It Pays to Advertise
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 4, 2009
Friends, Metropolitan Playhouse has outdone itself! This fine indie theater company regularly trawls the annals of lesser-known American dramas from a century ago or more, and comes up with fascinating plays that are worth the second look. But with It Pays to Advertise, artistic director Alex Roe and his collaborators have unearthed a genuine lost treasure. Not only is this piece—which was first seen on Broadway back in 1914—delightfully clever and funny and startlingly up-to-date; it also feels to me like the forerunner of a couple of authentically American comic genres, namely the screwball comedy and the fast-talking sophisticated smart comedies that flowed from the pens of the likes of Kaufman & Hart and Hecht & MacArthur.
I don't want to oversell It Pays to Advertise, of course. But let me say this: It may not be Once in a Lifetime or The Front Page, but without it, I wonder if those other plays would have happened along when they did. I'm telling you, this piece feels seminal.
Ok, let me backtrack and tell you something about the story. Rodney Martin is a charming if somewhat callow young man, the son of a great soap tycoon, Cyrus Martin. Rodney has decided that since his father went to so much trouble to earn a fortune, he will happily live on it and spend it without following his parent's example of running himself ragged by working. However, Cyrus will have none of that: he is determined to get Rodney to earn his own living. Mary Grayson, who is Rodney's fiancee and Cyrus's personal secretary, shares Cyrus's opinion. I don't want to give too much away here, but by the end of Act I Rodney has become determined to make a success of himself in the business world. And his new-found pal Ambrose Peale, a public relations wiz, helps him hit on a can't-miss scheme to get rich quick. Again, I don't want to divulge surprises; suffice to say that the scheme involves advertising the heck out of a product that hasn't actually been manufactured.
Playwrights Roi Cooper Megrue and Walter C. Hackett engineer their plot shrewdly, making their play at once a satire on the gullibility of American consumers and the supposed power of advertising and also a paean to publicity. It is, additionally, a knockabout farce with lots of unexpected twists, and a love story about a couple of young people (Rodney and Mary) who are a pleasure to root for.
One of the neatest things about It Pays to Advertise is that it treats its female characters with lots of respect. Mary and La Comtesse de Beaurien, who is the other principal woman in the play, are smart and interesting and more than able to take care of themselves; no need for a man to define or support either one. (We still don't see female characters like this often enough in plays, even 95 years later.)
In just about every way, the quick comedy of this play feels fresh and invigorating. Director Michael Hardart does a splendid job moving the story briskly and sunnily, never giving us too much time to ponder the increasingly outlandish goings-on. In Scott Kerns and Brian Cooper, who play Rodney and Ambrose, respectively, we have a pair of top-notch leading actors who wholeheartedly embrace their roles; together they have the timing, when they need to, of a great comic duo. Nalina Mann as La Comtesse gives a performance that also feels flawless. Maire-Rose Pike's Mary and George C. Hosmer's Cyrus don't feel quite as fully realized yet; this will likely improve as the run progresses. Robert Leeds, Aaron Gaines, and Sarah Levine demonstrate their versatility by playing everyone else in the story.
The design, as is the norm for a Metropolitan production, is excellent. Heather Wolensky's set includes some clever touches that transform it from the Martins' library to the spanking new offices of Rodney and Ambrose's new company (and back again) with real wit. Rebecca Lustig has supplied costumes that reflect period and character informatively. And Maryvel Bergen's lighting is fully effective.
I had a blast at It Pays to Advertise. Not only did I spend a couple of hours in the company of some very engaging actors and characters, but I also made the acquaintance of a classic American play that deserves a much more prominent spot within the canon than it apparently has. Bravo to Metropolitan Playhouse for helping us sort out our American dramatic history.