nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
June 22, 2010
20th Century novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand's play Ideal was never performed in her lifetime. The world premiere at 59E59 is a mystery that sustains interest until the very end. Ideal is laced throughout with Rand's trademark controversial philosophy, and so to talk fully about that, the paragraphs below may contain a few plot spoilers.
It's Hollywood in the '30s. The movie studio is panicking when they hear that their star, THE Star, Kay Gonda apparently killed millionaire Granton Sayers the night before and then went into hiding. Gonda was the last person to be seen with Sayers. The movie-going public is eagerly awaiting a new picture, and now this happens. Sayers's sister wants to share information but is rudely ejected from the premises. Gonda's car drives up but it is only her maid. She tells the studio, including Gonda's personal friend the reporter Mick Watts, that Gonda was reading six of her many fan letters the other day, and now those letters are missing from her desk....
With news of the murder everywhere, Kay Gonda shows up in succession at the residences of six of her fans. All are devoted to her, or at least to the idea of her, but are conflicted about sheltering her from the police. Fan 1 is a family man who has just been promoted and wants to do some world traveling. His wife has also just told him she is pregnant again, leading to a fight which will surely destroy the marriage. He wants to hide Gonda but abandons his dreams to reconcile with his wife. Fan 2 is a leftist who is about to be evicted from his apartment. His girlfriend and several of her friends are awaiting trial for breaking a strike, and she persuades her boyfriend to turn in their guest to the cops and claim the reward money; Gonda escapes. Fan 3 is an artist who paints on themes such as "Integrity"; all his paintings are modeled on Gonda. When his muse actually shows up looking for shelter, he dismisses her as an impersonator. For him, art hints at a truth which is unattainable. Fan 4 is a minister. He personally would take pleasure from helping Gonda, but in his eyes the more one suffers on Earth the greater will be the reward in heaven. He urges the star to go to jail and be executed, and is disappointed when she runs away. Fan 5 is Count Dietrich Esterhazy, who has just spent the last of the fortune he took with him from Europe. Just as his current lover runs away from the horrible future of poverty that is waiting, Kay Gonda shows up. The Count arranges to get both of them on a boat to South America where they can live in nature for the rest of their lives. However, he no longer sees life as important and really only wants to exploit Gonda sexually, so she leaves. Fan 6 is an educated young man with no prospects who does not care what people think of him. He once worked for Sayers and thinks he knows the truth of the matter. He calls the cops, rattles off a confession in which he claims to have shot Sayers, then, proclaiming himself truly happy, shoots himself.
Many of the themes presented in Ideal resurface in Rand's later novels. Is a person free to pursue his or her ideals? Why does society lock us up in "the chains of gratitude"? Are some people really "not just like you and me"? Should a person not do what they are doing in order to save a life? To some, Ayn Rand's heroes bear a resemblance to fascist supermen. On the other hand, her praise of creativity and the human spirit has inspired many writers, including myself. To Rand, the U.S. was a place where, unlike Soviet Russia, one could strive for happiness. To her, capitalism was "the unknown ideal" which Americans were beginning to betray, especially in leftist politics. Now that the economy has deteriorated, it is interesting to judge people on their integrity. How many unemployed people do we know nowadays who would say no to a job on principle? It's a shame Rand isn't here to comment on reality TV and other contemporary social problems.
I must say, though, that despite the similar use of heavy-handed phrases in Rand's novels and plays it is a pleasure to see the story come alive onstage. The play is clearly a challenge to put on. I congratulate director Jenny Beth Snyder and FGP for rescuing this work. When she wrote Ideal, Rand had worked as an extra in Hollywood movies and may have written this piece (adapted from her novella) with the possibilities of film in mind. She would later have her play The Night of January 16th performed on Broadway with a modest cast of 15 characters. Ideal has 31 characters, distributed in this production among a cast of 12. The theatre is almost not big enough for this, but the production goes to great lengths to make things work. Rachel Schneider's set backgrounds are see-through and can quickly change between an office and a two-story house with the lights on upstairs. Vadim Ledvin's lighting takes us through this long dark night, also creating many distinct locations for the eight different scenes. Amy Sutton's delightful 1930s costumes are equally essential to move the action along. I definitely got the flavors of newspaper men, clergy, a Count, an overblown artist, and an old mother from these costumes, even when the same actor is different characters in back-to-back scenes. There is a lot of fighting too, so bravo to fight choreographer Turner Smith. For me, the standouts in the large cast are Jessie Barr as Kay Gonda, Bill Griffin as Langley the artist, Kim Rosen as Ms. Sayers and Sean Ireland as Esterhazy.