in trouble. His monopoly of the town’s grain industry is being threatened by the “young Irish upstart” Michael Regan, whose shrewd, anti-worker tactics have made dismantling Griswold’s business easy work. His own financial collapse is one thing, but Griswold has overextended himself with the banks too. If he falls, they go with him, along with the savings of thousands of poor workers and their families. Realizing this, James’ daughter Emily, a sort of Mother Teresa of the Fourth Ward, proposes to Mr. Regan a grand compromise. In doing so, she saves her father’s interest and protects those she’s promised to serve. But at what cost?
This melodramatic arrangement aside, the modern relevancy of Sheldon’s The Boss is remarkable, if not a little depressing. In the story, Michael Regan and his cronies fight a growing union movement, while in real life, workers at Wal-Mart and other major chains are fighting for the right to organize. And when Griswold’s son Donald manipulates the union in an attempt to get back at the man who crushed his father, it’s easy to find similarities in the “firing workers because of Obamacare” scenario being played out across America. With Sheldon’s mirror of a play, it’s clear that our way of doing business has changed very little in the last century.
There is, however, nothing disheartening about this production. Under Alex Roe’s efficient, light-handed direction, The Boss moves through it’s four acts with the speed and clarity of a much younger play. It’s a well-plotted and engaging story, with sharp, original dialogue, all of which is handled with skill by this talented cast. Add to this Roe’s set, which offers several surprises of its own, and we’re left with an old play that works well at any age. And once again, Metropolitan deserves real credit for refusing any slick attempts at making these plays more palatable to modern audiences.
Among all this good work, however, the incredible performance of Dave Hanson shines brightest. As Regan, Hanson is expert, moving effortlessly through the stubborn but likable titan’s many shades. In Act 2, his immense talent is especially displayed, as he transitions with great honesty from affable to “aw shucks” to brutally violent. It’s impressive and, at times, terrifying, but always great fun. I haven’t seen a better performance this season, and I doubt that I will.
It’s discouraging that 100 years later, so much of our inequality remains in place. Lots of people, even those with jobs, face a daily struggle to survive, while others, to put it mildly, have it better. Lucky for us though, as made clear in this production of The Boss, the tradition of great American theatre also shows no signs of going away.