nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 4, 2008
You're in for a real treat if you decide to see Nowadays at Metropolitan Playhouse. This entertaining comedy was written in 1913 by George Middleton, but as far as anybody knows has never been produced until now. I suspect it will be produced many more times in the future, now that it's been given a hearing. This New York premiere, directed by Alex Roe, feels practically flawless, so don't wait for someone else to mount this play—see it now.
The play tells the story of the Dawsons, a well-off middle-class American family who live in a suburb of a Midwestern city. William, the patriarch, runs a plumbing supply business. His wife, Belle, was once a painter but gave that up to devote herself to her husband, home, and two children. Both of these children, though grown, are with them at the moment: Sam, the elder, has squandered his allowance (as usual), while Diana, his younger sister, has returned after two years away in the Big City, where she has been trying to start a career as a sculptress.
It is Diana's aspiration that fuels the play: her father, already scandalized and disapproving that a young lady would want to earn her own living rather than marry, love, honor, and obey an appropriate young man, is put to the test when Diana starts to tempt her mother to return to her old dream of becoming an artist. Understand that Dawson is the kind of man who helps his wife hang holiday decorations by ordering the maid to hold her stepstool carefully (and who, when asked a few minutes later who hung them, can reply guilelessly, "I did")—he's a Horace Vandergelder type, who views woman as workhorse as much as helpmate. Understand, too, that this is 1913, seven years before women got the vote; what Diana and later Belle say they desire is certainly not typical of the time. So Diana's assertiveness and Belle's subsequent mini-rebellion set off quite an explosion in the Dawson household.
I won't tell you how it all plays out, but I will tell you that Middleton sketches his characters affectionately and vividly. Most important, he makes it clear that the Dawsons all do love each other deeply (with the possible exception of the oh-so-callow Sam, whose selfishness is untempered by other personality traits; he functions essentially as the villain of the piece). He also provides two charming men who serve as counterpoint to the chauvinistic Dawsons—news reporter Peter Row, who loves Diana but cannot afford to marry her, and Oliver Hardman, Belle's long-ago art instructor, who arrives on the scene as almost a deus-ex-machina to stir up the tempest that Diana has set in motion.
Roe's realization of this delightful play is perfectly lovely. He's designed two sets (for the Dawsons' drawing room and Diana's tiny fifth-floor walkup apartment in New York) that feel cozy and lived-in; and Sidney Fortner has provided costumes that are appropriate and attractive. The eight-member ensemble is excellent, led by Amanda Jones, who is warm, questing, and just a bit naive as Diana, and Lisa Riegel, whose Belle is wise, thoughtful, vulnerable, and curious—the awakening she undergoes in the play is completely convincing. Frank Anderson is outstanding as Dawson, making this pompous pussycat of a man entirely believable and fleshed-out (and very funny). Matthew Trumbull is at his deadpan best as the languid Sam. Michael Hardart is splendidly earnest and likable as Peter, and the chemistry he shares with Jones is terrific—they are indeed a couple to root for. Rounding out the company are George Taylor, a charmer as Hardman; and Linda Blackstock and Jamie Dunn, who offer worthy contrasts to the Dawson women as, respectively, the maid Nellie and Betty, a young woman who may be in love with Sam.
Nowadays' leading ladies are refreshing creations, not just for their own time but for ours as well—they're strong-minded, smart, self-reliant, and tantalizingly complicated. I was most pleased to make their acquaintance, along with the other characters in this fine production. I urge you to get to know them, and soon!