“It has dope addiction, homelessness, prostitution, police, and political corruption,” says Steve Munro of the play he’s directing. “It takes place in a time of postwar euphoria, but it looks past that euphoria at the despair that’s really on the streets.”
Munro’s discussing The Man With the Golden Arm, the rarely done stage version of Nelson Algren’s 1949 novel about a Polish-American dope addict, which he and the Open City Theatre have unearthed. Premiered off-Broadway in May 1956, the play seemed to have a lot going for it. It was written by Jack Kirkland, who had enjoyed enormous success with his 1933 adaptation of Tobacco Road, and it received almost unanimously positive reviews from the New York critics.
Yet the play was a financial failure–sabotaged perhaps by the release only a few months earlier of Otto Preminger’s highly publicized movie version, which starred Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine, the card dealer and drummer whose “golden arm” is the key to his talent but also the deadly route for his morphine addiction.
Though Kirkland and Algren had hoped for a Broadway run with a name star, the play ended up at the intimate Cherry Lane in Greenwich Village with 25-year-old newcomer Robert Loggia in the lead role. The play itself, said Loggia, in town recently to work on a film, “was far superior to the movie. ‘Cause it was real.”
The New York Times’s Brooks Atkinson noted in his review, “Connoisseurs of the dope habit and of degradation in general complain that the film spares the sensibilities of motion picture audiences by refusing to face all the horrors of the novel,” whereas the play had a “blunt candor that cannot be resisted.” Nonetheless, it was the play that faded from view.
“I didn’t even know there was a play at first,” says Open City’s John Kastholm, a cast member who is also coproducing the show. “I wanted to do the book as a play, and we had considered adapting it ourselves. I first learned of Kirkland’s play when I read Bettina Drew’s biography of Algren. It took us about nine months to find the script. It was apparently never published. Algren’s heirs didn’t have it, his agent didn’t have it, Kirkland’s people didn’t have it. We talked with Algren’s friends–people like Studs Terkel and Stuart Brent–and nobody had it. But what we found out was that Algren hated the film and loved the play–which made us want to do it even more.” Kastholm finally tracked down a typed manuscript in the files of the New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Collection and obtained a microfilm copy.
Algren’s bitterness about the film stemmed from injustices he felt Preminger had done him, on screen and off. Algren originally sold the movie rights for a small sum to an independent producer; later, Algren learned the producer had resold the property to Preminger for a much larger amount. He was hired to help write the screenplay, but his relations with the notoriously arrogant Preminger quickly soured. The final screenplay, credited to Walter Newman and Lewis Meltzer, substituted a ludicrous happy ending for the book and play’s downbeat denouement.
Though its previous productions have been mounted in Rogers Park, Open City rented the Synergy Center for this show because it’s located just a couple of blocks from Algren’s old apartment on Wabansia. To emphasize the story’s roots in Wicker Park, the street-scene set is dominated by a painting of the el station at North and Milwaukee avenues, and the walls of the theater are hung with photos by Stephen Deutch, who documented Algren’s life from 1960 until shortly before his death in 1981.
“Kirkland took an atmospheric novel and highlighted its tragic elements,” says Bruno Oliver, the 26-year-old actor who plays Frankie. “But the book and the play aren’t just the Frankie Machine story. They’re about the neighborhood and what it does to its people.”
The Man With the Golden Arm opens tonight at the Synergy Center, 1753 N. Damen, and runs Thursday through Sunday through June 2. For information, call 266-0377.